Friday, 19 December 2014

An army doctor’s memories: the Christmas Truce of 1914

Budleigh Salterton solicitor Patrick Langrishe, pictured above, kindly showed me extracts from a diary kept  by his grandfather, an army doctor who served on the Western Front.  The entries for Christmas Day and Boxing Day 1914 make fascinating reading

We’re further into December. The prospect of an Anglo-German football match in 2014 between the clubs of Budleigh Salterton and Betheln is receding further into the distance.

Yet I keep thinking about the remarkable events of the Christmas truce just over a century ago, following on from what I wrote at

I was reminded of that bizarre episode in the Great War after reading Rose Wild’s Feedback column in The Times of 14 December. It mentions the “slightly surreal” tone of letters from serving soldiers sent to their families and forwarded for publication in the newspaper. One of them was from a piper in the Scots Guards.

“One German gave our officer a letter to post to a lady he knows in Essex,” he wrote. “I must say some of them are very nice fellows, and did not show any hatred, which makes me think they are forced to fight. I wrote you a letter telling you we made a bayonet attack. I wonder if you got it. We lost a few men. The Germans helped us to bury them on Christmas Day.”  

I’d started reading the Feedback column having spotted Rose Wild’s mention of Budleigh solicitor Patrick Langrishe, a partner with Devon law firm Gilbert Stephens.

Mr Langrishe has some equally remarkable stories to tell, based on extracts from the diary kept by his grandfather, Lieutenant-Colonel John du Plessis Langrishe DSO, an officer serving as an army doctor with the RAMC.  


This personal photograph was taken by Robert Cotton Money on 7 December 1914.  It shows the crew of an 18-pounder Field Gun in a gun emplacement on the Armentières sector of the front line, in France.
Photo credit: Imperial War Museum   Q51542

The Battle of Armentières had been fought by German and Franco-British forces in northern France from 13 October to 2 November 1914, during reciprocal attempts by the opposing armies to envelop the northern flank of their opponent. It was part of what been called the Race to the Sea, which I mention elsewhere

There is a detailed account of encounters on Christmas Day between men of the Queens Westminster Rifles and those of the 107th Saxon Regiment.  

The 25 December was, the diary records,  “a really  peaceful day.”  After a church service in the morning, followed by lunch, the young officer went for a   walk with a veterinary officer, returning by Armentières.

He wrote as follows about the unusual Christmas Day events: “The Saxons (107th) came out & talked to our men of Q.W.R., had a sing-song & a game of football which the Saxons won 3-2!  They even sang "God save the King"!! & gave our men some wine in which to drink his health.  Some came into our trenches, a few  remaining, saying they preferred to go to England!” 

It was not just the other ranks involved with this fraternisation with the enemy. The diary records that the Saxons’ Colonel and Adjutant “also came out & chatted.”   

The truce was by no means universally observed. Things were “very  different” on the south of Rue du Bac, to the west of Armentières, where the Germans “fired on the Leicesters & refused to have any truck with them.”

According to Colonel Langrishe’s diary the truce lasted only until the following morning of Boxing Day. “Lovely bright frosty morning, clouding over later,” he wrote. “After lunch snow, turning to a thaw & rain in the evening. C. Atkin  joined me at 10 o’c & after the sick went round "egg farmers", returning to his chateau where I showed him positions on the map. Stayed in after lunch on  account of weather. Bath after tea. Heard that a Saxon officer came across to  our trenches at 11 a.m. & said that he was sorry but they had orders to  resume hostilities at once. Germans have been stuffed with all sorts of yarns about invasion of England, & bombardment of London.  In their last attack on Rue du Bois on Oct. 28th the  l07th Saxon Regt. lost all  their officers & were   fired into by  their own artillery!”


Happier days: the photo shows Colonel Langrishe beside the River Liffey, during his time at Trinity College Dublin.  Known to friends and family as Jack,  he captained the University Boat Club in 1906.    Image credit:

Colonel Langrishe was not a Devon man but the account of his wartime experience will fascinate anyone with an interest in the human side of the Great War.

His eleven handwritten diaries, consisting in total of 482 pages, are kept at the Imperial War Museum.  They were written between 8 September 1914 and 23 March 1919, during his service with the Royal Army Medical Corps in multiple appointments. 

He was Medical Officer of the 38th Brigade RFA (6th Division) from August 1914 to January 1915; to 16th Field Ambulance (16th Infantry Brigade, 6th Division) between January and November 1915; to the staff of the ADMS (14th Division) between November 1915 and June 1916; and was finally commander of the 12th Field Ambulance (12th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division) between June 1916 and April 1919.

The diaries describe his experiences on the Western Front, including his inspection duties of brigade field ambulances, casualty clearing stations, camp huts, baths and sanitation, as well as his personal experiences during the Somme ‘push’ of 1916 in handling the wounded and the dead on the battlefields.  

Maybe some friendly Saxon from Betheln will read my online scribblings about the Great War Christmas Truce, and get in touch with their own positive WW1 stories. 

That would be a cheering thing to do in this traditional season of peace and goodwill, when an awfully large part of the world seems to be locked in stupid conflict. 

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 

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