Christmas Eve, 1914
The Christmas of 1914 was remarkable for a spontaneous truce that originated in several places along the line of trenches running from the Channel to the Alps. The two opposing armies had fought each other to a standstill in just a few months. Bitterness spread on both sides as stories of atrocities circulated and more and more men were sucked into the forces. However, that a truce happened in some places there is little doubt; in other places, the war raged on. The most enduring story of this far away Christmas is of a football match played between the lines.
There is one piece of testimony that brings the truce close to home. It comes from Musselburgh’s Lance Sergeant William Yourston of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders. William went to France with his battalion in 1914, landing on the 22nd September. By Christmas Eve they were in the frontline. He wrote home to his wife telling what happened in the next few hours (and days).
A very funny thing happened on ‘Xmas Eve. The Germans, who are only 100 yards in front of our trenches, started singing, and our boys shouted hurrah after each verse. This went on for a long time. … At length one of the Germans shouted – ‘Come over,’ and by this time it was ‘Xmas morning, misty, but very frosty, and from where I was I could hear distinctly what was said. Each side then shouted in turn – ‘A merry ‘Xmas to you.’ One of our fellows shouted ‘Come half way across,’ and two Germans left their trenches and two of our fellows went out to meet them. Greetings were exchanged between the firing lines, and not a shot was fired from either side. Both exchanged cigarettes for cigars etc and each returned to their own trenches. Shouting continued all morning. The Germans said they were not going to fire for three days. All was quiet up till 3 p. m. on ‘Xmas afternoon, when around 20 Germans left their trenches and came out to greet our fellows on the left. Our fellows went across the intervening ground and met them. Greetings were exchanged and souvenirs given. I was on the right flank trench, and when I saw what happened, the platoon sergeant and I went down for the curio of the thing, and the following conversation took place. I was greeted with outstretched hands, and the German said in broken English, ‘English comrade.’ I then said ‘War finish?’ He replied, ‘oh no! 3 days.’ I said ‘No, no, finish. I pack up and go England; you pack up and go Germany,’ but he replied as before ‘3 days.’ While this was going on the dead body of a Frenchman was observed lying close by. Shovels were sent for and Seaforths and Germans took turn about of digging the grave. When all was ready two Seaforths took the head and two Germans the feet and the Frenchman was laid to his last resting place. When the grave had been filled in two candles were lighted and placed on top with the deceased’s cap, then a German Red Cross man conducted a short service, while both sides stood with heads uncovered. The scene was one I can never forget. Afterwards both sides returned to their trenches. This lasted for roughly twenty minutes, and as they said no firing took place for three days. … We just received Princess Mary’s Xmas gift – a very nice box indeed, so I am trying to get it sent home.
It was his last Christmas. Lance Sergeant William Yourston was killed in action on the 26th of April 1915. He was 34. He is buried in the Seaforth Cemetery, Cheddar Villa in Belgium, along with over 100 of his comrades.
Did your East Lothian ancestor serve during World War One? William’s story, and those of many other combatants from East Lothian, was reported in the local press. Microfilm copies and indexes are available for consulting at the John Gray Centre. Contact us, or visit us, to find out more.