Famous Verdun photographs which are not what they seem

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A dramatic photograph was prominent in media reports of the centenary of the opening of the Battle of Verdun on 21 February 1916, apparently showing a French soldier caught in the moment of death. It is usually licensed from Getty images who have now altered their caption to acknowledge that it is in fact a film still from 1928.

Embed from Getty Images

The French film maker Léon Poirier produced a remarkable feature Verdun, visions d’histoire, shot on the old battlefields and inside the forts, using veterans wearing original uniforms and equipment.

Leon Poirier Verdun_visions_d_histoire

(Poster source)

Another famous photograph of stretcher bearers under shell fire is also from the film but Getty have yet to alter the caption.Embed from Getty Images

Watch Verdun, visions d’histoire on YouTube:


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Rossignol Wood

Rossignol Wood

Rossignol Wood, shell craters and trenches.

It is more than thirty years since I first stumbled across this wood on the northern part of the Somme battlefield. Rossignol, or Nightingale, Wood seldom features in the usual histories or battlefield itineraries but it clearly showed evidence of fierce fighting: deep trenches running along the edges, smashed concrete bunkers and collapsed dugouts, shell holes and heaps of German grenades, while in the adjacent ploughed field lay British shell fuses.  Two small British cemeteries are close by and one, uniquely for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, holds more German burials than British. Subsequent visits and research over the years have revealed the story of the fighting at the wood and also its association with some of the most remarkable personalities of the war.

Rossignol Wood view from German trench

Rossignol Wood, the view from German trench.

Fighting came to the wood in February and March 1917 when the Germans withdrew from the old Somme battlefield to the Hindenburg Line. Strong German rearguards caused heavy casualties to the North and South Staffords and the Bradford Pals.  Immediately to the west, the 18th Durham Light Infantry captured the German line. For his part a young Second Lieutenant, James Barker Bradford, received the Military Cross but died of his wounds. He was the third in age of the four famous Bradford brothers, two of whom went on to receive the Victoria Cross but both were also to lose their lives.

German grenades in Rossignol Wood

German grenades in Rossignol Wood.

The Germans withdrew later in March only to retake the ground a year later during the 1918 spring offensive when they were halted a short distance away at Hébuterne. In April 1918 the Lincolns and the Somersets attempted to capture the wood but were forced out. Their chaplain, Theodore Hardy DSO MC, went into the wood and, with the help of a sergeant, managed to bring a man back. For his actions, including tending a wounded man near a German bunker which still survives in Rossignol Wood, Hardy was awarded the Victoria Cross. He died of wounds in October 1918, the most highly decorated non-combatant of the First World War.

Rossignol Wood German bunker

Rossignol Wood, German bunker.

In July 1918 the German infantry officer Ernst Jünger came to Rossignol Wood. The author of The Storm of Steel,  the most famous German memoir of the First World War, Jünger also wrote an account of the period that he spent at the wood, entitled Copse 125 after its German name. The book culminates in a grenade attack immediately to the south of the wood against New Zealand troops among whom was Sergeant Dick Travis DCM MM of the Otago Regiment. Travis helped beat off the attack and captured two machine guns but was killed the following day; he received a posthumous Victoria Cross and is regarded as New Zealand’s greatest soldier.

Rossignol Wood Cemetery

New Zealand graves in front of German burials in Rossignol Wood Cemetery. The cemetery contains 41 Commonwealth and 70 German burials.


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The Italian Front in the First World War at Asiago: Monte Zovetto and Magnaboschi

Monte Zovetto OP 2

Monte Zovetto Italian and British observation posts and shelters.

Monte Zovetto trench 2

Monte Zovetto trench

Monte Zovetto OP 3

Monte Zovetto inscription OP 4

Monte Zovetto OP 1

Monte Zovetto inscription 1

Monte Zovetto  inscription left by British artillerymen in June 1918.

Monte Zovetto inscription left by British artillerymen in June 1918.

Magnaboschi British Cemetery

Magnaboschi British Cemetery

Magnaboschi British Cemetery

© Simon Jones


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Where and how did Edward Brittain die?

The Italian Front in the First World War at Monte San Michele.

The Italian Front in the First world War at Redipuglia and Monte Sei Busi.

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Where and how did Edward Brittain die?

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The death in action of her brother Edward, in Italy in June 1918, forms the final tragedy of Vera Brittain‘s memoir Testament of Youth.

Edward Brittain applied for a temporary commission in September 1914, when he was not yet nineteen years of age.

His parents gave their consent to Edward's application, signing this statement written by him. (National Archives WO339/27827)

His parents gave their consent to Edward’s application, signing this statement written by him. (National Archives WO339/27827)

He was posted to the 11th Sherwood Foresters in February 1916 and badly wounded during the Battle of the Somme on 1st July when was also awarded the Military Cross for bravery.

Edward Brittain's wounds recorded in his service record. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Edward Brittain’s wounds recorded in his service record. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Edward Brittain after the award of the Military Cross (Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library)

Edward Brittain after the award of the Military Cross (Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library)

He was eventually found fit for further overseas duty in March 1917 and returned to his battalion in France. In November his battalion was sent to Italy.

On 15th June 1918, the Austro-Hungarian army launched a major offensive in Italy, part of which fell against British forces on the Asiago plateau. The 11th Sherwood Foresters held San Sisto Ridge, a small, steep, wooded hill, rising 60 metres above the plain. Two companies of the Sherwood Foresters held the front line forward of the ridge, which ran just within the tree line. Captain Brittain commanded ‘A’ Company which held the right hand section of the front line.

Part of the British front line held by Edward Brittain's company in June 1918, known as Alhambra Trench, in 2015 military barbed wire now keeps cattle out of the woods.

Part of the British front line held by Edward Brittain’s company in June 1918, known as Alhambra Trench, in 2015 military barbed wire now keeps cattle out of the woods.

Alhambra Trench with wartime barbed wire. The positions were blasted and drilled from the rock.

Alhambra Trench with wartime barbed wire. The positions were blasted and drilled from the rock.

In front were picquets of about ten men from each company with four machine guns.  At 3am the Austrians began a bombardment of the British positions which lasted for four hours and included gas shells on the front lines. The volume of gas was so great that it rolled down the rear slope of San Sisto Ridge into the valley behind.  At 6.45am the picquets saw troops led by small groups of stormtroops with flame throwers emerging through gaps in the Austrian wire.

The direction from which the Austrian attack came. The rocky outcrop to the right was the location of two British machine guns; the ten-man picquet from Brittain's A Company was just beyond. The town of Asiago is in the valley behind.

The direction from which the Austrian attack came. The rocky outcrop to the right was the location of two British machine guns; the ten-man picquet from Brittain’s A Company was just beyond. The town of Asiago is in the valley behind.

At the time of the attack, Brittain was liaising with French troops immediately to the right. His Company had about 50 men after the bombardment, to hold about 800m of front line and he was probably the only unwounded officer in the company.  One of the machine guns in front of Brittain’s company was destroyed but the picquet opened fire as did the remaining machine gun which fired 1,000 rounds and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers.  However the attackers managed to outflank the picquet and machine gun forcing them to withdraw, which in turn caused the left hand machine guns to pull back. The Austrian attackers began to crawl towards the British wire and found a route through at the junction of the two companies of the Sherwoods. Entering the British trenches, the Stormtroopers were followed by trench clearing parties which worked left and right with grenades and flamethrowers, capturing 200m of the front line.

The deployment of British at the start of the battle. The 11th Sherwoods were holding the front line with D Company on the left and Brittain's A Company on the right; C Company was on the ridge summit behind. Machine guns R1 and R2 were deployed in front of the British wire, as was a picquet of ten men.  The Austrian break-in is shown by the red arrow and the area in which Edward Brittain lost his life is shown by the cross. (23rd Division GS War Diary National Archives WO95/4229)

The deployment of British at the start of the battle. The 11th Sherwoods were holding the front line with D Company on the left and Brittain’s A Company on the right; C Company was on the ridge summit behind. Machine guns R1 and R2 were deployed in front of the British wire, as was a picquet of ten men. The Austrian break-in is shown by the red arrow and the area in which Edward Brittain lost his life is shown by the cross. (23rd Division GS War Diary National Archives WO95/4229)

Soon between 100 and 200 attackers were in the British trench, as the Sherwoods attempted to block the trench at either end of the break-in. Brittain immediately led a counterattack, forcing some of the Austrians back through the wire, and reorganised the defence. It was as he looked out for signs of the Austrians that he was killed, reportedly shot through the head by a sniper.

The area  of Alhambra Trench retaken by Brittain's counterattack and where he was killed shortly afterwards.

The area of Alhambra Trench retaken by Brittain’s counterattack where he was killed shortly afterwards.

Brittain’s Company was now officerless and the Austrians had at least ten machine guns inside the British wire. They resumed pouring through the gap into the British front line and about thirty pushed up a communication trench to the summit of the ridge into an undefended length of trench.

Communication trench where the Austrians broke in and pushed up to the summit of San Sisto Ridge.

Communication trench where the Austrians broke in and pushed up to the summit of San Sisto Ridge.

A dugout near the summit of San Sisto ridge.

A dugout near the summit of San Sisto Ridge.

A counterattack organised by the commanding officer of the 11th Sherwood Foresters, a 26-year-old Lieutenant Colonel, Charles Hudson, forced the Austrians back and retook the ridge but soon afterwards Hudson was seriously wounded by a grenade. A second British counterattack consolidated the hold on the front line.

Ration tins on San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

Ration tins on San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

The top of a British petrol tin, used for transporting water to the front line, San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

The top of a British petrol tin, used for transporting water to the front line, San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

The War Office telegram sent to Edward's father on 22nd June 1918. (National Archives WO339/27827)

The War Office telegram sent to Edward’s father on 22nd June 1918. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Notification of the location of Edward's Grave sent to his father. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Notification of the location of Edward’s Grave sent to his father. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Vera Brittain visited Hudson in 1918 and in Testament of Youth describes how he told her that her brother was “sniped” by an Austrian officer and shot through the head, just after the counterattack which he had led.  She also quotes from a letter received from a Private in her brother’s company: ‘Shortly after the trench was regained Capt. Brittain who was keeping a sharp look out for the enemy was shot through the Head by an enemy sniper, he only lived a few minutes.’

Granezza British Cemetery.

Granezza British Cemetery.

Edward's grave at the end of the row buried with men from his Company.  In September 1921 Vera visited the cemetery and planted rosebuds and a small asparagus fern beside her brother's grave.

Edward’s grave at the end of the row buried with men from his Company. In September 1921 Vera visited the cemetery and planted rosebuds and a small asparagus fern beside her brother’s grave.

After the publication of Testament of Youth Hudson wrote to Vera stating that shortly before the attack a letter from her brother had been opened by the censor and found to contain references to homosexual activity with men under his command. Hudson said that he warned Brittain obliquely that his letters were read the day before and believed that as a result Brittain had deliberately sacrificed himself during the attack. Edward Brittain’s army service record contains no reference to this.  Edward’s death is thought to have contributed to their father’s suicide in the Thames in 1935.


The account of the action on San Sisto Ridge is based on Francis MacKay, Asiago (2001) with reference to War Diaries of 11th Battalion Sherwood  Foresters (WO95/4240) and General Staff 23rd Division (WO95/4229), and Percy Fryer, The Men from the Greenwood (1920).  Reference to the revelations by Charles Hudson is made by Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain and the First World War (2014).


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Understanding chemical warfare in the First World War

In August 1918, while waiting to advance east of Amiens, Sergeant Sawyer Spence lay in a shell hole contaminated with mustard gas. Feeling no ill effects he only reluctantly agreed to be evacuated; only after 24 hours did medics realise that his uniform had been saturated by the oily liquid. By the time he reached a hospital twelve days later, in the converted pavilion of Nottingham’s Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, the whole of one side of his back and legs was septic and discharging pus, the result of massive blistering. He was the worst mustard gas case that the hospital had ever seen.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Sawyer Spence was one of an estimated half a million chemical warfare victims of the First World War. The first were on 22nd April 1915 when the Germans released 150 tonnes of chlorine gas from their front line trenches north of Ypres in Belgium and allowed it to drift towards the French positions. It inspired some of the most powerful works of art and literature to come out of the First World War yet, since its shocking debut, our understanding of chemical warfare remains surrounded by a miasma of fear, emotion and propaganda.

Chemical weapons were outlawed at arms control conferences at the Hague in 1899 and 1907; despite being signatories, Germany, France and Britain all carried out research before the outbreak of war. When trench warfare atrophied into a vast linear siege, chemicals were high on the list of solutions to break the deadlock; substances that would not cause permanent injury, such as tear gas, were favourites. Germany was first, adding an irritant to shrapnel shells, and thus technically not breaking the Hague Agreement, but the British-Indian troops they were used against in October 1914 failed even to notice. In a second attempt, Germany fired tear gas in shells against the Russians near Bolimow in Poland in January 1915, was equally ineffective when in the cold the liquid failed to vaporise. France followed by issuing instructions in February 1915 for the use of an anti-riot tear gas cartridge at the front, again without particular success. Britain adopted a tear gas, ethyl iodoacetate, in January 1915 after it was identified by Jocelyn Thorpe, professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College, University of London, which was codenamed ‘SK’ after the South Kensington location. Thorpe claimed that the War Office was only convinced of SK’s effectiveness after a small boy was given a shilling to stand in a trench into which it had been released; in April 1915 the British government was still pondering its legality.

Fritz Haber, in the uniform of the 35th Pioneer Regiment.

Fritz Haber, in the uniform of the 35th Pioneer Regiment.

Germany took the lead in chemical weapons thanks to her developed chemical industry and universities, but also because of the remarkable genius of Fritz Haber. The son of a dyestuff manufacturer, six years before the outbreak of war Haber made perhaps the single greatest chemical discovery of the twentieth century, for which he was to receive the Nobel prize for chemistry: the means of converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. Fertiliser made using the Haber-Bosch process has produced food to increase the world’s population by an estimated one billion people; it has also facilitated the bulk production of explosives. Haber was the first Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and in 1914 threw his immense energy and talent into his nation’s war effort. Vigorous and persuasive, he was responsible more than any other individual for the development of chemical weapons during the First World War. After the failure of the earlier attempts, Haber made a simple and direct proposal: readily available chlorine gas should be released from cylinders to be carried by a breeze over the enemy positions. If it was successful, the Germans believed that the Allies could not respond owing to their limited capacity for chemical production. Despite moral and military objections by two senior German commanders, the chief of the general staff, von Falkenhayn, decided that it should be tried at Ypres. A simple idea, in practice it was anything but. Carrying the heavy cylinders of chlorine into the trenches and concealing them was dangerous and difficult; when some were hit by shell fire the gas killed three of their own men and injured 50. The prevailing westerly wind placed the Germans at a disadvantage; it refused to blow in the right direction, or changed just as the attack was about to be launched. After a fruitless two week wait, the Germans had to reinstall 6,000 cylinders from the south of Ypres to the north but again twice more postponed when the wind was wrong.

German troops carry poison gas cylinders to be installed in trenches.  © Simon Jones

German troops carry poison gas cylinders to be installed in trenches. © Simon Jones

Finally, the order was given to release when it was ‘half-way favourable’; the troops assembled packed in the trenches throughout the 22nd April until, late in the afternoon, a southerly wind arose and orders were hurriedly issued to attack. The gas hissed from hundreds of pipes placed over the trench parapets and greenish-yellow clouds drifted across no man’s land towards the French positions; in most places, the gas quickly engulfed the trenches and the field guns close behind them. Reservist and North African troops had no means of protection; a powerful odour of bleach and fumes which stung the eyes were quickly followed by choking as they inhaled the gas. Most fled for their lives but the unlucky ones fell to the ground where the gas pooled. As the gas entered their lungs the mucous membranes produced fluid to flush away the irritation, oxygen transference was severely hindered and the victims began to drowned.

A French victim of the first chlorine gas attack. © Simon Jones

A French victim of the first chlorine gas attack. © Simon Jones

It should not have been a surprise to the Allies. At least two German soldiers deserted to the French before the gas attack, revealing detailed information and even producing rudimentary gas masks. Chemical weapons had achieved such negligible results that it was assumed the effects would be equally insignificant but it is cited as one of the great intelligence failures of history; when the name of one of the deserters was published in 1933, he was imprisoned by the Nazis and ultimately sent to Dachau concentration camp.

The Germans, moving cautiously for risk of succumbing to their own gas, gained two and a half miles by nightfall. It was the largest advance since the onset of trench warfare; but lack of troops and resistance on the flanks by Canadians and Belgians prevented them from exploiting the attack. In the captured French positions the Germans took thousands of prisoners, and found gas victims lying on their backs with fists clenched; but their own reports state that they found few dead. A doctor was told by a German officer, himself injured by chlorine, that he saw few French dead and most ‘had run away like a flock of sheep’. The number killed by the first attack, impossible to calculate, may still be somewhere between 800 and 1,400; a figure of 5,000 dead, grossly exaggerated by the Allies for propaganda purposes, is still reported as fact.

The response of the Allies was a mixture of real and artificial outrage; there was genuine anger that a barbarous and unchivalrous method should be used against their troops, and breaking the spirit if not the letter of the Hague Agreement. Chemical weapons nullified the romantic chivalric contest of equals that war was supposed to be but never has been. In this confused notion, to have an agreement and then break it almost seemed worse than if there had been no agreement at all. Paradoxically, an unrealistic notion of the degree to which warfare could be governed by humanitarian considerations may even have made matters worse by bringing about a swifter abandonment of restraint once the system collapsed. The Hague Agreement failed to prevent the use of chemical weapons because it did not anticipate what the war was becoming: a war of nationalism and ideologies, a war of hatred, a war to the death. There was also much inflated indignation to influence neutral American opinion; in this respect the chlorine attack was a propaganda gift to the Allies, as was the sinking of the liner Lusitania just 16 days later.

Many would subsequently express a more detached view on the relative distinction between chemical and so-called conventional weapons. The wartime officer, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, later principal of Hertford College, concluded that ‘there is little to choose in horror and pain between the injuries inflicted by modern war. The extent to which the human body can be mangled by the splinters of a bomb or shell, without being deprived of consciousness, must be seen to be believed.’ J. B. S. Haldane, future Professor of Genetics at University College London, went further: injured by chlorine developing the first protective masks and shortly afterwards wounded in action, he maintained that the pain and discomfort from gas were ‘utterly negligible compared to those produced by a good septic shell wound’. A weapon which temporarily incapacitated such as tear gas, Haldane said, was ‘the most humane weapon ever invented’. Yet such views ignore the fact that there was nothing irrational about the terror felt by soldiers at being gassed; even the Army pathologist who specialised in gas cases felt that there was something particularly terrible about dying of suffocation from gassing. Coupled uneasily with outrage was the belief that the Allies must adopt such an apparently effective method without hesitation and not be hindered by misguided notions of honour if the enemy was not abiding by them. Five days after the first chlorine attack the British cabinet gave its consent for the Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, to fall ‘to the level of the degraded Germans’ and instructed him to ‘use anything he could get invented’. 

The method used at Ypres turned out to be of limited military value. Nine subsequent German chlorine attacks during the month-long Second Battle of Ypres were thwarted by the desperate resistance of British soldiers protected by rudimentary mouth pads soaked with neutralising solutions, including urine, which limited German gains to a few short lengths of front line trench. The Germans themselves suffered heavy casualties when the wind changed, which worsened when they tried it on the Eastern Front, and on one occasion 1,450 of their own men were gassed with 138 killed. But the chlorine attacks had a profound impact on the British, seemingly unaware of the difficulty of coordinating the massed troops to exploit the gas with a favourable wind to blow it onto the enemy. Britain’s first attack with chlorine gas was to be made in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British 1st Army, was a sceptic about the value of gas. However, ordered by the government to carry out an attack around Loos over terrain which was utterly unsuitable and for which he had insufficient guns and shells, his view was altered by a demonstration of chlorine gas at Runcorn when it appeared to move so effectively to the Manchester ship canal that bargees had shouted abuse. The gas seemed the means to carry out this unwanted attack and even achieve a rapid advance like that of the Germans at Ypres. Confounding the German belief that the Allies lacked the capacity to do so, Britain managed to stage a chlorine gas attack on 25 September 1915, five months after the German attack; the Battle of Loos however was a failure. On the morning of the attack, Haig took the decision to release the gas on the advice of a meteorologist and the drift of the smoke from the cigarette of his ADC but when the wind appeared to change it was impossible to countermand the order. The British troops encountered exactly the same problems as the Germans but on a larger scale: the wind was wrong and panic that the gas induced in the attackers is recorded by Robert Graves in Good-Bye to All That. The Germans, in strong defensive positions, all had gas masks and the machine gunners had breathing apparatus. Over two and a half thousand British soldiers were hospitalised as gas cases, although two-thirds were more terrified than badly injured. Seven British soldiers, and no Germans, were reported killed by the gas. As a result, the British almost never again used gas directly to assist an attack. Instead British chemical weapons were used to kill, injure and demoralise enemy troops in sectors away from main attacks; in other words for attrition not break-through.

Personnel practicing for the first British gas attack.

Personnel practicing for the first British gas attack.

The escalation of chemical warfare was limited solely by the restraints of research, development and production rather than any questions of morality. The first attacks had shown that chlorine was not poisonous enough and too easily protected against; the Germans led in the introduction of new chemicals owing to their ability to produce chemicals in bulk. Both sides raced to deploy new and more poisonous chemicals and to issue masks to their own troops to protect against a range of potential substances. Phosgene, about one hundred times more toxic than chlorine, was the most prominent threat and a German phosgene attack against the British in December 1915 was thwarted by the rapid issue of an improved gas helmet. The Germans were soon able to penetrate these impregnated cloth helmets with higher concentrations and the British were forced to replace them with a complex but effective mask in which a box filter was connected by rubber hose to a face piece. These ‘Small Box Respirators’ began to be issued in autumn 1916 and within five months every man at the front possessed one. The unsung scientist responsible for coordinating this triumph of design and production, Edward Harrison, weakened by overwork and gas inhalation, died of influenza one week before the war’s end.

Edward Harrison, who gave his life in the development of protection from poison gas.

Edward Harrison, who gave his life in the development of protection from poison gas.

In 1916 the gas shell became the favoured means of overcoming the problem of the wind but a very large number of shells had to be fired to build up a concentration sufficient to penetrate a gas mask, especially after the British introduced Harrison’s Small Box Respirator. The tactic shifted to forcing men to wear their masks for long periods and thereby impede their ability to fight and chemical weapons became particularly important as a counter-battery weapon to silence the opponents’ guns. The aim was also to catch soldiers by surprise before they could adjust their masks and gas shells contained a charge just large enough to break open the shell with a distinctive dull plop. Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ describes his recurring nightmares of a man dying of gas poisoning after soldiers are surprised by phosgene shells which drop softly behind them. Troops easily recognised the sound and in 1918 the Germans increased the size of the charge, rendering them harder to distinguish from high explosive shells. The one major British innovation in chemical weapons, highly effective but also technologically the most crude, was a means of projecting a dense cloud of gas instantaneously onto enemy positions. Inspired by the desire of William Livens to avenge his wife whom he thought had perished on the liner Lusitania (it turned out she hadn’t sailed), each Livens Projector hurled a drum containing 11 litres of liquefied gas, when up to 800 were fired simultaneously, it either gassed the German soldiers before they could get their masks on or penetrated the filters owing to the high density. It was so effective that after its first use Livens boasted that he could kill Germans at 16 shillings per head. The Germans copied the Livens projector and, on the Italian front at Caporetto in October 1917, used it to drench low-lying Italian positions with phosgene; they followed it up with an advance far more substantial and dramatic than that at Ypres in 1915, and the resulting panic formed the central sequence of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The first German lethal gas shell, containing 0.285 litres of diphosgene.

The first German lethal gas shell, containing 0.285 litres of diphosgene.

The quest to find toxic chemicals which did not disperse as quickly as a gas led the Germans to a liquid, dichlorodiethyl sulphide, commonly called ‘mustard gas‘ by the British owing to its odour of mustard or horseradish. The most effective chemical agent of the First World War, it would inflict on soldiers a new dimension of horror and suffering. Ironically, after testing on cats in 1916, the British rejected mustard on the grounds that it was not sufficiently lethal. German trials on monkeys demonstrated that it caused eye and respiratory injury but again there were doubts about its lack of toxicity. It was noted that the liquid took much longer to disperse than gas; a detonating shell spread droplets which slowly evaporated in daylight, prolonging its harmful effects. This quality prompted Haber to propose its use to the German High Command when he learnt of the requirement for a chemical weapon to forestall Allied attacks expected in the summer of 1917. However, Haber is said to have warned that it should only be used if Germany was certain of winning the war within a year; once the Allies had the ability to bulk produce their own, Germany would not be able to produce sufficient replacement uniforms needed for decontamination. On the night of 12 July 1917, the Germans fired 50,000 shells containing 125 tonnes of mustard into the ruins of Ypres; it was the first of a series of intense bombardments to target British attack preparations. Within 24 hours, over 2,000 British soldiers had been admitted to Casualty Clearing Stations, many suffering intensely painful inflammation of the eyes which effectively blinded them, they were led in files, each holding on to the man in front. After several hours many developed severe throat and lung irritation which in some turned into fatal broncho-pneumonia. A third prominent symptom, not anticipated by the Germans, was large skin blisters, especially on the buttocks, genitals and armpits. Mustard caused injury by skin contact, especially the sweaty parts of the body, either with the vapour as it evaporated in daylight or sitting where the liquid had been splashed by the bursting shell. The predictions that it would have a low mortality rate were correct: of the 2,143 cases admitted to Casualty Clearing Stations after the first bombardment, 95 died, a comparatively small number; put crudely it had taken 500 mustard gas shells to cause each death. But the Germans reported that the British guns were all but silent for two days afterwards. The effectiveness of mustard did not lie in the death rate, rather the large numbers injured, many of whom, by the standards of the time, recovered after several months in hospital. Many, however, such as those nursed by Vera Brittain on the French coast, suffered serious infection and pneumonia, ‘burnt and blistered all over with great mustard coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes… and always fighting for breath, their voices a mere whisper…’ A German mustard gas bombardment of the still partially inhabited town of Armentières later the same month, an operation called ‘Totentanz’ (‘Dance of Death’), caused 675 civilian casualties of which 86 died; a high proportion, many elderly, were unable or unwilling to leave the contaminated area. Yet, paradoxically, for some soldiers injury by mustard gas actually saved their lives by taking them out of the fighting for an extended period; in September 1917, a Canadian Chemical Advisor claimed that soldiers were deliberately exposing their eyes to mustard gas in order to escape the front line.

German troops demonstrate their gas mask at a gas alarm post. © Simon Jones

German troops at a gas alarm post. © Simon Jones

The International Red Cross appealed for an end to gas warfare in February 1918 but neither side was willing. The Allies were beginning to rival the Germans in production capacity and also did not trust the Germans to abide by such an agreement. The German use of chemical weapons during their offensives in the spring and summer of 1918 was lavish, comprising 50% of all shells fired, and sophisticated. Shells were colour coded according to their effect: non-persistent lung irritant gas phosgene shells were designated Green Cross and fired in combination with ‘Blue Cross’ shells designed to penetrate respirator filters and cause sneezing, forcing the soldier to remove his mask. Mustard gas, ‘Yellow Cross,’ was fired into the rear and flanks to block reinforcements from reaching the attack zone and to silence the artillery; as many as 80% of the shells fired into these areas were mustard. British mustard decontamination could not cope and at one point in 1918 the British had about 30,000 men in hospital suffering from the effects. In August 1918, the sight of lines of men blinded by mustard gas inspired society painter John Singer Sargent to produce his monumental canvas ‘Gassed‘ which remains for many the most powerful artistic representation of the First World War. Pushed back by Allied offensives, mustard was initially the ideal defensive weapon for the Germans and the British suffered up to 4,000 mustard casualties per week during September and October. But the effectiveness of German chemical weapons declined as their forces became disorganised and Allied troops learnt to avoid the worst effects of mustard. As Haber had warned, the Allies managed to produce their own mustard within a year of the German use; American production in particular threatened to overwhelm the German ability to decontaminate. By November 1918 the Americans could produce 1,600 tonnes of chemical warfare agent each month, enough for 2.7 million shells. If Germany hadn’t requested an Armistice she would have been overwhelmed by Allied chemical weapons in 1919.

German respirators for man and horses.

German respirators for man and horses.

Was Germany ultimately defeated by chemical weapons? She was already beaten militarily in the field and starved at home by the blockade: chemical weapons did not have a decisive impact on the outcome. Deaths during the war from chemical weapons are estimated at about 18,000, or less than 0.2 per cent of battlefield deaths. Even allowing for the effectiveness of mustard in causing injury rather than death, this was a negligible contribution. Herein lies the reason why gas was not used on the battlefield during the Second World War: chemical warfare wasn’t as effective as other methods of warfare developed and refined during the First World War. With the end of the war, efforts were made to limit the use of chemical weapons. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forbidden chemical weapons, along with tanks, aircraft and submarines, and in 1925 the Geneva Protocol aimed at a global prohibition of chemical and bacteriological weapons. Between the wars the use of such weapons from the air on towns and cities dominated public anxieties and in the late 1930s most European nations embarked on the mass supply of gas masks to their civilian populations. Whilst the masks were not particularly good, informed opinion was aware that the concentration achievable with aircraft payloads would be low and thankfully the threat never materialised; however, since 1919 chemical weapons have been used almost exclusively against unprotected victims, usually non-combatants, and favoured by rogue states and terrorists. During the lead up to both Gulf wars the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ encouraged an entirely false equivalence with nuclear weapons; ‘weapons of mass terror’ has been suggested as a more appropriate term.

In the hospital at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, antiseptic dressings had little effect on Sawyer Spence’s septic mustard gas blisters and caused him such pain that they were abandoned; instead a treatment was begun with a new paraffin medication developed by Boots the Chemist. By early November 1918 he was at home recovering; he died, age 81, in 1973.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Fritz Haber, who used science to create life and to end it, is surrounded by myths. His wife, Clara, herself a doctor of chemistry, was opposed to his chemical warfare work but it remains unknown whether this was the reason, as has been claimed, for her suicide shortly after the first chlorine attack. The oft-quoted description of chemical warfare as ‘a higher form of killing’ attributed to him is almost certainly apocryphal. It is clear however that when the Nazis took power Haber, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, was unable to retain his post as head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry. His friend Albert Einstein had concluded many years before that his own future did not lie with identifying himself with the German state. Haber realised this too late; leaving Germany in 1934 he died soon afterwards. A method of pest control using hydrogen cyanide gas invented in 1918 under Haber’s direction and marketed as ‘Zyklon B’ was used by the Nazis to kill over a million people.

Dr Clara Haber (née Immerwahr) committed suicide on 2 May 1915 while her husband was home on leave after the first gas attack.

Dr Clara Haber (née Immerwahr) committed suicide on 2 May 1915 while her husband was home on leave after the first gas attack.

See below for bibliography including online sources.

Text © Simon Jones


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My article: The First World War scientists who gave their lives to defeat poison gas


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The Lochnagar Mine: how and why it was blown and who were the men who dug it


Q 11718

Understanding the 1914 Christmas Truce


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Virtual Tour of Trenches and Tunnels excavated at La Boisselle

Pan360

Click on the above image to access high-quality interactive panoramas created by PAN360 show the archaeological excavation of the battlefield at La Boisselle on the Somme in 2012.  Then click on the circles on the map.  The trenches and tunnels date from 1914-1916 when there was fierce fighting over the sector which was called by the British the ‘Glory Hole’. A three-year excavation phase has ended and reports are being completed for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles Picardie. More information about the project is on the La Boisselle Study Group website.


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For a limited period I am offering my book Underground Warfare 1914-1918 for £10 UK (including 2nd Class postage) or £14 Europe or £16 Rest of the World (including international standard postage). Contact me for payment details (PayPal preferred).


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The Men Who Dug The Lochnagar Mine


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Shirebrook Miners in the Tunnelling Companies


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Where did Vera Brittain serve in France during the First World War?

Vera Brittain when a VAD nurse.

Vera Brittain when a VAD nurse. (Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 &The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library)

From early August 1917 until the end of April 1918 Vera Brittain served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at No 24 General Hospital, Étaples. She wrote about this experience in her acclaimed and powerful memoir Testament of Youth in the chapter entitled ‘Between the Sandhills and the Sea’.  Étaples is a fishing port fifteen miles from Boulogne, and just to the north the British established a large infantry training camp and a complex of nine major hospitals, almost entirely comprised of huts and tents.

A plan of the Étaples Base Bamp and hospital complex with No 24 General Hospital marked.

A plan of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex with No 24 General Hospital marked. (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa/document/9127/4558)

The area of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex today. The area occupied by No 24 General Hospital is now covered by housing.

The area of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex today. The area occupied by No 24 General Hospital is now covered by housing.

She was first assigned to the ward for acute German cases and then treated mustard gas cases suffering severe skin blistering and temporary or sometimes permanent blindness.

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

No 24 General Hospital was not in the ‘front line’, as the fighting was never less than fifty miles from Étaples, nor was it a Casualty Clearing Station but it was bombed several times in 1918. The hospitals were hit by bombs because they were built alongside the Boulogne to Paris railway and were adjacent to the major complex of training camps, both of which were targeted. Vera experienced over a month of night-time air raids which left her exhausted and ‘more frightened than I had ever been in my life’. She left Étaples before the worst bombing raids of May, June and August 1918 when patients and nurses were killed in No 24 General and neighbouring hospitals.

A First Aid Nursing Yeomanry driver with an unexploded German aerial bomb at a British hospital in Calais, 1918.

A First Aid Nursing Yeomanry driver with an unexploded German aerial bomb at a British hospital in Calais, 1917.


Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

Battlefield tour The Ypres Salient War Poets: A Bitter Truth, 30th September – 3rd October 2020


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Where and how did Edward Brittain die?


Protection against Mustard Gas


The advent of Mustard Gas


‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of the ‘Menin Gate’ poem revealled


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Understanding the 1914 Christmas Truce

Q 11718

They say they are not going to fire again if we don’t but of course we must and shall do, but it doesn’t seem right to be killing each other at Xmas time. [1]

At Christmas 1914, hundreds of soldiers stopped fighting one another, left their trenches and shook hands in no man’s land. For several days, even weeks, they fired barely a shot, help bury one another’s dead, and even played football together. The 1914 Christmas Truce is felt to typify the attitudes of the men in the trenches who, in contrast to those behind the lines, did not hate their enemies and did not want to fight them. Why is this utterly atypical event believed to give a truer picture of the attitude of the soldiers in the trenches than the four years spent in remorseless, brutal conflict?  It is not difficult to understand the appeal of the truce: in the midst of inhumanity at Christmas time soldiers, inspired by the Christian story, spontaneously stopped fighting and shook hands with their enemies.

Like much about the First World War, the 1914 truce is an event which in the view of many historians has been popularly misrepresented. In particular, many of the recent media stories about the truce have shown an inability properly to interpret historical sources, which are admittedly often partial or contradictory. In the trenches the individual soldier’s view of events was so restricted that, in places where fraternisation did not take place, soldiers refused to believed that it could have occurred.  But as many as a hundred eyewitness accounts prove beyond doubt that many truces occurred, not only in British sectors but also between French and German troops.

Who was in the trenches at Christmas 1914?

Soldiers always have arranged truces when it suited them, and employed conventions to enable this. In addition, where opposing forces have been in close proximity for a period of time, such as during a siege, unauthorised fraternisation might also take place. By Christmas 1914 the lines of trenches were continuous along the Western Front in conditions that resembled a vast, linear, siege operation. After the German advance through Belgium in August 1914 was halted at the Marne, the Germans attempted to outflank the French and British forces by retreating north, leaving in their wake lines of entrenchments which, by October, reached to the North Sea. The Germans tried to break through at Ypres and failed, with tremendous slaughter, in the bitter fighting of the month-long First Battle of Ypres, 24 October to 22 November,  both sides around 100,000 casualties (54,000 British, 50-80,000 French and 80-130,000 German).  Immediately before Christmas, smaller scale attacks on 18-20 December left many bodies still lying in no man’s land.

Fraternisation was to take place in two-thirds of the 20 miles of front held by the British, from St Eloi just south of Ypres, to La Bassée. Losses had been such that there was just a comparative handful of survivors left from the fighting of August 1914. Their places had been taken by more Reservists, new recruits and Territorials. Likewise on the German side were Reservists and young soldiers. The British noticed that Saxon and Bavarian troops were more easy going that Prussians: many of the troops opposite the British where fraternisation occurred were Saxon and Bavarian.

The commander of II Corps (holding the northernmost five miles), General Smith-Dorrien, anticipated that the static nature of trench warfare and the closeness of the lines in many places might lead the troops to fraternise and on 5 December issued orders to prohibit it:

Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. “we won’t fire if you don’t” etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited. [2]

Christmas Eve: Carols and First Contact

But on Christmas Eve, Smith-Dorrien’s orders were to be ignored or forgotten by many. As firing by sniping and artillery fire died down, fraternisation developed by degrees.  As a gesture towards their own troops the Germans sent hundreds of small Christmas trees to their men at front, and on Christmas Eve soldiers placed them on their trench parapets, in full view of their enemies, with lit candles. It seemed wrong to fire on Christmas trees. Both sides also organised singing in their trenches. Leutnant Johannes Niemann of the 133rd Saxon Regiment was ordered into the trenches on Christmas Eve, and placed a Christmas tree in his dugout and another on the parapet. Then he and his men began to sing Silent Night and O du Fröhliche. On the other side of no man’s land, a Seaforth Highlander described how they sang carols and then listened ‘spellbound’ as the sound of German harmonies floated across the turnip field which comprised no man’s land. [3] At one place, however, the Germans brought a band up to the trenches, it was shelled by British artillery.  But mutual carol singing led to calls to meet half way.

A Memory of Christmas 1914

Bruce Bairnsfather illustrated his detailed account of the truce with this cartoon in his 1916 memoirs ‘Bullets and Billets’ and captioned it: ‘A memory of Christmas, 1914: “Look at this bloke’s buttons, ‘Arry. I should reckon ‘e ‘as a maid to dress ‘im” ‘

A Lieutenant with the 1st Royal Warwickshires, Bruce Bairnsfather (soon famous as a cartoonist), described how in the evening impromptu concerts led to an invitation from the Germans to ‘Come over here!’ at which a Sergeant disappeared into the darkness, out of which they could catch snatches of spasmodic conversation. [4] The 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders witnessed candles being lit on the on the parapets followed by the singing of Stille Nacht and other carols, and the invitation issued in English by an ex-waiter who had worked in Glasgow. After some light-hearted banter it was agreed that two from each side should go out but no one else was allowed out of the trenches. One was a young Argylls Second Lieutenant who met a German officer, ‘our conversation was no different from that of meeting a friendly opponent at a football match’ and the officer gave him a photograph of his pre-war regimental football team. He gave him a tin of bully beef in return and after ten minutes they bid each other a friendly goodbye. [5] Not all responded to overtures but many made arrangements to meet on Christmas Day. The Queen’s Westminster Rifles were suspicious at first but, after the Germans lit fires and songs were exchanged, some men ventured out. The established convention for a soldier under cover of a white flag of truce was for him to be brought into the lines blindfolded, in order that he would not to learn anything of military use so that he might returned to his own lines. This precaution was forgotten in the case of a German who approached the Westminsters on Christmas Eve and he had to be made a prisoner, about which he was ‘awfully upset’.  The next morning however three of the Westminsters were also missing and it was discovered from the Germans that they had wandered drunkenly into the German trenches and had also been captured. [6]

Not everyone in the trenches wished to meet the enemy. An officer of the Rifle Brigade was disgusted to find the German trenches ‘looking like the Thames on Henley Regatta night’. He was in no mind to allow them to enjoy themselves, one of his men having been killed that afternoon, but his Captain, who had seen less of the fighting, wouldn’t let him fire. However, as soon as a shot came from the Germans he lined his men up and had their trees shot away.  Two officers on the right, however, got out of the trenches and met two Germans halfway across no man’s land, ‘an awfully stupid thing to do’ by those who hadn’t yet ‘seen the Germans in their true light’. [7] But many joined gladly. Two officers of 1st North Staffordshires who walked across to meet the German commander were asked by him for permission to bury his dead in no man’s land; they agreed on condition that the only men who would be in no man’s land were there for this purpose. [8] The burial of the dead was for many the real justification for the truce.

Christmas Day: Peace Breaks Out

On Christmas morning early fog dispersed to reveal a clear blue sky, in only a few places remaining thick until midday.  Bruce Bairnsfather recalled that it was ‘just the sort of day for peace to be declared’. [9] In places the Germans put up boards on the trenches reading ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘You no fight, we no fight’. Officers told their men not to shoot unless it was absolutely necessary and once one side ceased fire, the other followed. The quiet was described by an officer as unfamiliar:

The silence seemed extraordinary after the usual din. From all sides birds seem to arrive, and we hardly ever see a bird generally. [10]

Where the fog suddenly cleared, men of both sides could be seen running about in the open trying to keep warm, behaviour which at any other time would have been suicidal.  They waved to one another, and soon were meeting. British accounts tend to give the Germans credit for initiating contact, whereas many German accounts say that the British came out first. Soldiers variously describe the experience as ‘wonderful’, ‘the greatest thing took place here’, the ‘most extraordinary celebration of [Christmas] that any of us will ever experience’, ‘one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen,’ ‘While you were eating your turkey etc., I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before!! It was astounding!’ For Bairnsfather ‘there was not an atom of hate on either side that day’.

Simple pragmatism was the most powerful impetus to stop firing at one another. The officer of the Rifle Brigade who shot down the Christmas trees the night before now found himself arranging burials with the enemy in no man’s land and justified it on the grounds that they were not the militaristic Prussians but the more sympathetic Saxons. Together they buried the bodies of nine German soldiers in no man’s land.  ‘We gave them some wooden crosses for them, which completely won them over, and soon the men were on the best of terms and laughing.’ [11] Burial of the dead was the main activity in many areas where truces occurred. It was unpleasant but important to them.  In the largest joint burial, 100 were interred and an officer of the 6th Gordons described ‘a most wonderful burial service’ in which the Germans formed up on one side of the grave and the British on the other, while the 23rd Psalm and prayers were read first in English and then in German. [12] But although the burial and ceremony were conducted jointly, there was still suspicion: afterwards one private showed another a dagger he had kept concealed, adding ‘I don’t trust these bastards’. [13] Burial was perhaps the most poignant of the shared activities, but at least one officer (himself part-German) said that the experience of seeing the dead of their own side left them with a stronger hatred of the Germans than before.

Officers from both sides tried to get a good look at their opponents positions to gather intelligence, noting in particular the locations of machine guns and snipers, and were on the lookout for the enemy trying the same thing. As more men went into no man’s land it was difficult to keep them from crossing a halfway line.  When Henry Williamson (a nineteen year old private in the London Rifle Brigade) was turned back from the German lines his officer told him not to do it again. Some who got too close to their opponents’ trenches were taken prisoner, as had occurred with the Westminsters.  Both sides did manage to gain sight or even access to their opponents’ trenches and return safely. A British officer described how he had a cigar with a sniper who claimed to be ‘the best shot in the German Army, who said he had killed more of us than any dozen others’ but the officer had located his firing position  was and intended to get him the next day.

British soldiers of the London Rifle Brigade meeting German troops of the 104th or 106th Saxon Infantry Regiments, in no man's land, Christmas Day 1914.

British soldiers of the London Rifle Brigade meeting German troops of the 104th or 106th Saxon Infantry Regiments, in no man’s land, Christmas Day 1914. (IWM Q 11718)

Another major value of the truces was the opportunity to improve trenches and dugouts without having to worry about exposing themselves to sniper fire during daylight.  The chance to improve the appalling winter conditions was welcomed where in the rudimentary trenches the high water table of Flanders meant that digging more than a few feet met water.  Sometimes tools were even shared as both sides made the most of the chance for improvement works and in some places the cease fire proved so advantageous that it continued into the New Year.

Even where there were not dead to be buried, very quickly in many places, no man’s land was swarming with men ‘shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas’. They swapped badges and buttons, Germans gave them cigars, the British gave foodstuffs, bully beef or jam, in return.  Hair cuts were provided; at lunchtime many soldiers returned to their lines for dinners but the 6th Cheshires killed a pig and cooked it in no man’s land. The 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers were given a barrel of beer by the Germans for which they offered a plum pudding in return.  The beer was from a French brewery just behind the German trenches and the British thought it so poor that they shelled it a few days later.


Battlefield Tour: The Ypres Salient War Poets 1st – 4th October 2020

One reason for fraternisation was simple curiosity, they just wanted to look at the men that they had been fighting. Many British were surprised to find that some at least of the Germans were ‘very nice fellows.’ Many of the Germans had worked in the Britain before the war, especially as waiters. The soldiers good-naturedly discussed their respective causes and whilst they may have both expressed a desire to stop fighting and to go home, they remained implacable enemies. Conversation with Germans revealed them subject to propaganda, some believed that London was already occupied by them, others were ‘fed up’ with the war and, the British reported, were realising that they had been ‘bluffed’. One told a Corporal in the 6th Gordons that ‘the war is finished here. We don’t want to shoot.’  An officer of the 1st Royal Warwicks wrote home to say ‘The Germans are just as tired of the war as we are, & said they should not fire again until we did.’ A Staff Officer compiling the War Diary of the 15th Infantry Brigade reported the outcome of conversations: ‘Little mention of the war was made. They expected it to finish within 2 months at least.’ Significantly, the truces were accompanied by only a small number of desertions by either side.

albert-wyatt-letter-thetford-watton-times-13021915a

The Thetford and Watton Times, 13 February 1915.

Who played Football?

An activity which has come to capture the popular idea of the truce, symbolising the fraternal and unwarlike spirit of the soldiers at the front, is football. Many descriptions of the truce contain references to the intention to play football, or to football being played elsewhere. For example, the commanding officer of the 1st Grenadier Guards said that the Germans wanted to play them on Boxing Day but that unfortunately they couldn’t supply a ball. Some soldiers played football among themselves, as they took advantage of the lack of firing to play behind or even in front of their trenches, the chance to keep warm being a major impetus.

Perhaps remarkably, out of a large number of references to football in hearsay or intending to be played, there are direct, reliable accounts of just two instances of British and Germans actually playing together. Several British sources can be accepted as eyewitness accounts for a game in front of the village of Wulverghem, south of Ypres. Ernie Williams of the 6th Cheshires recalled in 1983 that the no man’s land in his sector was not as broken up by shellfire as in other places.  He says that the Germans produced a ball and there was ‘a general kickabout’ with ‘about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball… There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all.’ [14] That nearly seventy years had passed when Williams’s recollections were recorded has cast some doubt on the reliability of his account.  However, a letter from a Sergeant-Major in the same battalion, Frank Naden, was published in a local newspaper which referred to football ‘in which the Germans took part’. [15] The 6th Cheshires was attached to the 1st Norfolks in the trenches and the recent discovery of another letter, also in a local newspaper, by Corporal Albert Wyatt of this unit provides even clearer evidence: ‘We finished up in the same old way, kicking a football about between the two firing lines. So football in the firing line between the British and Germans is the truth, as I was one that played.’ [16] Ideally, there would be confirmation from the opposing troops in the sector, but none of the German accounts makes any reference to football.

albert-wyatt-letter-thetford-watton-times-13021915b

Letter from Corporal Albert Wyatt, 1st Nofolks, The Thetford and Watton Times, 13 February 1915.

A more organised game of football is described by two members of the same German regiment and both originate from the late 1960s. Lieutenant Johannes Niemann, of the 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment described a match for a 1968 BBC television programme:

Suddenly a Tommy came with a football, kicking already and making fun, and then began a football match. We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established for a match on the frozen mud, and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2. [17]

A letter to Niemann from another member of the regiment, Hugo Klemm, confirmed that football was played. [18] Niemann further stated that they played against Scottish soldiers who they noticed as their kilts flew up, wore no underpants. [19] The only kilted British regiment facing Niemann’s regiment was the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, but none of the accounts of the truce from its members, including one by a professional footballer, describes football being played. [19]

Finding clear evidence of the same game from both British and German sources remains elusive. An anonymous letter printed in The Times, in which the writer stated: ‘The — Regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3—2!!!’ is often cited as corroboration for the match described by Niemann, but a more complete version of the letter which appeared in the Carlisle Journal gives the German unit as 107th Saxon Infantry Regiment which places it several miles to the south of Niemann’s 133rd Regiment. [20] Thus the accounts that we have from the German side cannot be corroborated from the British side and, although detailed, were written fifty-four years after the event.

Bruce Bairnsfather's map showing the turnip field where he met Germans on Christmas Day 1914. From 'Bullets and Billets' (1916).

Bruce Bairnsfather’s map showing the turnip field where he met Germans on Christmas Day 1914. From his 1916 memoirs ‘Bullets and Billets’ which contain no mention of football during the truce.

Football is firmly attached to the story of the truce. Although it was not the intention of those erecting them, two memorials to the event have become the focus for claims that football matches were played in their vicinity. One erected in 2008 at Frelinghien is where the Royal Welch Fusiliers were given the beer but where no accounts refer to football. The other, unveiled in December 2014 by UEFA, is at Saint Yvon, immediately north of Ploegsteert Wood and is close to where Bruce Bairnsfather recorded in detail his experiences of meeting the Germans.  In 2007 footballs appearing at a nearby wooden cross, erected eight years previously by the Khaki Chums who had spent several days over Christmas living in a reconstructed trench, signalled a growing belief that it marked the spot where the ‘football match’ had taken place. This belief has taken root so firmly that in December 2014 UEFA placed a memorial at this location despite having been given expert advice that the evidence concerning the location was questionable.  Two accounts, one German and one British, have however served to reinforce the believe that football was played at Saint Yvon.  The first is the diary of a German officer in this sector, Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, who describes the truce and states that:

Soon a couple of Englishmen brought a football out of their trench and a game started. [21]

But accounts by members of Bairnsfather’s unit, the 1st Royal Warwickshires, indicate that they played football just amongst themselves but in sight of the Germans and this is what Zehmisch appears to be describing, rather than a match between the British and Germans. [22] Bairnsfather’s own account of the truce published in 1916 made no reference at all to football. [23] However, in a 1929 magazine article and a 1958 television interview for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he did claim that football was played with the implication that he was an eye-witness. [24] If he had seen football between the opposing sides, it would seem plausible that he would have described it in 1916 and in particular would have depicted it in at least one of his many cartoons. The evidence points to him either consciously or unconsciously embroidering the story or speaking generally about what he had heard had happened, rather than what he had actually seen himself.

Opposition to the Truces

It is often implied that opposition to the truce came only from the commanders behind the lines but, as we have seen with the Rifle Brigade officer who prevented fraternisation on Christmas Eve but then agreed to a truce to bury the dead, there were many actually in the trenches who had strong qualms about participating in the a truce. Significant numbers refused to take part at all, the most common way of preventing fraternisation was to open fire on those making peaceful overtures. The 2nd Grenadier Guards had lost heavily in fighting on Christmas Eve and when the Germans ‘put their heads up and shouted Merry Xmas’ the Guards shot at them. [25] Likewise a staff officer, recording in his diary that strict orders were issued against allowing any truces, expressed his attitude to fraternisation with the enemy, although is unlikely to have witnessed the incident that he described:

The Germans did try. They came over towards us singing. So we opened rapid fire on to them, which is the only sort of truce they deserve. [26]

Many men were killed in this way on Christmas Day, sometimes owing to men in neighbouring trenches not agreeing to a truce, and in a number of instances the Germans apologised where this had happened. The second-in-command of a battalion of Indian troops stopped fraternisation by calling his men back in, scolded two of his officers and reported what had occurred to battalion headquarters. But when this resulted in the stopping of their leave, he felt it far too harsh and both were killed a few months later before they could return home.  A Lieutenant in 1st East Lancashires at Ploegsteert described receiving a signal from battalion headquarters to make a football pitch by filling up shell-holes, and to challenge the Germans to a football match on 1st January. He was furious and took no action, except to destroy the signal. [27]  The medical officer to 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry in a letter home condemned those singing carols and fraternising, claiming that the regiments which had done so had since come to blows with those which had opposed the truce. [28]  After the Royal Welch Fusiliers left the trenches on Boxing Day, having drunk the beer given by the Germans, they were shouted at and spat upon by the French women in Armentieres who told them ‘you boko kamerade Allemenge’. [29]

 As night fell on Christmas Day most men returned to their trenches. In places, singing resumed. Where there had been fraternisation, there was in the main no firing during the night.  One battalion did open fire on a German who came as far as their barbed wire but decided that he must have been drunk.  On Boxing Day, Germans were still to be seen walking on top of their trenches. Efforts were made to bring the situation back to normal, often by firing a few shots into the air, but neither side wished to resume active hostilities. In one place the task of burying the dead was still to be completed. In another some artillery officers came up to see what was happening, and found both sides repairing their trenches in full view of the other.  Light snow fell on Boxing Day which turned to sleet after dark. The worsening weather led to flooding which, while it put an end to fraternisation, also saw the persistence of a passive attitude and general lack of hostility which lasted for many weeks.

Senior officers were generally hostile to the truces but not consistently so. General Smith-Dorrien, who had issued the order against fraternisation earlier in December, visited the trenches on the evening of Boxing Day.  He didn’t find fraternisation but was ‘considerably disappointed by the state of affairs’ and ‘the apathy of everything I saw’. On his return to his headquarters, reports of Christmas Day truces were waiting for him. He was famous for his temper, thought to have originated with an old wound, and issued an angry memorandum calling for the names of officers and units which had taken part with a view to disciplinary action.  The Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, also issued orders to prevent a reoccurrence and called for local commanders to be brought to account. Only in retrospect did he concede that he might have agreed to an armistice, had the question been submitted to him.  General Rawlinson, commanding the IV Corps, described reports in his diary without apparent disapproval and did not call for punishments.  His subordinate commander, General Capper (7th Division) allowed an informal armistice on 26th and 27th specifically to enable dead to be buried and for the clearing of streams and drainage ditches.

On 28th December, the commander of the 11th Brigade sent a message to his three battalions in the trenches telling them to make use of the opportunities of the continuing cessation of hostilities to strengthen their defences but not to let the enemy near their trenches. The Germans seem to have taken the same view, however a German army order of 29 December forbade fraternisation as high treason.  General Smith-Dorrien issued an order (Second Army) on 1 January which was milder but still required court martial for officers or NCOs who allowed fraternisation.  Except for the two officers denied leave, no British soldiers appear to have been punished for fraternising with Germans in 1914. The German order meant that there was little or no contact on New Year’s Eve, except the odd deserter or drunk coming over from the German lines, but where there had been a cease fire this held good. Elsewhere, Germans showing themselves above the trenches were met by small arms or artillery fire.

The Legacy of the Christmas Truces

Small, isolated truces took place on the Western Front in 1915, 1916 and even 1917 but they were never on anything like the same scale as in 1914. After the war, the idea that the war could have ended at Christmas 1914 was expressed by some who experienced the truce. Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood a Member of Parliament who had taken part serving with the Gordon Highlanders, stated in the House of Commons in 1930 that if it had been left to the men at the front, ‘there would never have been another shot fired… it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again.’ [30] At the time, however, the view that the war should be fought was generally held by those at the front as well as at home. In January 1915 a Manchester Guardian editorial replied on behalf of liberal opinion to the question why the men had gone back into their trenches and were, as the newspaper put it, ‘hard at it again, slaying and being slain’: the answer was that ‘there was very much to be done yet – that Belgium must be freed from the hideous yoke that has been thrust upon her…’ This view was shared by most British soldiers in the trenches, not to mention Belgian and French. One former soldier, asked in 1981 whether, if the solders had had their way, they would have stopped fighting and gone home was adamant that they would not: ‘We all wanted to win the war and to see the Germans beaten. It was all right just having the truce and meeting the Germans, but as for ending the war, no, that was quite out of the question. In any case we all expected the war would end next spring…’ [31] Although the nearest thing to a consensus among the soldiers is that, although soldiers seldom had reason to personally hate their enemies, the truce was a temporary cessation of fighting only, most were convinced of the rightness of their cause and believed that the quickest way to end the war was to beat their opponent.

One man who not surprisingly abhorred the truce was a twenty-five year old Corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment named Adolf Hitler, at least according to the testimony a fellow soldier from 1940. Men from the future Fuhrer’s regiment almost certainly played football with the Norfolk and Cheshire Regiments (as depicted in the Sainsbury television commercial in 2014) but Hitler’s duties as a runner at regimental headquarters seldom took him right into the front line. [32] Two and a half miles to the south of Hitler’s Regiment, a nineteen year old Henry Williamson did fraternise with the other side. The disconnect between the preceding violence and suffering and the warmth and fellow felling of the truce seemed so unreal to the young soldier as to leave him troubled for the rest of his life. The realisation that both sides thought that they had God on their side and were fighting for right, led him to believe that future conflict could be avoided with the elimination of misunderstandings between the peoples of different nations.  A mistaken belief that Hitler had participated in the truce led Williamson to conceive a misguided fellow-feeling for him which contributed to his sympathy for fascism. [33] In 1946, still deeply troubled by the Christmas truce, he embarked on what became a cycle of fifteen novels in an attempt to understand his experiences before, during and after the war.

The Christmas truce, and especially the role played by football, is an object lesson in the interpretation of historical sources, attracting the best and worst of non-academic historians. The best have been immersed in the subject for many years, have sought out new sources in archives and newspapers, and have gained a profound understanding of the thinking of those at the time and the realities of war in 1914.  The worst are unable to assess the value of different historical sources or properly distinguish between hearsay and direct eyewitness accounts.  But history popularly serves to reinforce our identity on a national and personal level or justify whatever political theory we hold about how the world works. It suffers where it is co-opted to other disciplines, such as the arts, literature, drama or journalism. The truce, like many historical events, has been used to support whatever interpretation of the past suits a particular view of the present. It shows us that we need to try harder to divorce contemporary and personal preoccupations if we are to gain historical understanding and that if we want our history to be ‘relevant’ it probably won’t be good history. One soldier looked back on the 1914 Christmas truce as ‘just a happy dream.’ [34]  He did not realize how apt his description was to be.

Scroll down for references                                                  © Simon Jones


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References:

  1. Private William Tapp, Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce the Western Front December 1914, (2001), p. 195.
  2. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 36.
  3. John Ferguson, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 61.
  4. Bruce Bairnsfather, Bullets and Billets, (1916), pp. 85-97.
  5. Second Lieutenant Ian Stewart, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 64.
  6. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., pp. 65-66.
  7. Unnamed officer, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., pp. 67-68.
  8. Captain R. J. Armes, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., pp. 68-69.
  9. Bairnsfather, op. cit., p. 90.
  10. Edward Hulse, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 92.
  11. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 84.
  12. Arthur Pelham-Burn, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 89.
  13. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., pp. 90.
  14. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 138.
  15. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 139.
  16. The Thetford and Watton Times, 13 February 1915. I was first alerted to this newscutting by Taff Gillingham who obtained it from the Norfolk Regiment Museum.
  17. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 136. Niemann also described the football match in a history of his regiment written at the same time, J. Niemann, Das 9. Königlich Sächsische Infanterie-Regiment Nr.133 im Weltkrieg, 1914-18, (1968) p. 32.
  18. ‘Everywhere you looked the occupants from the trenches stood around talking to each other and even playing football.’ Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 136.
  19. Chris Baker, The Truce the Day the War Stopped (2014), p. 161.
  20. The Times, 1/1/1915, p. 3; The Carlisle Journal, 8/1/1915 quoted http://www.christmastruce.co.uk/cumbria/.
  21. Baker, op. cit., p. 162.
  22. Taff Gillingham, pers. comm. 15 December 2014.
  23. Bairnsfather, op. cit., pp. 85-97.
  24.  ‘The American Magazine’, December 1929, p. 145 (I am grateful to Paul Baggaley for drawing my attention to this source); http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2448571386 (accessed 8/11/2016).
  25. George Darrell Jeffreys, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 104.
  26. Billy Congreve, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 104.
  27. C. E. M. Richards, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 139.
  28. Tom Ingram, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 192.
  29. Frank Richards, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 154.
  30. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 190.
  31. Graham Williams, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 192.
  32. Heinrich Lugauer, Thomas Weber, Hitler’s First War (Oxford, 2010), p. 63.
  33. Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 193.
  34. Leslie Walkington, Brown & Seaton, op. cit., p. 192.

    EB-Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library-CropBWenh

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Why the poet Isaac Rosenberg is not shown in First World War archive footage

A story in the Observer newspaper states that the poet Isaac Rosenberg has been identified in archive footage in which a stretcher bearer in the front right of the frame is ‘staring out at the camera with a haunted look’ (photo below). The article states that the date and location of the film are yet to be identified.

The soldier in the bottom righthand corner is believed to be first world war poet Isaac RosenbergHowever I recognised the still as showing the same scene as a photograph by the British official photographer J. Warwick Brooke (Q 5732) (below) which enables the footage to be identified as having been taken on 31 July 1917 at Pilckem, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Q 5732

Furthermore, the photograph caption identifies a wounded man being treated as an officer of the Irish Guards. The ‘Rosenberg’ figure is not in the Brooke photograph but another stretcher bearer is clearly recognisable (identified by the ‘S B’ armband) standing on the right. This man can also be seen to be wearing a distinctive cloth ‘Irish Guards’ badge on his shoulder and this badge can also just be discerned on the ‘Rosenberg’ figure. Rosenberg served with the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (attached for a time to the Royal Engineers) rather than the Irish Guards and whilst, on occasion, he did duty carrying wounded there is no evidence that he was a regimental stretcher bearer. On the day that the photograph was taken the 40th Division, in which Rosenberg was serving at the time, was about 60 miles to the south and did not take part in the Third Battle of Ypres.


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Born Fighters: who were the Tunnellers?

My paper to the conference ‘The Great War Underground’ held at the National Army Museum on 2 November 2013. It draws on research into members of 179th and 185th Tunnelling Companies at La Boisselle 1915-1916. Most of the photographs have been kindly supplied by descendants who also provided me with diaries, letters, memoirs and personal reminiscences.  My book on tunnelling at La Boisselle has been a long-term research project for many years (see links to articles below).


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Learn more about the exploration and archaeology of the trenches and tunnels at La Boisselle for which I am principal historian visit the La Boisselle Study Group website.


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