Local men party to Christmas truce
Luton soldiers were party to the unofficial Christmas truce that here and there produced a rare few hours of Anglo-German peace amid the carnage on the western front in 1914.
Driver W. Messenger, of C Company, 2nd Bedfordshires, wrote to his parents Mr and Mrs H. Sills, of 115 Park Street, Luton: "We had a better Christmas than I thought we should. On Christmas morning the Germans shouted "Happy Christmas" to us, and we wished them one back.
"One of our men shouted "Come half way," and one of them coming, they met. Then after that some more men came, and in about five minutes all our men were shaking hands with the Germans, wishing one another a happy Christmas. And there was no firing to be done on Christmas Day. You might not believe it, but this is the truth, because I was with them."
A similar story came from Pte W. H. Lewis, of A Company, 2nd Essex Regiment, 12th Infantry Brigade, Expeditionary Force, in a letter to his pre-war employer, Mr Sidney Lane, of Kenilworth Boot and Shoe Stores, Dunstable Road, Luton.
He wrote: "I suppose you will find it hard to believe what I am about to tell you, but it is a fact nevertheless. A few days ago some of my Company got up out of the trenches, and so did some of the Germans out of theirs, and they met half way between the lines. They had a chat, shook hands and returned to the trenches. It was a good joke, and we often laugh about it. Our trench is only 50 yards off the German trench."
Lance-Corporal G. Brown, B Company, 2nd Bedfordshires, wrote to former colleagues at Messrs J & K Connor, Buxton Road. He said: "Christmas out here has been very quiet, and the Germans have been quite good. Their trenches are not above 150 yards from us and we can hear them singing and talking.
"On Christmas Eve they shouted to us and wished us a Merry Christmas. They even had a tree stuck up on the trench which we could plainly see, and not a shot was fired at us for three days. I believe they would give themselves up if we were to attack them, but they are not to be trusted. They have started again now - ping, ping, bang! Believe me, it is like being in hell at times."
From Pte S. Bishop, 2nd Battalion, Beds Regt: "No doubt you would never have believed about my Christmas Day unless I wrote and told you. The German trenches are about 100 yards in front of us, and on Christmas Eve they sang songs and spoke in plain English to us. They wished us a Merry Christmas, and we wished them the same.
"On Christmas morning they were quite happy and shouted and told us not to shoot and to play the game straight, and they would come out of the trenches and meet us half way. We agreed I went out half way with some of my pals, and met them and shook hands with them. They gave us some cigarettes, and one of them gave me a fine cigar which I enjoyed on Christmas Day.
"One of them could speak English quite plainly and told me that he had been in Piccadilly and that he loved London. Another played a mouth organ and others sang and danced.
"On Christmas Day there was not a shot fired. Some officers were with us too."
An unnamed Sergeant of the 1st Beds Regt wrote: "We were in the trenches all Christmas week and the weather was awful. On Christmas Day we had a lot of firing over us, and shells too. All at once it ceased, and I looked up and saw the Germans on top of their trenches shouting to us, and asking us to meet them. All our brigade went and we were talking to them about two hours.
"They asked us not to fire that day, and said they would not. No firing was done until next day, and then we were fighting for all we were worth."
Writing to his brother at Shefford, Pte F. Tyson, 2nd Beds Regt, wrote: "We got on very nicely with the Germans at Christmas time. We agreed to stop firing until after Christmas, and I went across to their trenches and shook hands with them. They gave me a cigar and I gave them a packet of cigarettes. We wished one another a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, but we shall soon be killing each other again."
Sgt A. Cook, of the 1st Bedfordshires, writing to Mrs Woodcroft, of 73 Ivy Road, Luton, said: "We spent Christmas in the trenches, but luckily there was no fighting near us and we exchanged greetings with the Germans. We rendered carols to them, and they to us, and we went to meet them between the trenches on Christmas morning, so even our greatest enemies were friends on that day."
A Barton mother received a letter from her son David Simpkins, serving at the front with the Bedfordshire Regiment, in which he wrote: "On Christmas Eve night the rifle fire was very quiet and the enemy were singing and shouting. They wished us a Happy Christmas and we returning it, wishing them the same.
"Next morning (Christmas Day) we were meeting them halfway between our trenches and their trenches, shaking hands. They gave us cigars and we gave them some of our fags. They seemed very young chaps some of them, and got a bit friendly with us, so we all enjoyed ourselves. We went and got wood and logs and had some very nice bonfires in the trenches, they and us too.
"There was not a shot fired for 58 hours, so you can tell we had a very good Christmas here."
Pte W. W. Hawes, of 171 Dallow Road, Luton, was in the trenches at La Bassee on Christmas Eve, when he saw the Prince of Wales go into the trenches with men of his own regiment.
"Our nearest point to the Germans was 15 yards," said Pte Hawes. "We spent Christmas Day in the trenches. It was typical winter weather, a hard frost prevailing. Early in the morning we heard the Germans singing carols and playing musical instruments, and generally making merry. There was little firing that morning. The communication trenches were filled with water, but in spite of that we managed to keep quite merry."
A brief mention too by Pte Harold H. Saunders, 10280, A Company, 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment. In a letter to his parents at 21 Boyle Street, Luton, he wrote: "What do you think happened today! Our chaps have been and shaken hands with the Germans, and they gave us a song. As their trenches are only a little distance away we can hear them."
[The Luton News, December 31st, 1914, January 7th and 14th, 1915, and Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph, January 9th and 23rd, 1915]