One hundred years ago tomorrow saw the historic truce between soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War and Royal Mail is a releasing a poignant letter recounting the moment.
Christmas Day 1914 saw a break in the fighting between allied forces and German soldiers on the Western Front.
It was the moment where troops on both sides put down their weapons, climbed out of the dug-outs and met in no man’s land, where they exchanged cigars and souvenirs, and where a historic football match was played.
In the letter, Captain A D Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, describes the extraordinary moment where the men stopped fighting to wish each other happy Christmas:
I am writing this in the trenches in my "dug-out" -- with a wood fire going and plenty of straw it is rather cosy, although it is freezing hard and real Christmas weather.
I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o'clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas..."
Exchanging cigarettes and autographs
Captain Chater’s letter illustrates how regiments on both sides used the opportunity to bury their dead, referring to it as “lying between the lines”. It was also a rare moment they could simply go for long walk in the open without being shot at.
Captain Chater also describes another meeting in no-man’s land that further illustrates the unexpected good humour between enemy forces:
“We had another parley with the Germans in the middle. We exchanged cigarettes and autographs, and some more people took photos. I don’t know how long it will go on for – I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday, but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling. We are, at any rate, having another truce on New Year’s Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!”
Not only does Captain Chater’s letter paint a vivid picture of goodwill in the middle of “a war in which there is so much bitterness and ill feeling”, it reminds us that the conflict was not personal between the men on opposing sides. “The Germans in this part of the line are sportsmen if they are nothing else,” he writes, underlining the sense of uneasy trust that inspired the Christmas truce.
The inevitable return to arms
The truce did not hold and the fighting resumed shortly afterwards. Captain Chater writes “This extraordinary truce has been quite impromptu. There was no previous arrangement and of course it had been decided that there was not to be any cessation of hostilities.”
Excerpts from and the image of Captain A D Chater’s letter have been reproduced with kind permission of his family. You can read more letters from the front describing the truce at www.christmastruce.co.uk
Royal Mail’s role in commemorating the First World War
Earlier this year, Royal Mail announced a five year programme of remembrance for the First World War.
The company launched a landmark series of Special Stamps to commemorate the war that will be issued from 2014 to 2018. The first set of six stamps were issued at the end of July and feature striking imagery of memorials, artefacts and portraits that are relevant to 1914, the beginning of the conflict, as well as newly commissioned artwork.
The stamps launched in July and can be purchased via www.royalmail.com/firstworldwar, by phone on 03457 641 641 and in 10,000 Post Offices throughout the UK.
Royal Mail has also created an online database of around 250 war memorials that are in its care, commemorating those who served in the war. Many of the company’s memorials were established after the war, and feature the names of postal staff who fought for their country.
The database can be seen at www.royalmailmemorials.com. The website provides searchable information about each individual memorial.
Many of these war memorials are in areas to which the public has access, such as the reception area in a delivery office. Members of the public wishing to visit other memorials can contact sites directly to see if special arrangements can be made. A special remembrance service will be held for each memorial later in the year.
Royal Mail’s involvement in the First World War
- At the beginning of the war, the General Post Office (GPO) was involved in distributing recruitment forms throughout the country urging enlistment. The GPO released 75,000 of its own staff to support the war
- The GPO had its own regiment, the Post Office Rifles, which comprised 12,000 employees
- The Post Office Rifles fought at the Somme and Passchendaele, Belgium, and suffered significant losses. More than half of their fighting force was lost at the Battle of Wurst Farm Ridge in September 1917
- Of the 12,000 GPO employees in the Post Office Rifles, 1,800 were killed and 4,500 wounded
- The Post Office Rifles Cemetery is just outside the village of Festubert, France. It contains the graves of only twenty-six identified Post Office Rifles men but has over ten times as many unnamed tombstones dedicated simply to ‘A Soldier of the Great War’
How letters reached the Western Front:
- In December 1914, a special sorting office – the Home Depot – was built to deal with mail to the troops. It was constructed in Regent’s Park in London and covered five acres. It was said to be the largest wooden structure in the world at the time
- With 2,500 employees, mostly female, the depot processed letters and parcels bound for the troops. At its peak 12 million letters and 1 million parcels were passing through the Home Depot each week
- Once post sent from the Home Depot, arrived overseas, it became the responsibility of the Army Post Office until it was delivered to the postal orderly of each unit. Despite the volume, the service was highly efficient – on average it took only two days for a letter from Britain to reach the Western Front (unless it was held up by the censor)
- Trench warfare also meant that British positions at the front remained fairly static and this enabled a comprehensive network of lorries and carts to develop for written communications and parcels between units at the front
- It was normal practice in the trenches for each days post to be handed out with the evening meal by ration parties. They would also collect the men’s letters and postcards for home
Letters and parcels in numbers
- In 1917 over 19,000 mailbags crossed the channel each day with half a million bags conveyed in the run up to Christmas
- Outbound letters to soldiers peaked at more than 12 million a week early in the first quarter of 1918
- Outbound parcels soared to just over a million a week by the spring of 1917
Note to editors
PR Managers (Campaigns)
0207 449 8246/07435 769 017