A British Soldier’s Account of the Christmas Truce during the First World War
Almost as incredible as the many stories of the supernatural recounted in Angels in the Trenches is that of the Christmas Truce between the British and Germans. Scotsman Joe Cassells, a scout in the Black Watch, was in the trenches on Christmas Day, 1914, and witnessed the whole, miraculous affair.
We have met Joe Cassells before through his stories of lucky coins and the superstitious value of the number thirteen, here is his story of the Christmas Truce from The Black Watch: A Record in Action (1918), pp. 186-191.
Christmas in the Trenches, 1914
We were looking forward to spending Christmas in billets, but were disappointed. We had hardly been “cushy” three days, when we were sent to hold a position on the left flank of an English battalion of what we believed to be the Sussex Regiment. It was just two days before Christmas when we took up this position.
Snow had fallen during the night, giving the ground a sort of peaceful appearance.
It was much quieter here. Snow had fallen during the night, giving the ground a sort of peaceful appearance, except for a few dark patches where some “Jack Johnsons” or “Black Marias” had landed toward dawn. (It was Christmas Day.) Just after “stand down,” our mail was issued. It consisted mostly of parcels. Our part of the trench was very fortunate. Every man had at least two letters and as many parcels. I received three in the same handwriting and a two-pound box of chocolate almonds. Parcels containing socks, mittens, scarfs, etc., were pounced upon by all hands, as these articles were very much needed at this time. Next in importance came the cigarettes, of which we received a goodly supply.
I need hardly say that we all tasted one another’s luxuries shortbread, chocolates, and currant cakes (which had to be eaten mostly with a spoon because of the rough handling
they had had) and we exchanged confidences about our letters whether they were from Miss Campbell, Mrs Low, or Uncle Sandy.
Every Tommy, every Jock, learns to know and to love his trench mate as a brother. The men in the “ditches” feel as if they all belonged to the one mother, sharing each other’s confidences, both pleasant and sad. There is no selfishness not even a thought of it “over there.”
The sun was red. It appeared to be dripping-red with blood.
We were all sitting round the fire-steps of our trenches, thinking, ever thinking, and wondering how many of us would live to see the same sun rise on another Christmas Day.
The sun was red. It appeared to be dripping-red with blood, when a slight commotion started up along to the right. I grasped my rifle and at the same time looked round the little traverse. I saw a few chaps with their heads over the parapet which seemed unwise and extremely dangerous. I thought we had been surprised by the Huns, and took a glance in the direction of their trenches, which looked as quiet as our own. But I could see thin lines of smoke rising up at irregular intervals from the fires they had built. Almost at the same instant my eye caught sight of a figure some six hundred yards to our right proceeding in the direction of the bodies’ trenches; and, to crown all, he was a British Tommy!
The whole regiment was viewing the daring proceedings.
I thought the man must have gone out of his mind, and when I looked at where he came from, it seemed as if the whole regiment was viewing the daring proceedings of this solitary individual “between the lines.” At that part the trenches were much nearer than at ours. They seemed there about two hundred yards apart, while ours were about five hundred yards distant from Fritz.
I saw the solitary Tommy walk right on to within a few yards of the German entanglements and pause a minute; then a boche’s head could be seen. At this, Tommy picked his way over the entanglements very cautiously.
My heart was in my mouth! I could scarcely keep from shouting when he reached the edge of the enemy parapet and disappeared!
By this time our regiment was practically all on the fire-step, breathlessly watching and ready for what might happen after the disappearance of this “madcap.”
The Germans were waving their helmets, with heads above the parapet. It was Christmas all right!
Five minutes more elapsed. Then a head bobbed up at the same spot we had been watching, and out of the trench came the selfsame Tommy. He was carrying something in his hand. My eyes kept steady on him until he reached his own parapet, where he stood a moment flourishing this article; then, clasping it to him as if prizing it, he got down into the trench. While he had stood there for a moment, his fellow trench-mates threw out their arms to take his precious bundle from him, but as I say, he seemed to hold tightly on to it. When I looked back
at the place he had just left, the Germans were waving their helmets, with heads above the parapet. It was Christmas all right! and we certainly got a Santa Claus surprise in watching these unusual proceedings.
They were getting bolder on both sides at this part of the line, and a few men began walking on their parapets, finally coming closer and then meeting men from the enemy trench. Then followed a football match with regimental shirts tied up. To see those Tommies charging with their shoulders and explaining the game to the Germans, who were not so well acquainted with it, was a Christmas festival in itself that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
[We found out afterward that ” Spud ” Smith who had just received a lovely “currant bun” from home and was overjoyed with it- was jumping round and making so much noise about it, that the fellows dared him to take it over to the Germans and wish them “A Merry Christmas.” He at once threw off his equipment and made toward them, where he received his Christmas present in the form of a bottle of “schnapps.” “Spud” Smith was the madcap of his regiment.]
A few minutes after midnight, we were brought back to war again by the Germans shelling us all along the line.
The featured image is from the Illustrated London News (9 January 1915): “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.” The subcaption reads “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meet and greet one another—A German officer photographing a group of foes and friends.”
More Supernatural Stories from World War I
Could Unlucky Thirteen Be This First World War Soldier’s Lucky Number? Joe Cassells and his unusual relationship with the number thirteen during the First World War were not over after the strange events at Dixmude and La Bassée. The Black Watch scout had another tale to tell and this one, more than the others, was […]
Soldier Joe Cassells, a scout with the Black Watch, told several stories of how he came to regard thirteen as his lucky number. Trench superstitions were rife during the First World War, but whereas most people think of thirteen as unlucky, a series of strange coincidences and events convinced Cassells that thirteen would always bring him good fortune.