Shining a light on the Christmas Truce

CEASEFIRE ... the Christmas truce of 1914 is an iconic episode of the First World War.
CEASEFIRE ... the Christmas truce of 1914 is an iconic episode of the First World War.

IT’S one of the most iconic episodes associated with the First World War.

It was the day the guns fell silent on the Western Front and for a brief period, on Christmas Day 1914, enemies met as friends across No Man’s Land.

Many myths have grown-up around the Christmas Truce, - pockets of ceasefire all along the Front, in some cases to allow for the burial of dead but which evolved into exchanges of greetings, even meetings, across the shattered landscape of war.

Remarkably - although there were almost certainly more - it’s now possible to tell the stories of at least a handful of men from what is now South Tyneside who took part in the truce.

They have been identified by Jarrow man Peter Hoy, who is compiling a huge searchable database of those from the borough who served in the Great War.

He has traced them to the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment which arrived in France in November 1914.

For some, like Lance-Corporal Thomas Steven, from Jarrow, it was in time to become eligible for the 1914 Mons medal, awarded to members of the British Expeditionary Force, the ‘Old Contemptibles.’

The West Yorks were posted to the trenches immediately to the west of the village of Neuve Chapelle which, over its subsequent four years in the front line, would be pulverised almost to nothing.

One of those who had enlisted with the West Yorks was Peter’s great-uncle, Frederick Hoy, a 22-year-old putter at Harton Colliery, who lived in Alnwick Road at Tyne Dock.

He had enlisted as a Kitchener Volunteer. Late in 1914, he was among a party of men who, in protest over the quantity and quality of food, refused to go on parade at the 3rd West Yorkshire’s Tyne garrison base at Whitley Bay.

His punishment was transfer to the 2nd Battalion, which arrived in France on December 12, 1914.

Two other men from South Shields arrived the same day. They were Private William Napier Hunter and Private Arthur Moffett. They joined William Archibald, also from Shields, who had arrived a week earlier.

A week later, two other Shields men, James Cockburn and George Turnbull, plus John McBarron, from Hebburn, added to the number.

By Christmas Day, they were manning the front line trenches opposite Neuve Chapelle.

“The evidence that the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914 is incontrovertible,” says Peter.

“They relieved the 2nd Middlesex Regiment at 6pm on Christmas Eve, presumably with a heavy heart and probably cursing their luck about where their own Christmas Day was to be spent.

“To their immediate left the 2nd Cameronians were relieved by the Devons.

“A Lieutenant Malcolm Kennedy recalled: ‘For the time being, all the horrors and discomforts of the war seemed to be forgotten. The Christmas spirit was in the air. As we filed out of the trenches that evening, we exchanged greetings with the Devons, who came to relieve us … while ever and anon came the shouts from the German trenches conveying similar sentiments of friendship and goodwill to us all.’

“The Battalion War Diary of the 2nd West Yorkshires tells us that overnight there was ‘a sharp white frost’ - classic Christmas card weather, which made all the trenches ‘nice and dry’ – a welcome and marked change to their usual state. The clouds dispersed and the sun shone out of a beautiful blue sky following a clear night with a full moon low on the horizon. ‘All was quiet’.”

Unlike the 2nd Devonshires, whose soldiers fraternised with their German opponents in No Man’s Land, swapping anecdotes and gifts, Frederick Hoy and his mates simply used the time to bury their fallen comrades, Hostilities recommenced later that same day.

On December 27 they were relieved by the 2nd Middlesex Regiment and on the following day, Princess Mary’s Christmas gift and postcards were distributed, as well as plum puddings.

Three men from South Shields, George Bellas, Ernest Weldon and James Wilson, just missed out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience by arriving in France on December 28

“They must have been astounded when they teamed up with the West Yorks and heard what had happened,” says Peter.

Participants in the Christmas truce of 1914:

•Lance-Corporal William Archibald, the eldest son of William and Elizabeth Archibald, of 53 Wharton Street, South Shields. He would later die in September 1916, aged 23, from wounds received in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1 that year. He went on to be commemorated on the roll of honour of Whitburn Colliery where he worked.

•Private James Cockburn was the eldest son of Mrs Elizabeth Cockburn, of 2 Robertson Street, South Shields. He also worked at Whitburn Colliery and would die of wounds in April 1916.

•Private Joseph Dickinson was the son of the late John and Mary Jane Dickinson, of 23 Cobden Street, Jarrow. He worked at Palmer’s shipyard and would be killed in action in January 1915. He is commemorated on the Palmer’s cenotaph.

•Lance-Corporal Frederick Hoy was the seventh son of Matthew and Ann Hoy, of 10 Alnwick Road, South Shields. A putter at Harton Colliery, he survived the war and married Sarah Ellen Baines in 1918. He died in 1957, aged 65.

•Private William Hunter was the eldest son of Isabella Hunter, of 162 Stevenson Street, South Shields, and the late William Hunter Snr. He also worked at Whitburn Colliery and was only 21 when he died of wounds on July 2, 1916 on the Somme.

•Private John McBarron worked as a labourer at Hebburn shipyard before the war. He was the son of Mary McBarron, of 156 Cuthbert Street, Hebburn and the late John McBarron. He would be killed in action in April 1915, aged 27, and is also commemorated on the Palmer’s Cenotaph.

•Private Arthur Moffett had lived with his parents, Thomas and Mary Moffett, at 76 Heron Street, South Shields. He would be killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

•Lance- Corporal Thomas Steven was born and enlisted at Jarrow. He was a regular soldier and would be killed in action in August 1915.

•Private George Turnbull was the eldest son of Rebecca Turnbull, of 83 John Williamson Street, South Shields, and the late George Turnbull. He was a putter at Whitburn Colliery and had married Mary Edmundson (nee Robson) in 1912. They had two children. George would go on to die of wounds in August 1917.

Of the arrivals on the front line in Christmas week:

•Private George Bellas was born in Bishop Auckland and worked as a putter at Whitburn Colliery. He enlisted at South Shields and would later die of wounds in March 1917

•Private Ernest Weldon was a father of six. He and his wife, Caroline, lived at 54 Stoddart Street, South Shields. A veteran of the Boer War, he was wounded in the head during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and died in a London hospital in March 1915, aged 36. He is commemorated on the dock superintendent’s staff roll of honour, Tyne Dock, and the North Eastern Railway Memorial at York.

•Private James Wilson was the son of Thomas and Mary Wilson, of 87 Taylor Street, South Shields, and husband of Mary Millard (formerly Wilson). His home was Havelock Street at the time he was killed in action in October 1916, as part of the Somme offensive. He was 26 and was commemorated on the Holy Trinity Boys’ School roll of honour.