Wednesday, 17 December 2014

December 1914 / December 2014

In Monday's post concerning blog statistics I wrote that, in contrast to my own self-indulgent ramblings, "my father's reminiscence of his experiences at Dunkirk is of great interest to military historians specialising in vox pop accounts of WW2, and has led to some interesting correspondence".  Remarkably, something very similar has just happened, and on the very next day.

I never knew my paternal grandfather.  He died at the age of 59 in 1953, the year before I was born.  By all accounts, he was a lovely man; my mother clearly had a soft spot for him, and she would often invoke his memory whenever I had given her cause to feel proud of me.  Which, sadly, was not as often as it might have been.  My post about his service in WW1, and the Victoria Cross won by his friend and comrade-in-arms Frank Young (Remembrance Sunday) is one of my more frequently-visited posts.  In it, I reproduced two postcard-sized photographs of the two of them that I possess; taken in France, one after the other, posed at attention with a Lee Enfield rifle in front of a canvas backdrop.  Fortunately, my grandmother had been an obsessive collector of family photos and I inherited her hoard.  Not neatly arranged and labelled in an album, however, but entirely filling an old canvas holdall in tight-packed wads, like ransom money.

Recently, that post was seen by a student researching the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 for his dissertation.  Nothing remarkable there.  But -- and this is remarkable to the point of improbability -- in the process of his researches he had previously seen some private family papers belonging to an officer of E Company of the 1st/1st Hertfordshire Regiment.  That is to say, my grandfather's company, recruited from the men of Letchworth, Royston, Baldock, and Ashwell in North Hertfordshire.  Among these papers were some photographs, showing men from E Company at work constructing defences at Rue-du-Bois near Neuve Chapelle in France, during December 1914.  Incredibly, he was struck by the resemblance between the sergeant in one of these and the photograph of my grandfather in my blog post, and emailed me with an attached scan of the Rue-du-Bois image: did I think this might be Douglas William Chisholm?

"Herts Guards" F.E. Young VC and D.W. Chisholm

Unquestionably, it is.  I have been asked not to publish the image, as it is owned by the officer's family, so I will describe it.  Six cheerful-looking men in uniform -- boots, puttees, 1902-pattern field dress, and peaked caps --are sitting atop a fresh earthwork, taking a break from their labours, posing for the camera in a tight group.  From their expressions, it looks like someone has just made a wisecrack.  Seated front and centre is my grandfather -- his face and prominent ears are unmistakable -- legs planted wide apart with arms resting on his knees and hands hanging loosely in-between, with a pipe dangling roguishly from his mouth, beneath a small, military-style brush moustache.

For his time and social class, he was quite a big chap -- five foot eleven inches* -- and the others are clustered around him in various relaxed seated postures. "These are my men!" declares the picture; he's three months away from his 21st birthday, but exudes all the natural authority necessary in an infantry sergeant.  Behind them stands another NCO -- the quality of the photograph is not good enough to count his stripes -- grinning broadly.  He's either the regimental idiot, or the enemy is reasonably far away.  The landscape behind them is not yet a waste of mud, wire, and water-filled shellholes, but looks like agricultural fields look anywhere in northern Europe in December, divided by rows of leafless pollarded trees.

Here is the regiment's War Diary for that period (as edited and annotated by Steven Fuller):
17-11-14. We were shelled in the morning and had to leave the farm shortly after had one man killed and two severely wounded. In the evening we went into the trenches again & took over from the 1st Royal Dragoons and 10th Hussars 1 mile S.E. of ZILLEBEKE. Had 4 Companies in the trenches, 1 in support, 1 in reserve, remaining 2 at KILO 3.
18-11-14. Remained in trenches. Corporal Boardman [2270 Ernest Arthur BOARDMAN] killed and one man missing. [Comment: Missing man was Private 2238 Frederick James DARLOW of Royston who was found to have been killed in action]
19-11-14. E Company was heavily shelled and lost 3 men killed, 19 wounded, 2.Lieut C.M. Down [Charles M. DOWN] wounded. In the evening we were relieved by the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards and marched back to our own former bivouacs. Slight fall of snow. [Comment: Killed in action today - Privates 2504 William BUTTS, 2747 George Haslear CATLIN, 2518 George Edward ELLIS, 2426 Walter William FLANDERS, 2428 Joseph William JOHNSON, 1911 Frank PULLEY, 2636 Phillip James ROBINSON, 2746 Henry WEST]
20-11-14. Marched at 11pm to METEREN, about 18-20 miles. Had tea at OUDERDAM. A very cold night. Joined our Brigade 4th (Guards) Brigade for the first time.
21-11-14. Arrived at METEREN and went into billets.
22-11-14 to 21-12-14. Bn remained at METEREN refitting and training. [Comment: Private 2598 Walter George WALKER of Hertford died in England from his wounds today]
22-12-14. Brigade marched from METEREN to BETHUNE and billeted there the night.
23-12-14. The Brigade marched to LES LACONS FARM and spent the day there. In the evening the Bn moved forward to Cross Roads - RUE DE BOIS and RUE L'EPINETTE in support of 2 ½ battalions of the Brigade in the trenches.
24-12-14. The Bn moved back to LES LACONS FARM and in the evening went into the trenches south of RUE DE BOIS taking over from 6th GHATS. 6 Companies in the trenches, 2 in support close to Headquarters.
25-12-14. L.Sgt Gregory [2301 Thomas Edward GREGORY] and Private Huggins [2701 Percy Henry HUGGINS] killed.
27-12-14. One Company was removed from the fire trenches to support. Each Company had 36 hours in support in rotation. 
So it would seem that they'd had a rough, cold time of it during November and December, being marched around Northern France, being deployed in and out of the front line, and periodically shelled.  They arrived in Rue-du-Bois, the location of the photograph, on 23rd December, just before Christmas 100 years ago.  As one of the few territorial regiments in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, the Herts were keen to make an impression, surrounded as they were by regular soldiers, mainly elite guards regiments.  By 1915 they had managed to distinguish themselves, and earned the honorary nickname, "The Herts Guards".

Photographs of men on active service during WW1 are very rare.  Cameras were officially banned from the front line in 1915.  That's why the same few images pop up again and again in documentaries.  That one should have survived in which I have a direct personal interest; that a researcher should be sharp-eyed enough to spot a resemblance between one grainy image in an archive and another published on my blog; that he should be sufficiently motivated to contact me about it...  This is an astonishing thing.  Not least because it creates a fresh link between two blood relatives, exactly 100 years apart: you might say it's the ultimate Christmas card.

Now, an intriguing question-mark hangs over this story.  A lot of attention has focussed on the so-called "Christmas Truce" of 1914, and the fraternisation and games of football that did or did not take place in No Man's Land between the newly-established lines of opposing trenches.  By Christmas 1914 the Great-War-to-be had not yet become the cynical war of attrition and mass mechanical slaughter of conscripted cannon-fodder floundering in muddy trenches of popular imagination.  The idea of cavalry charges was still lively in the minds of High Command.  The ground was firm.  The men of the BEF were all professionals or volunteers, and many of the latter -- like my grandfather -- had served before the War as "territorials", fully-trained weekend soldiers.

So, might there have been a kickabout in the frozen fields somewhere between Neuve Chapelle and Fleurbaix on Christmas Day 1914?  If anyone would have been up for a game, it would have been sergeant Douglas William Chisholm of Letchworth, bookbinder, conceived in Edinburgh and born in the Elephant & Castle in London, pioneer Bermondsey Boy Scouts member, and a keen all-round sportsman and athlete.  It's a nice, romantic idea.

The War Diary is silent on the matter, and unfortunately does not indicate which Companies had moved back into support, and which were in the trenches.  It does record that two men of the regiment were killed on Christmas Day, however.  This is unlikely to have involved football.  So, if there was a temporary seasonal truce on that part of the Western Front, it didn't last very long.

Of course, this is the self-same Christmas that has become synonymous with self-deluding military optimism.  "It'll all be over by Christmas!"  Oh, no it won't.

* One of the great disappointments of my life was failing to get DWC's "tall" gene, and getting indomitable Nanna C's "short and squat" gene instead.  Of their three sons, only one got it -- not my father -- and he went on to become a policeman.


Bron said...

Hi Mike,

I had a similar experience awhile back; the archivist at the WWII air base at Debach, contacted me with some records of my fathers time there, including reports of the last mission, when they were shot down. The description from one of the tail gunners, as the group headed back to England, of that lone B-17, slowly sinking from view behind them ... whoa! Only ship lost on that mission, but very seriously ravaged.

Mike C. said...


Yes, it's weird, knowing that there are quantities of unknown "stuff" out there (photos, documents, diaries) that tie you in to a bigger picture. I think a lot of us find history hard to understand, until we discover our personal stake in it. Everyone's genes have had a very bumpy, risky ride...


Gavin McL said...

A large number of battalion war diaries can now be downloaded for a small fee from the National Archives website and I have downloaded the one for the 2nd Battalion the King’s Own Scottish Borderers as I have a family connection. They had been in France since the 15th of August 1914 and been in contact with the enemy for about a third of that time losing over 260 officers and men and many more wounded and sick. In the period up to the 22nd of December 1914 they had spent about 13 days in the trenches or in close support near Lindenhoek. They had lost 16 Men & Officers killed , 29 wounded and 189 had gone sick – most with “frost bite” in those few days

On the 22nd they moved into billets close to the trenches and then on 23rd moved to St Jans Cappel for REST – in the diary rest is written in capitals!

On the 25th the adjutant writing the diary notes the ration strength of battalion companies and then fills the page with the following (capitals etc as per the diary entry):

“Princess Mary’s Gifts of an ornamental box containing cigarettes & tobacco & a pipe and a card of good wishes given out to everyman in France. Also a Xmas Card, with a portrait of H.M. King George V & of the Queen & their good wishes is issued as a surprise to everyman. Owing to the kindness of people at home great quantities of warm clothing, tobacco & eatables are issued to the troops. It is reported from the trenches that at various points during Xmas Eve & on Xmas Day the officers & men of the BAVARIAN LANDWEHR opposed to us in this portion of the line made overtures of peace for a Xmas holiday. These were very generally accepted. At one point a football match was played between the opposing sides . Food & tobacco were exchanged& the opposing sides visited each others trenches – The BAVARIANS were reported to be looking well fed & in a good state, but in some cases in want of clothes. They are reported to have been in ignorance of the present state of affairs on the RUSSIAN border, to have been told that the GERMANS had won enormous victories there & that the war was to be over in a month.”

Alongside the text in the “Remarks” column of the diary is a note “From hearsay evidence from officers & others”

On the next page covering from the 26th to the 31st of December , also in the remarks column, is the following “ Superior Authority expresses dissatisfaction at the fraternizing with the enemy on Xmas day. It is forbidden for the future”

I expect that the diaries were generally written up once they left the trenches and those units that participated in the truce and any football game arrived back to the superior authorities disapproval and thought best to skip any mention in the war diary. However the 2nd KOSB Adjutant, probably in a fug of Christmas bonhomie cheerfully wrote the happy tales coming back from the trenches with the returning ration parties, I suspect more interested in the intelligence about their opposite numbers.
Lovely to find that photo of your grandfather.

Mike C. said...


That's fascinating, thanks -- I'm sure you're right, writing up "lost control of men, fraternised with enemy, gave away rations" wouldn't be a good career move...

I still have my grandfather's "Princess Mary" tin -- I expect you've seen one, it's brass with an embossed, hinged lid and a very attractive object.