A Truce in the Trenches

It’s a general rule that Great War fact is stranger than Great War fiction. Here is an extract from a letter sent home  to his brother Syd by Frank Cambridge of the London Irish on January 12th, 1916. In December 1915 the Staff had been very keen to discourage any repeat of the Christmas Truces of 1914, but some fraternisation did occur sporadically, and the spirit obviously continued into January.

‘I … will start off by trying to describe one of the most novel incidents  I have seen out here….When we relieved the French us bombers thought we  were in for a coushty time, by way of a change, as there were no saps we  were told. Well they soon found us a job they put us in some  listening  posts on the slag heap. After a day up there a message came up for four  bombers as the Bosches were bombing on the right of our Batt. I was one of  the four told off to go and when we reached the place we found it was a  barricade across a sunken road (just like the roads at Reigate, that’s what  it reminded me of ).It was quite quiet for some time there except for rifle  grenades & during the night we kept our eyes well skinned for bombs but nothing turned up. Just as it was breaking dawn we had a peep over our  barricade to see what the position was like & how far away the Bosches  barricade was.

One of our chaps who is a proper reckless bounder (mad dog we  call him) saw a German looking over his barricade, so he waved his hand to  him & raised his cap. The Bosche waved his cap back & must have called all  his mates for there were soon about a dozen of them head & shoulders above  the barricade. Of course by this time crowds of us were looking over & it was a proper scream. A couple of the Germans could speak English & they were  shouting for cigarettes & saying ‘How do you do’. Perhaps this hardly seems  very exciting to you but it would have seemed so had you been with us and  seen it. Before I left England we used to read all about English soldiers  speaking to the Bosches but after 10 months, until this last spell, we  thought it was the usual paper twaddle. You go in the trenches month in &  out and you never see a German so of course we thought it was great fun  having a little armistice. It seemed awfully funny to me, I pictured it as a  scene at a theatre after the war, you imagine us straffing each other day &  night & then all of a sudden up pops a German and we all start jawing.

You  picture a sunken road Syd with two barricades across & German heads &  shoulders showing above one & ours showing above the other, it looked just  like a pantomime scene. Of course we played the game it would have been a  very low down trick  if anyone had fired & they played the man. It’s very  difficult to make it clear to you by writing Syd but the trenches twisted  and turned so at this point (the sunken road) that the trenches on either  side  of the barricades both ours  & the Germans were out of view & quite  impossible for either side to snipe on one another while this little  armistice was on. Two of the German officers looked just like our naval  officers & the Germans opposite us were a very superior lot. There’s no  doubt they wanted to be friendly  as after this affair (which lasted abt 1/2  hr) three of them came over to the Batt next to us and surrendered. Our  little affair went off quite allright we signalled to the Bosches that it  was finished & for the rest of the time we straffed each other as usual. I  bet crowds of the Germans would surrender only it’s so risky for them. These  three that surrendered said that they had been trying to be taken prisoner  for a long while. They wangled it by getting on a patrol just before dawn &  then crawled up to our lines & asked to be taken prisoner. They told us that  lots of their chaps would surrender only they’re afraid of being fired on  both by their own chaps & by us. These three were as pleased as punch to be  taken prisoner.’

I was sent this letter after a conversation at a wedding at which I got chatting to someone about how frank soldiers often were in letters home. He agreed, and mentioned the letters of his wife’s grandfather; he has sent me a couple of transcripts. The other letter shows clearly how explicit about the horrors soldiers could be when writing home, and how censorship did not notably interfere with this:

Well old boy I expect you want to know our doings of the last few days. We went up the trenches Tuesday night & it is the most extraordinary part of the line I have ever been in. I expect you know we are in an entirely different part of the line to where we have ever been before. I wrote and told Rosalie the place. I wonder if she got that letter if so you know where we are. We were relieved last night or rather this morning at 3o/c & I’ve just had brekker after a good kip & it’s now 12o/c. I’ve had a good dip in a can of water & feel O.K. now. By gum it is a weird hole in those trenches, there has been some of the fiercest fighting at that part & the valley we were holding is called the ‘Valley of Death’ & well it might be. The trenches are in a shocking state & the worst I’ve been in. They really are not trenches but ditches or streams, you only stay in the firing line for 24 hrs there. Well I was soon back in my full war paint again when we went in, what with big top boots etc.It is very quiet indeed up there at pres.& and at night there is a kind of mutual understanding between both sides that no firing takes place. The night before last I went out exploiting with two other chaps on patrol. There is a small river runs between the lines & the trenches there are impossible to hold as they are like streams, in fact all the ground in this part is swamped. We crossed the river and met the patrol of another Division, they were very decent fellows a London Regt & we had quite a pleasant half hour or so talking to them. The sights we saw in this valley were very gruelsome indeed. Dead bodies and skeletons were lying about everywhere. There were German and French bodies lying on the sides of trenches & looked as if they had been left there just as fallen. (Hallo another interruption. Rifle inspection). Well old chap I think you can pretty well guess what a weird & desolate sort of a hole it was so I’ll come off the subject. Only it occurred to us that these bodies might at least be covered over, they must have been there for months and whether a chap’s a German or not, the dead should certainly be treated with a bit of respect. I’m afraid us chaps are getting cold blooded enough but these kinds of things get a chap down. I must tell you this Syd, quite between ourselves as you need not let Dad & Ma know because it’s not nice for them to know these things. While we were patrolling near this river a chap pointed out to me that I was standing on a body, it was caked in the ground & I didn’t notice it in the dark & a little further on we saw rats eating the bodies, we packed up we had seen enough for one night. I dread to think of the summer as it smells horrible enough up there now goodness only knows what it will be like when we have a bit of heat. It is a Valley of Death up there no mistake. I guess you can gather what sort of a show it is, we had a very coushty time as it is more like outpost duty than trenches just there. I should like to tell you all about it, as it is an extraordinarily curious position but I will some day.

Once again, this letter is to his brother Syd. It’s noteworthy that he thinks Syd should know this things, whereas ‘Dad & Ma’ should be protected because ‘it’s not nice for them to know these things.’

6 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2009 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Could this also be an attempt to convince his brother not to sign up?

  2. Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Since the date of these letters is 1916, when conscription was beginning, encouragement or discouragement to enlist would be beside the point. I think he just wanted Syd to understand what it was like out there.

  3. Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Ah sorry goofed on the date.

  4. The Shadow
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    It does rather blow the idea that ‘the powers that be’ were fooling the populace into going along with the war by use of some powerful propoganda machine. If strong meat like that was getting back home without being censored, then the general state of life in the trenches cannot have been much of a secret.

    Although it’s a different war, it reminds me of an incident in G M Fraser’s QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE, where Fraser and a friend saw THE WAY AHEAD before being sent off to fight. At the end of the film the main characters are all seen to advance towards the unseen enemy. As the movie finished, Fraser’s friend turned to him and said ‘Yes, and you know what happened to that bloody lot, don’t you?’

  5. Meg Crane
    Posted October 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid this sounds rather trivial, but I was interested to see such an early use of the expression “OK”, which I thought had not hit Britain until the arrival of the “talking pictures”. Can anyone point to similar examples from the 1914-18 period?

  6. Posted October 4, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang claims that the expression was taken to England by Artemus Ward and “was well acclimatised by 1880 at the latest.”
    It quotes a music-hall song from the eighties:
    “The Stilton, sir, the cheese, the O.K. thing to do
    On Sunday afternoon, is to toddle to the Zoo.”


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