In the Bleak Midwinter: the 1914 Christmas Truce and
the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment

The Christmas Truce enjoyed by the 2nd Battalion of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment was a far cry from the chocolate, football, booze and carols which some other units shared with the Germans elsewhere on the Western Front. The 2nd Battalion was in the line around La Boutillerie, just north of Fromelles and a few miles south of the Belgian border. On the 18th December two companies of the battalion had supported the 2nd Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment in a disastrous attack on the German lines, the Queen’s losing 97 officers and men, either killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner. The dead and wounded lay scattered in front of the enemy lines overnight.

A first truce occurred at daybreak on 19th December 1914, when the Germans opposite beckoned the 2nd Battalion out to collect its wounded and bury its dead. Several officers, the Medical Officer and around 30 men went out to meet 60 Germans in No Man’s Land. The rival officers talked as the burial parties got to work, the Germans assisting in burying many of the British dead, many of whom lay close to their front line. They did not, however, play entirely fair: two British officers and seven stretcher bearers were enticed into the German trenches and taken prisoner. This truce was captured in photographs by 2nd Lieutenant J B Coates, who, though only aged 17, found himself commanding a company.

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen's Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/1/16/11 p2 1of2)

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen’s Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/1/16/11 p2 1of2)

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen's Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/3/11/3 p17)

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen’s Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/3/11/3 p17)

Despite this somewhat inauspicious armistice, as many dead still lay unburied, a further truce was agreed on Christmas day at 11am negotiated by the Wiltshire Regiment on the Queen’s right. The 2nd Battalion’s war diary reported that ‘many German officers and men came out of their trenches to midway between the two lines’ and more graves were excavated. However the frozen earth meant progress was very slow and a third armistice was agreed for Boxing Day to begin at 9am. A number of immaculate German Staff officers in fur lined coats ‘of quite a different class to the infantry officers who were of a very low class’. While the men hacked at the hard as iron ground, they chatted with their counterparts, sharing with the British their sanguine views on the war’s progress: ‘All professed themselves as confident as to their being able to end the war in their favour. They had no opinion of the Russians who they considered already beaten. All gave the appearance however of being fed up with the war’. Finally, at 1pm, with the graves all now completed, the British chaplain read the burial service, in the presence of the digging party, some officers of the Queen’s and 8 or 10 German officers. The proprieties observed, both sides returned to their trenches.

The Experience of the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment

By contrast, the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment was ordered into the line at Christmas by GHQ to take over from a battalion which had been fraternising with the enemy far too eagerly. The offending unit had actually issued an invitation to the Saxons opposite to come into their trench, the Germans being particularly keen to obtain British newspapers to find out what was happening in the world. The East Surreys had regretfully to tell the Germans when they approached that this arrangement had been cancelled, but even so exchanged a few words and a copy of the ‘Times’.

As the experience of the 1st Battalion of the East Surreys testifies, the spontaneous coming together of the two sides during December 1914 was frowned upon by the high commands. In 1915, the British top brass was determined that there should be no reoccurrence of 1914’s fraternisation because of its supposed effect on morale and fighting spirit. The 7th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment rejected an initiative by the Germans opposite on Christmas Day: ‘No fraternising this year, although the Germans tried to make peaceful advances by showing the white flag. Our Artillery consistently pounded their trenches all day and night. A certain amount of retaliation took place but not nearly as much as we put over’. The 8th Battalion were swiftly disabused of any notion that the enemy might again seek a convivial truce: ‘All thoughts of fraternising on Christmas Eve was put an end to by Trench Mortars, Sausages, Rifle grenades and whiz-bangs on the part of the Germans’.

The fragile flowering of peace and goodwill during the first Christmas of the war was never to be repeated.

Prisoners of War

In the nominal rolls of officers (1914-1919) for the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, the East Surrey Regiment and 21st-24th Battalions, the London Regiment an officer is listed as having joined the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment on the 18th of December and taken prisoner on the 19th. These records are held at Surrey History Centre (Ref 8227/1/4):

2nd Lieutenant A E Walmsley,
Joined battalion, 18 December 1914,
Left battalion 19 December 1914, reason: Prisoner of War.

Another officer taken prisoner on the 19th was 2nd Lieutenant C D Nought
Joined battalion, 13 November 1914, from Artists Battalion
Left battalion 19 December 1914, reason: Prisoner of War.

Other Great War Projects

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2 thoughts on “In the Bleak Midwinter: the 1914 Christmas Truce and
the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment”

  1. Andrew Lucas says:

    1st East Surreys (14th Brigade / 5th Division) were not in fact opposite Saxons, but rather Bavarians. The fraternisation at La Boutillerie was on the Prussian VII. Armeekorps front. British reports often misidentify fraternising (non-Saxon) Germans as Saxons; several such reports strongly suggest that the Germans involved deliberabtely misrepresented themselves to the British as being Saxon.

    The only Saxon corps opposite the BEF at Christmas 1914 was that of XIX.Armeekorps. Its front ran roughly from Bois Grenier (south of Armentières) in the south to the Douve in the north, with several battalions of Bavarian and Prussian (Hannoverian / Silesian) Jägers attached on the extreme right flank north of Ploegsteert Wood. Trucing and/or fraternisation took place along most of the Saxon front with a few notable gaps. IR 179 on the Saxon extreme left was not involved (although fellow Saxons on their right and Prussians on their left both were), at least some of its men apparently being in a bad mood on Christmas Eve due to non-appearance of an expected relief; as a result these grumpy Saxons are misidentified as ‘Prussians’ in the British accounts….

  2. Surrey History Centre says:

    According to 2 Queen’s war diary, the German unit most involved in the La Boutillerie incident was 55th Regiment, though 7th, 15th and 22nd Regiments were also noted.

    The May 1972 edition of the Regimental Association Newsletter included (page 10) (J/552/11):

    The Regimental History of the Queen’s Royal Regiment records that on 18th December, 1914, two companies of the 2nd Queen’s took part in an unsuccessful and costly attack near Fleurbaix. The enemy also suffered heavy losses and at dawn the next day an unofficial cease-fire was arranged between both sides to bury their dead and collect the wounded.

    On Christmas Day and again on Boxing Day there was an informal armistice, the latter not finishing until later afternoon.

    Colonel J. B. Coates has presented to the Regimental Museum some exceptionally interesting pictures of these cease-fires, showing the British and German troops meeting and talking together in No-Man’s Land.

    He was himself there as a newly joined 2nd Lt. He had arrived in the line on 2nd December and on the 19th found himself commanding a company. He was just 17.

    The “Saxon” ‘episode’ involving the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, was described by Brigadier G R P Roupell writing in a later edition of the journal of the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment (see QRWS/1/19/3, page 8 and 9). His account starts:

    I was interested to read, in the Regimental News Letter of May 1972, Col Coates’ account of the unofficial armistice in 1914 and from what he says I would certainly agree that the 2nd Queen’s armistice ‘was properly conducted’. It was not quite the same in another sector.

    Roupell says the East Surreys were resting out of the line [at Dranoutre, about six miles south west of Ypres, and 6 miles north west of Armentieres, according to their war diary] and were ordered into the trenches to take over from an unspecified British regiment which had become too friendly with the Germans opposite, who were ‘apparently a Bn from Saxony‘. Roupell wrote that the East Surreys chatted to some approaching Germans in no man’s land but would not let them enter the British trenches, as had been arranged by the over friendly battalion. However a copy of the Times was handed over to ‘our Saxon visitors‘ who in turn ‘told us that behind them, waiting to relieve them at some future date, was a Bn of the Prussian Guard who, they warned us, were likely to be very aggressive when they got into the front line. As a warning as to when the relief was taking place, the Saxons would fire three volleys over our heads just before they left. The Saxons were still there when 1st Surreys were relieved … I heard later that in due course three volleys had been fired over our lines and that from then on one could not expose oneself without the grave risk of drawing fire from the enemy lines. I like to remember this experience as one of the few decent impressions of the German army‘. The episode is not reported in the 1st Battalion’s war diary.”

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