The following is an account of Christmas time 1914, as given by the men of the 5th (Territorial) battalion of the Black Watch.
In the early hours of November the 2nd 1914, the 5th btn landed at Le Havre, having left Southampton the night before aboard the SS Architect. They were the first Scottish Territorial battalion to arrive in France.
Allocated to the 24th brigade in the 8th Division they were employed as line of communication troops. Digging trenches under Royal Engineer supervision, mostly at night, or bringing up stores to the other battalions in their brigade. The other btns being: The 1st Sherwoods, 1st Woosters and 2nd Northamptons,
In early December 2nd Lt Elgood wrote to his father in Dundee explaining what role the 5th were performing and of a Royal visit:
"We got orders to proceed to the trenches on the night of Tuesday 1st inst., at the same time receiving the surprising information that the King was to pass through our little town, and that we were to turn out in the afternoon as a kind of guard of honour. The King arrived accompanied by the Prince of Wales, Generals French and Joffre, and the French President. That passed off alright and the King asked to see two of our men dressed for the trenches, and his command was, of course, duly carried out.
You have no idea of our clothes. we have been served out with coats lined with 'fur', and they are jolly warm. I may add the 'fur' is goatskin, or at least that is nearer it. What with scarves, helmets and hose-tops & c., you look rather funny. These 'fur' coats can be worn either with the 'fur' inside or outside just as you prefer it. They are of course called "Teddy Bears"."
In the lead up to Christmas the weather became very wet and cold, making the working conditions for the men hard going. Fortunately comforts from home of food and warm items of clothing, as described by 2nd Lt Elgood, were arriving in great numbers to alleviate some of the discomfort.
The btn were still operating under an 8 company structure when they stepped foot off the boat. This soon changed to the 4 company arrangement used by the regulars. 2nd Lt Elgood wrote later of how this change was made
"The battalion is now divided into four companies, which bear distinguishing numbers instead of letters. Thus E and F, the Arbroath companies, to which I am attached, now form No. 3 company."
Writing on the 16th of December, a member of the 5th btn, belonging to Carnoustie, wrote home describing the conditions:
"We have to make a ditch about one mile in length up to the knees in mud. This is the kind of work you must do before you reach the trenches. I have just had a wash for the first time in six days. You ought to see some of the Carnoustie boys. Those who are not growing beards are growing moustaches. We have fur coats issued for use in the trenches. Every other day there is an issue of Woodbines and socks."
Dundonian. Pte. Robert Ramsay echoed this:
"We have had six days in the trenches, and, my word! It was cold. We had rain all the time, and we were wading knee-deep in mud and water, and our "dug-outs," where we had to sleep, were much the same. We are stationed beside the Regulars, and it is no child's play. We are used to the bullets and shells screaming over our heads, and we get no sleep with the noise and the cold.
There is nothing but dead cows and horses lying about, and they don't half cause a smell! At the back of our trenches are hundreds of graves of our Tommies. They are all marked by a wooden cross - not a great place for graves on a bullet and shell-swept plane, but they are all heroes and men Britons will ever be proud of.
Instead of lighted streets to which we are accustomed, we have to march through roads covered with mud and in darkness, and the bullets flying all around, with no comfort whatsoever."
Quartermaster Sgt. Andrew Peffers wrote on the 19th about the generosity of gifts arriving in France from home:
"Gifts. we will, I think, from the number of gifts sent us, face a better Christmas and New Year than the people at home. Every post brings some good thing - in fact, I am busy giving out all manner of good things to the Battalion every day. The great difficulty will be for the men to carry about all they have got.
Hint to War Office - the men are not allowed a kit-bag, and every time they move they have to carry everything on their back. If the authorities at home would permit us to send some of the comforts not immediately required to a base or some depot, where they could be sent to us when required, we would be able to take full advantage of our friends benevolence."
Sgt. Peffers goes on to make mention of the recent fighting, which the btn were standing ready in support of, if required. Although he may have overestimated the number of German PoW's taken.
"We have moved further forward, and yesterday and to-day we have had a rather eventful time. We were up all last night in readiness to support an attack of another battalion on the German trenches. The ______ Regiment stormed the trenches and took them, killing several hundreds, wounding as many, and taking about 200 prisoners, who were escorted down by our men to the nearest post for receiving prisoners."
The battalions War Diary gives more detail regarding this attack.
“Friday 18th Dec 1914:
Orders to stand to arms in billets from 4.30 p.m., Battalion forming Brigade reserve to 23rd Brigade in action. Heavy shell fire preceded infantry attack on German trenches by DEVONS and WEST YORKSHIRE REGIMENT. 50 men of No.3 company had to form escort for 26 prisoners into Divisional Headquarters at LA GORGUE. Heavy shell and rifle fire began in INDIAN lines about 3.30 a.m.”
Writing a few days later on the 21st, Pte. Horatio Savege wrote home, describing the bad weather conditions and praising the skill of the German snipers.
"In the trenches - at least the part we were in - the weather was our worst enemy, cold and rain. In many place we stood knee-deep in water. This is no exaggeration. Sometimes we have very dangerous tasks to carry out such as digging trenches over night, and carrying rations to our comrades in the trenches. The roads that lead to our trenches are very dangerous as the enemy snipers have their rifles trained, and fire at men passing to and fro, and German snipers are very good marksmen and seldom fail in fetching down their target."
Pte. Savege goes on to recount a more personal meeting with the King and Prince of Wales than that described by 2nd Lt Elgood.
"Another experience I had of a different kind was having a few words with His Majesty and the Prince of Wales - a - very few words. In fact: "Yes, Sir," and "No, Sir," and a few smiles was all that I had time for. A friend and I were selected as representatives of the (excised by the censor)* to appear before His Majesty in our winter clothing. Hence the occasion."
(* likely referencing his brigade or Division.)
The Royal meeting earlier described by 2nd Lt Elgood is given a brief mention in the War Diary.
"Tuesday 1st Dec 1914:
His Gracious Majesty, King George, passed through ESTAIRES today in the course of his visit to the troops at the front. The streets were lined by all the available troops, this Battalion being in position from the PARISH CHURCH to the GRANDE PLACE."
A Dundee Sgt recovering at home in January was interviewed by a newspaper and gave much detail on the work they undertook and the conditions.
"Fortunately, the fire, both rifle and shrapnel, was not so deadly as we expected, and we got off with remarkable few casualties. The Dundee companies were especially lucky. In fact, I was among the first to sustain a serious wound. A rifle bullet struck me on the right cheek, passed right through my mouth, and came out at the right side of my neck. Half an inch higher and my brain would have been destroyed; half an inch nearer the front and my jugular being should have been severed. It was a most remarkable escape.
The battalion worked in halves, one portion relieving the other in the trenches. It is not in the trenches that the German fire does most damage, but while the men are entering and leaving them. We were in the trenches generally for three days at a time. Twice we were driven from the trenches by the terrible fire.
The weather conditions for a time were awful. The trenches were deep in mud. We walked in it; we stood in it; we sat in it; we slept in it; we ate in it; we drank in it; nothing but mud, mud, mud.
Lots of the men left their footwear in the trenches many a time. Those who wore shoes could not keen them long. Their feet would sink deep into the clinging clay, and when they drew them out the discovered they left their shoes buried deep. It was useless to try to recover them. The poor chaps had to do the remainder of the day's work in their stockinged feet. But I think the worst job of all was to clean out the trenches. When the troops advanced across these mud-filled ditches they dumped down straw. The straw bound the mud into a kind of thick plaster, and as our trenching tools would not cut it we had just to grub away anyhow until we got the trenches cleared. That work was worse than fighting."
Christmas Eve and Day is recorded as follows in the btn war diary.
"Thursday 24th Dec 1914:
No.3 and 4 companies taking 24 hours about at "A" lines in billets, doing fatigues and repairing trenches. No.1 company away for 3 days to "C" lines, 23rd Brigade. Billeted in dugouts. No.2 company to provide half company each night at "B" lines."
"Friday 25th Dec 1914:
2 men wounded last night.
1st reinforcement number 2 officers and 191 men, arrived this afternoon a 4 (p.m.) under Captain ARBUTHNOTT and Lieutenant TAYLOR. Came by steamer to ROUEN, disembarked there, and after a stay of (*) days entrained for MERVILLE, where they detrained. They brought with them 8 men discharged from hospital. Reinforcements rather on the young side, 58 being under 19.
Battalion received Princess Mary's Gifts, which were much appreciated."
By Christmas Day the 5th had sustained 29 wounded and 4 fatal casualties. The majority being sniped when digging at night. There were an unknown number of men suffering from the weather in hospital, or at home recovering.
Letters home, published in the few weeks after, reveal how the officers and men spent Christmas Day.
Pte. Martin Dunn from Montrose wrote on Christmas Day to his father:
"I am in the armoury with a Col.-Sergeant of the Army Ordnance Corps, and only rifles come through our hands. It is very interesting work indeed.
The battalion is still going up to the trenches, where they are up to the knees in mud, it is terrible to see them.
I am billeted with the machine gun section, who are in a very comfortable cottage, where we cook all our own food. We get all kinds of vegetables out of the garden, so that we are not at all badly off.
There is very little firing from the trenches today, both sides must be holding their Christmas.
We get plenty of food and cigarettes, and have had Scotch bun, plum pudding and shortbread, so that we can't grumble, although I would have had a happier Christmas at home.
To-day there is a very hard frost - real Christmas-like."
An (unnamed) officer from Dundee had a letter appear in the local press, on the 29th, with a tongue in cheek reference to the truce which was observed in many parts of the line, including theirs, on Christmas Day:
"Christmas Day! We are all in great spirits this morning. Seems to be a mutual understanding that there will be no firing to-day. It is an ideal Christmas Day-hard frost and ground white. I hope you are all very cheery at home, and having a good time. The Doctor suggests a curling match with the Germans."
Pte. Savege again wrote to his father on the 26th, describing his Christmas and opinion on the fraternisation with the Germans:
"War has its funny side. On Christmas Day the Germans were out on top of their trenches and our boys were over shaking hands and exchanging souvenirs. I couldn't get over it. Two of our boys that were digging ran over for a minute and got some cigars, & c. I wouldn't trust the beggars."
An unnamed Cpl., writing on the 27th, backs up Savege regarding the meeting between men of the 5th and the Germans on Christmas Day:
"I am still in the best of health and everything is going A1 in spite of the cold weather and the wet. To-day we are lying in reserve in an old farm and are very comfortable.
It is 11 o'clock a.m. at present and I have nothing to do until 2 a.m., when I have to take a party up to the trenches to do some digging.
The war has started again after "half time" on Xmas day. For several hours on the 25th a truce was proclaimed, and up at our corner we were speaking to the Germans, and it seemed a great farce. At night the war began as usual."
2nd Lt. Leonard Elgood, again wrote home on the 28th. The brief truce and meeting of the Germans by men of the 5th is also mentoned:
"Our poor lads, are suffering severely as they wade through water into the trenches, and it freezes, and so do their feet. You can imagine the result. Poor chaps, they do suffer some hardships. We have not yet been back to the trenches, but have been digging and improving trenches just behind the firing line, so that in case of need we can fall back on them.
We were out on Christmas Day working, but there was a truce on in this district, so there was no firing. One or two of the 5th crossed over and exchanged presents, but I think the various regiments were very strict as to this."
Writing on the 29th of December, Sgt. Hugh Hunter of Arbroath, wrote to his parents about how difficult the work they were undertaking was, due to the poor weather conditions. He expressed how bizarre he felt the truce was:
"At last I have found time to drop you a line. Yesterday although my spirit was very willing, I was kept so busy that I had not a free moment till six p.m., and then I was much too tired, as you can imagine, to write....
Very sorry I was interrupted last night but I had to go with a party up to the trenches and do some digging, also by the way some wading. We had to go up a ditch of about 600 yards in length, and for the most part knee deep in water. You may think I felt rotten, but truth to tell I enjoyed it as I knew in a few hours I would get a dry shift.
At first we tried to keep ourselves as dry as possible, but ultimately we threw caution to the wind and ploughed our way on.
Yesterday we had a fine feed when lying in reserve. Some kind friend had looted a hen, and that combined with a roast of meat, boiled in a monstrous pot made a rare dinner. We get plenty of vegetables lying in the gardens round about and can now make soup like first-class chefs.
What do you think about the palaver on Christmas Day? It seems strange that men who for days have been fighting tooth and nail should meet and shake hands, & c. I happened to be up with a party digging and went down to the firing trench to see the fun. It was great. The British, or rather English Tommy, dancing about in real style, the German sullen and fed up. In our trench however, there were three boys standing to arms ready for any tricks."
Pte. William Soutar from Arbroath wrote an open letter to a newspaper on the 31st. He summed up the battalions experiences thus far. He recounts the exchanging of gifts in No Man's Land with the Germans and the burying of their dead:
"Acting on the suggestions of many Arbroathians who follow the fortunes of the 5th Black Watch with interest, I shall endeavour to give a few particulars as to how we have observed the festive season.
In the first place let me state that we have celebrated the festivals of Christmas and New Year with the utmost temperance - but that is not our fault - we didn't want to do it. Then with reference to the hackneyed topic of the weather, we cannot claim to have noticed much difference from the atmospheric conditions which usually prevail in Scotland this season.
We have had frost and snow, rain and sleet, and sometimes high winds, which sigh through the open work buildings in which we try to sleep.
On Christmas Day our company had to attend business as usual, but the spirit of peace and goodwill seemed to have reached even the Germans, because never a shot was fired.
After the truce had become firmly established, the enemy gained sufficient confidence to come out of their trenches to bury their dead, and our company left their earthly abode in quest of souvenirs of the occasion. Two of our men exchanged greetings and shortbread with two German soldiers, and further tokens of disregard might have changed hands but for the intervention of a British officer, who forbade further communication between the parties. The Germans were allowed to tidy up the battlefield a bit and return to their trenches in peace.
In the matter of Christmas fare we have been exceedingly well catered for by our friends at home. It is no uncommon thing for a man to be seen sleeping with his head pillowed on a tin of "shortie". We all received a beautiful casket from the Princess Mary Fund, and many of these are being sent home to be treasured as mementos of this grand all round dust-up.
The period between Christmas and New Year has been very uneventful, but our boys have employed the time by learning to swim, as many journeys have to be accomplished through liquid mud.
To-night is Hogmanay, and of the bright lads who might have been singing 'Auld Lang Syne' round the Steeple are singing just as lustily here round the camp fire.
We were stationed in buildings close behind the firing-line, and to these quarters our first-foot was the Pipe-Major playing a lively air. To take the place of the clock chimes a sergeant fired a shot in the air, after which there was much handshaking and interchange of good wishes.
I am glad of this opportunity of thanking the many friends who have sent parcels of good things for us to eat. The most recent gift of this kind was from the 'Arbroath Guide,' a large consignment of shortbread, which was duly divided and greatly appreciated by all.
The reinforcements from Forfar arrived on Christmas Day and had to listen to many thrilling stories by the weather-beaten veterans who have braved the battle and the fleas for nine weeks.
Others who write home will doubtless supply many details which in my haste I may have omitted, but perhaps I have been able to convey a rough impression to those whose interest is centred on the doings of the 5th Black Watch."
Captain Duncan was home in Arbroath on furlough on the 6th of January, He was interviewed by a local newspaper. While not quoting him directly, they summarised his account. He mentions the truce but emphasises that it was brief and purely practical in nature:
"He says the weather conditions have lately been very trying, but the way in which the men had been able to stick to it was marvellous, and they were all very cheery.
On Christmas day there was a temporary armistice, during which both sides buried their dead. Rapid firing between the combatants was commenced immediately afterwards.
The men celebrated the first night of the New Year in the trenches. Pipe-Major Albert Crowe, a well-known Arbroath piper, played selections at the headquarters of the battalion within hearing of the men in the German trenches."
Christmas 1914 saw the men of the 5th have their war experience dominated by the awful weather conditions. Their primary role of labouring for the other regular infantry battalions in their brigade was a freezing and wet affair. They suffered many more casualties from the cold than from the Germans.
The Christmas truce occurred in their part of the line and was witnessed by a Company out working on the morning of the 25th. It seems two men from the battalion took part in an hurried exchange of greetings and gifts with Germans in No Man's Land, as recorded in letters by (mostly identifiable) officers and men.
As New Year dawned it seemed the morale of the Angus & Dundee lads was high, not least as a result of those at home giving them such strong support.
Edited by Derek Black