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No Christmas Truce for 2/Grenadier Guards

on Sat, 01/10/2015 - 03:06

Yes we know Christmas was two weeks ago. But given all of the 100 year retrospectives on the famous First World War "Christmas Truce" of 1914 we thought our readers should know that in actuality the Christmas period was for many First World War Western Front combatants hardly as peaceful as the mainstream media would lead one to believe.

By Bryan J. Dickerson*

For many British and German soldiers, Christmas 1914 was a time to temporarily halt the incessant killing of the First World War.  Unfortunately for the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards Regiment, there was no Christmas Truce in 1914.  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 were just two more days of killing on the Western Front.

War had been raging across Europe from Belgium to the Balkans since early August of 1914 with all belligerent nations suffering horrendous casualties.  In early December, Pope Benedict XV called for a truce in observance of Christmas but his calls fell on deaf ears amongst the leaders of the belligerents.  Nevertheless, in many places along the Western Front, British, German and French soldiers took it upon themselves to halt the war in observance of Christmas.  The “Christmas Truce” was an impromptu, spontaneous event.  In a number of places, the ‘Christmas Truce’ began with the displaying of Christmas Trees on the parapets of German trenches.  Though first cautious, British and German soldiers ceased firing and emerged from their trenches to meet with their adversaries in No Man’s Land.  In many places, food items and souvenirs were exchanged.  In other places, Christmas carols were sung from the trenches. For just a day or so, the madness of mass industrialized killing stopped and a hint of peace pervaded.[1]

2/Grenadier Guards was an infantry battalion assigned to the 4th Guards Brigade, 2nd Division, I Corps of the British Expeditionary Force.  The British 2nd Division TO&E described a unit assigned 18,000 men, 40 guns, and 18 machine guns. The 4th (Guards) Brigade was one of three rifle brigades in the division and comprised around 4,000 men and 8 machine guns. Each battalion in the 4th Guards Brigade fielded just over 1,000 officers and men. Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrid Robert Abel Smith was the 2nd battalion commander and Major G. D. Jeffreys the Second in Command.  The battalion had deployed with the BEF to the Continent in early August and fought in the Battles of Mons, the Marne and the First Battle of Aisne.  After suffering heavy losses in the First Battle of Ypres, 2/Grenadier Guards had been withdrawn from the line to refit and re-organize. The battalion spent the first three weeks of December 1914 absorbing and training replacements in the French town of Mitteren. New officers joining the battalion at this time included Captain E. G. Spencer-Churchill, and 2nd Lieutenants G. G. Goschen, J. Eyre, John Henry Gaythorne Nevill, and G. W. V. Hopley.[2]   

On 21 December, 2/Grenadier Guards was sent back to the front near Bethune. After dark on the 23rd of December, the battalion relieved the Royal Sussex Regiment and took over trenches near the Rue de Cailloux. Several days prior, the Germans had attacked and captured the first line of British trenches here. As a result, the British had improvised a new line of trenches using existing dykes.[3]

As the battalion Unit Diary recorded, the conditions here were abominable. “Trenches, most improvised from dykes, were full of water.  The mud was very bad,” the battalion’s Unit Diary described.  In the trenches, the water was often knee-deep and even waist-deep at times. Men often sank down into the mud and required assistance to get free.  “It seemed madness to attempt to hold such a line of trenches, and yet there was no alternative,” wrote Lt. Col. the Right Honorable Sir Frederick Ponsonby in his The Grenadier Guards in the Great War of 1914-1918.[4]

In addition to the deplorable field conditions, 2/Grenadier Guards guarded a vulnerable area of the front line. “The enemy had the advantage of the ground, for not only did his trenches drain into ours, but he was able to overlook our whole line,” wrote Lt. Col. Ponsonby.[5]

Having completed its relief of the Royal Sussex Regiment, 2/Grenadier Guards deployed most of its strength forward in the first line of trenches. Captain Sir Montague Aubrey Rowles Cholmeley’s No. 1 Company, Captain P. A. Clive’s No. 2 Company and half of Captain R. H. V. Cavendish’s No. 3 Company were in the front line trench. The rest of No. 3 Company and Captain E. D. Ridley’s No. 4 Company were held in reserve. The men were told to be extra vigilant as an enemy attack was expected.[6]

The Germans opposing 2/Grenadier Guards wasted no time in welcoming them to the neighborhood. On the morning of 24 December, the Guardsmen were subjected to snipers and intense trench mortar fire.  Meanwhile, German soldiers had dug saps to within 10 yards of the British trenches in two places. Suddenly at 11 am, the Germans detonated explosives which blew up one end of Number 2 Company’s trench.  Simultaneously the Germans launched an infantry attack against 2/Grenadier Guards.[7]

The front line companies fought back courageously against the superior German forces. The detonation of their explosives enabled the Germans to fire part way down the length of the British trenches.  Capt Cholmeley rushed towards the threatened flank of No. 2 Company but was shot through the head. He died instantly.  2nd Lt G. G. Goschen was wounded and escaped drowned in the trench only because one of his soldiers propped him up.[8]  

The heavy German attack forced the Grenadier Guards to abandon their first line of trenches. Unfortunately the wounded 2nd Lt Goschen had to be left behind and was captured.  He had been with the battalion only three days.[9]

The survivors of the German attack fell back to an improvised second line. Here they made a determined stand with the remainder of the battalion and were able to repulse the attacking Germans. The battalion spent the rest of the day and night digging new trenches, a task made very difficult by the thick mud, pervasive water, and German sniper fire.[10]

24 December 1914 was a costly day for 2/Grenadier Guards. Captain Sir Montague Aubrey Rowles Cholmeley and 2nd Lieutenant John Henry Gaythorne Nevill were killed, 2nd Lt Mervyn Williams and 2nd Lt J Eyre were wounded and 2nd Lt G. G. Goschen was wounded and captured. Altogether, the battalion suffered 17 killed, 29 wounded and 9 missing.[11] 

Captain Sir Montagu Aubrey Rowley Cholmeley, 4th Baronet of Easton Hall, Grantham and Norton Place, Lincoln, was originally of the Special Reserve 3rd Battalion / Grenadier Guards. Born in London on 12 June 1876, he had been educated at Eton and entered military service with the South Lincoln Militia and then transferred to the Grenadier Guards in 1896.  He earned his lieutenant commission in 1898.  After serving in the Boer War and the Khartoum Expedition, he retired from service in 1906 but remained in the Reserve.  At the outbreak of the war in August 1914, he had been mobilized and assigned to 2nd Battalion.  He had fought with 2/Grenadier Guards throughout the fall and winter campaigns.  As his body was not recovered, he was commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial in Le Touret Military Cemetery, Richebourg-L’avoue, France. He was survived by his wife Mabel Janetta, and his children Hugh John Francis Sibthorp and Rosamund Mary Edith.[12]

2nd Lt John H. G. Nevill had only been with 2/Grenadier Guards for barely a week. A member of the Special Reserve attached to 3rd Battalion / Grenadier Guards, Lt Nevill had reported to 2nd Battalion on 16 December 1914 along with five other replacement officers.  He was killed a week after joining the battalion and less than 24 hours after entering the front lines for his first battle. He was survived by a wife and his mother of Mettingham, Suffolk and predeceased by his father Henry M. Nevill. He was interred at the Le Touret Military Cemetery, Richebourg-L’avoue, France.[13]    

Throughout the night, 2/Grenadier Guards struggled to improve their water-logged trenches. A severe overnight frost added to their misery. The new trenches were completed just before dawn on Christmas Day.  Though the Germans did not attack on Christmas Day, they subjected the Guardsmen to heavy gunfire all day long. Captain Spencer-Churchill was wounded in the head by a sniper’s bullet. That day, three soldiers were killed, nineteen wounded, two were missing and one required hospitalization for frost bite.[14]

Despite the cold weather, thick mud, and persistent German sniper fire, the soldiers of 2/Grenadier Guards did manage some observance of the Savior’s birth. Plum puddings were distributed to the men as were Princess Mary’s gift boxes. The only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, Princess Mary had coordinated a charitable effort to send gift boxes to all of the British soldiers and sailors serving in the war.  The gift boxes contained a pipe, some tobacco, and cigarettes in a commemorative tin box.[15]

At 7 pm that night, 2/Grenadier Guards was relieved by 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. 2/Grenadier Guards marched back to Touret and went into billets.[16]

While many other British and German units enjoyed the impromptu Christmas Truce, 2/Grenadier Guards suffered from miserable weather, unbearable trenches, and sustained German fire. In less than forty-eight hours in the front line trenches, the battalion suffered 81 casualties including 20 killed. For in this section of the Western Front, the observance of Christmas brought no peace for those soldiers holding the line.

*The author served as a Religious Program Specialist in the U.S. Navy Reserve for eight years, mobilizing and deploying twice to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He served with the U.S. Marines MWSS-472 from January 2008 until June 2011 and served as Assistant Squadron Historian in 2009 and Squadron Historian in 2010/2011 as a collateral duty.  He was honorably discharged in June 2011 as a Religious Program Specialist First Class (Fleet Marine Force).

 

[1] Naina Bajekal,  “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.”  Time.   (24 December 2014).  Accessed online at http://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/ on 29 December 2014.; Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night:  The Story of the World War 1 Christmas Truce.  (NY:  Penguin, 2002).

[2] For a history of the 2nd / Grenadier Guards, see , Lieutenant Colonel The Right Honorable Sir Frederick Ponsonby.  The Grenadier Guards in the Great War of 1914-1918.  Volume 1 of 3. ( London:  Macmillan & Company, 1920).;  See also British Expeditionary Force.  2nd Division.  4th Guards Brigade.  2nd Battalion / Grenadier  Guards.  Unit Diary for December 1914.   Accessed via Operation War Diary  www.operationwardiary.com The author has been helping to index the Unit Diary as a Citizen Historian.

[3] Ibid.; Ponsonby, pp.203-5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.;  Clutterbuck, C. L., Colonel, Colonel W. T. Dooner and Commander the Honorable C. A. Denison.   The Bond of Sacrifice:  A Biographical Record of All British Officers Who Fell in the Great War.  Volume 1: Aug – Dec 1914.  (London:  Anglo-African Publishing Contractors, 1915), p. 77.

[9] Ibid.;  Lt Goschen survived the war.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Clutterbuck, p. 77.;  Interment information obtained from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1559009/CHOLMELEY,%20Sir%20MONTAGUE%20AUBREY%20ROWLEY accessed on 2 January 2015.

[13] Ibid, p. 281.  Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Casualty Record for John Henry Gaythorne Nevill.      Accessed online on 29 December 2014  at

http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/262001/NEVILL,%20JOHN%20HENRY...

[14] Ponsonby, pp.204-5.;  2/Grenadier Guards War Diary.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

Comments

george allen's picture

My Grandfather Albert Taylor 2 Bettalion Grenadiers now in Le Touret Military Cemetery, Richebourg-L’avoue, France.

was  killed in that German attack on the 24 dec 1914

Thanks for the great description above I would love to be in contact with other relations of those who died in that trench on the 24th dec and any more detailedinformation about the attak

 

 

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