Christmas in the Trenches – Bolton Soldiers’ Stories

The Christmas Truce 1914 is a well-documented event of the First World War between the Allies and the Germans. In a war that was supposed to be over by Christmas, the soldiers themselves decided on an unofficial truce during this time. Letters were received and published in the Bolton newspapers from local soldiers at the Front, who experienced first-hand the truce and what happened on Christmas Day 1914 in the trenches.

One of them, Private Tom Watson of the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, describes watching the famous Christmas Day football match in no man’s land between British troops and Germans, “We were in the trenches all Christmas week and I was thinking about all the boys being at their homes on Christmas morning whilst we were watching the Germans and our fellows playing football all day. The following day they were firing away at one another as before. One or two Bolton fellows were bowled over. He is a lucky man who gets through this lot”. Private Watson was one of the lucky ones, surviving the conflict and possibly emigrating to the United States.

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Image 1: Fusiliers Play Football with Germans on Christmas Day – Bolton Journal 8 Jan 1915.

Sapper William Austin Farrell of the Royal Engineers and a former telegraphist with the Post Office wrote to thank his Bolton colleagues for a gift of a pipe and tobacco and comments, “Things are very quiet in our part of the line. On Christmas Day there wasn’t a single shot fired in the whole of the Division. There was a kind of truce declared.”  Sapper Farrell relates how one of the officers used a megaphone to wish Germans in the opposite trenches ‘A Merry Christmas’, to which they received a reply and an invitation to visit them in their trenches. Several British soldiers accepted the invitation but the Germans were not allowed into the British trenches. Nonetheless, two German soldiers did cross into the British lines and refused to go back, so had to be taken prisoner.

Sapper Farrell then describes how a German officer asked to be allowed to visit the grave of a fellow officer on the outskirts of a town which had been taken by the British. He was led blindfolded through the lines to the graveside and after his spending a little while there he was blindfolded again before being led back. Sapper Farrell witnessed a football match also, remarking, “In the afternoon there was a football match played behind the trenches and right in full view of the enemy. They kept the truce honourably and concluded the day with what I suppose were Christmas carols.” Sapper Farrell survived the war and died in Bolton in 1955.

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Image 2: Post Office Employee’s Experience -Bolton Journal 8 Jan 1915.

Another Sapper with the Royal Engineers (56th Field Company) was William Westwood. He wrote to his mother at 106 Orlando Street, Bolton saying, “I spent a very enjoyable Christmas under the circumstances.” He describes the enemy singing carols in English and is very appreciative of his gift from Princess Mary of a pipe, cigarettes and tobacco, plus a Christmas card. He sends the card back home, together with a photograph of the King and Queen and Princess Mary. After the war, William returned to Bolton where he married a Florence Tumblety in 1922 and died in 1949.

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Image 3: Princess Mary’s Christmas Tin – Bolton Museum.

George Owen Smith of the Stag’s Head in Deane had joined the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and he wrote home to his wife Elizabeth thanking her for her letter and parcel and describing his Christmas, “I had a decent dinner, plenty of meat and potatoes etc. We get these and all kinds of vegetables in tins.” He says the weather is freezing and everywhere is white with frost and adds,”We had quite an unusual experience with the Germans. They were shouting over to us from their trenches all Christmas Eve. Of course we answered back. Then they started to sing and when they finished, our fellows started singing back to them.”

Then on the afternoon of Christmas Day a party of the British soldiers left their trench and met a party of Germans at the barbed wire in the centre of the field. Private Smith says, “They all shook hands with us and no-one could have greeted better than they did. They gave us presents of cigarettes and cigars and we all exchanged souvenirs. One gave me his cap for my Balaclava cap.”

There was also talk of arranging a football match, but it was deemed too late in the day, so the two sides parted with handshakes and cheers.

Concluded Private Smith, who also returned home after the war, “It hardly seems possible for such a thing to happen – deadly enemies to go forth and meet each other with all goodwill and then return to the trenches and shoot the first man who showed himself. I suppose it is one of the mysteries of human nature…”

Many thanks to Lois Dean from Bolton History Centre for this great blog post. 

 References:

Princess Mary’s Christmas Tin is on display in Bolton Lives Gallery, Bolton Museum, Le Mans Crescent, Bolton BL1 1SE. www.boltonlams.co.uk
Newspaper articles from Bolton Journal 8 Jan 1915 with kind permission of Bolton News and Newsquest Ltd

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