Monday, 1 December 2014

Chatting with the enemy

It's December, and I'm reminded that 100 years ago this month, the Great War is famous for a few days of humanity during Christmastime in No Man's Land.

An officially sanctioned way of communicating with the enemy.  The postcard, entitled ‘Our grand artillerymen’, shows a brief message addressed to Kaiser Wilhelm.  Photo credit: Jan Oke 

Paradoxically, the hell of the trenches, endured equally by both sides in the conflict, seems to have brought them closer. In many cases they were physically only yards apart: instances of banter between British and German soldiers were common.

In 2009, the wartime diary of Sapper John French, a tin-miner from Cornwall, was put on display at Redruth Old Cornwall Society Museum.  

An entry for 10 Aug 1916 reads:
“Heard laughing and saw German leaning over parapet and shouting to our men who were also leaning over. One of our men shouted ‘Come on over Fritz.’ Fritz shouted back in perfect English ‘No bloomin’ fear.’ This went on for half an hour and then heads were down and war went on the same as usual. Instant death for first to put his head above the parapet.
Aug 13 Orders today that any German looking over parapet is to be shot and any man found talking to them to be arrested.”

More familiar to people of the Lower Otter Valley will be the name of The Hon John Frederick Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis, the youngest British Brigadier General of his day. Known more affectionately as ‘Jack Tre’, he was the son of Charles, the 20th Baron Clinton, and the Dowager Lady Clinton, Margaret. On 24 October 1915 he was killed in action in Northern France when  he was hit by a sniper in the trenches.  It is not widely known that he kept his own diary throughout a large part of the Great War.

On 19 January 1915 he wrote: “I hear there is rather a peculiar situation up the line, some Saxons (German soldiers serving in a regiment from Saxony) insist on sitting on the top of their trenches, and apparently our men do not like to shoot at them. It is also said they pointed further up and shouted: ‘There are the damned Prussians up there, who would shoot as soon as look at you’!” Click here to read more about 'Jack Tre.'

A similar comment about the special relationship enjoyed between soldiers from opposing sides is contained in the diaries kept by 2nd Lieutenant Frank Wollocombe, now in the Imperial War Museum archives (IWM ref: 95/33/1). Serving with the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, he wrote in November 1915 of friendly exchanges with some Saxon troops.

In Fairlynch Museum’s archives, George Watson leaves us with his personal memory, and his reflection on the complex nature of the relationship between fighting men of different sides:

“Jerry was quite a sport in the days before offensives. One of our lads, Tommy X was rather deaf and his name was called rather loudly when it was his turn  for watch. The German would then yell  ‘Put Tommy X up.’ I'll bet they wouldn't have shot him.”

But as far as we know, nobody from the Lower Otter Valley took part in the famous Christmas truce of the early stages of the conflict. 

For many people, the celebrated football match (or matches) and exchanges of gifts between Allied and German soldiers represent a rare but bizarre moment of humanity during the grim years of the Great War. 

It's not widely known that Budleigh Salterton Football Club has had a special relationship with the Football Club of the village of Betheln, near Hildesheim in Lower Saxony.  

I've often wondered how the idea of a Christmas Day 2014 charity match between players from the two clubs would be greeted today. Naturally, any profits made by such a centenary event would be split between British and German armed forces charities.  

The Christmas Truce 1914 : German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment photographed with men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 26 December in No Man's Land on the Western Front.  Photo by Lt C.A.F. Drummond, Royal Field Artillery. 
Image credit: Photograph HU 35801 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

‘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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