War history: As the cold night closes in, Christmas and football are a long way from their minds on the frontline

Conditions on the battlefields of the First World War could be terrible

Conditions on the battlefields of the First World War could be terrible - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway Travel’s resident military historian, focuses on the hard fighting that took place around the Ypres Salient during the winter of 1914

I am going to resist the temptation to enter into the debate about whether or not British Tommies played football with their German counterparts in no man’s land. The reasons for that are numerous but, mainly, I think that by the time you read this, the subject will have been done to death and there is so much more to tell about the Christmas Truce.

The story of the truce is far more interesting than the much-exploited, and now possibly irreversibly distorted, “football” story of Christmas 1914 on the Western Front.

In spite of the huge media focus of recent weeks, you may be surprised to hear that although there is evidence of a kick-about involving a small number of soldiers, football played a small and very insignificant part in the truce. The real circumstances that led to the break in hostilities were far more practical and certainly more compassionate than the mythical need to play football with the enemy.

The overriding reason for most of the locally-agreed truces that took place was a shared desire to recover the bodies of fallen comrades that littered the deadly space between the opposing frontlines. It was this noble and humane desire, fuelled by the catalyst of Christmas, that brought men of both sides together with the shared purpose of giving their friends a decent burial.

Over Christmas we will no doubt be bombarded with hosts of romantic portrayals of the truce and the legendary football match. It is perhaps worth considering, then, what conditions were like on the Western Front in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In fact, 100 years ago on December 14, the men of the 2nd Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment were involved in one of the most difficult attacks of the winter.

The Suffolks had started the war in Ireland at the Curragh, as part of 14 Brigade of 5th Division. They had mobilised and travelled via England to France, landing at Le Havre days later on August 17, 1914.

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What followed is not untypical of the experience for most of the regular and Territorial Force battalions during that first year. The Suffolks fought with distinction during the Mons campaign, suffering heavy casualties during the battle of Le Cateau. As the battalion was so badly mauled, it was held back from the frontline for a time and designated as GHQ troops.

In late October, with the numbers of infantrymen dwindling steadily, the Suffolks were transferred to the 3rd Division – they were back in the war. They were needed. By late November, 1914, casualties among the British Expeditionary Force had reached 89,000 men killed, missing, wounded or taken prisoner. Thankfully, Territorial Force battalions and the Indian Army Corps had arrived just when they were most needed.

Added to the casualties and the fatigue of the men who had been fighting since August, conditions in the trenches in Flanders were becoming increasingly severe. Seemingly incessant rain had raised the water table to within two feet of the muddy surface of the ground. Manning many of the trenches required soldiers to stand for hours, if not days, up to their knees ? and in some cases their waists – in cold water. Large numbers of men succumbed to trench foot, pneumonia and a host of other ailments.

There was little effective shelter in the frontline and the winter quickly developed into the worst experienced for decades. Life in the line was becoming a miserable affair. Where possible, units were rotated out of the line for short respites in barns and farms.

In spite of the weather, the war went on. With the Germans now seemingly static and dug in for the winter, orders were received for a general offensive to be mounted by the French Army on December 14. The BEF was ordered to take part in what was intended to be a large-scale attack.

The 8th Infantry Brigade were tasked to attack trenches in the vicinity of the Belgian village of Wytschaete, known as “White-Sheets” to the Tommies and Jocks in the brigade. The 2nd Royal Scots and 1st Gordon Highlanders would spearhead the attack, supported by 4th Middlesex and the 2nd Suffolks.

The attack across rain-sodden, muddy fields was a dismal failure for a variety of reasons. The two Scottish battalions took over 400 casualties. The day before the attack, the BEF had recorded close to 350 casualties across the length of its frontline. As the cold winter night closed in on the water-logged fields strewn with corpses, Christmas and football were a long way from anybody’s thoughts.

• If you would like to hear more about the Christmas Truce, read next week’s column – and Mike will be talking to Lesley Dolphin about Christmas, 1914, on BBC Radio Suffolk at about 3pm on Christmas Eve.

• Galloway have two guided four-day tours of the Western Front, travelling on April 17 and May 1, 2015. Further details available at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre.