1914: the same regiments and a very famous truce

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The Independent Online

That the Highlanders will spend 25 December on duty in Iraq is a tough reality for the soldiers' families. But the Seaforth and Gordons - two of the regiments that make up the Highlanders - have a tradition of poignant battle-front Christmases.

Both regiments took part in the famous Christmas Day truce of 1914 when German and British soldiers all along the Western Front put down their guns and walked into no-man's land to fraternise, all too briefly, with the enemy.

Indeed, it was a Seaforth Highlander, stationed between Frelinghien and Houplines in north-eastern France, who produced the ball that led to one of history's most moving games of football - between the Seaforths and the Royal Saxon Regiment from the trenches opposite .

Royal Saxon officer Johannes Niemann recorded the football match and the spontaneous 1914 truce - one of the most fascinating episodes of the Great War - in his diary.

The days leading up to Christmas had been typically bloody, with casualities on both sides. But on a "cold and starry" Christmas Eve, Niemann writes, that gunfire petered out and an unusual quiet descended.

The German soldiers took advantage of the lull to erect little candlelit trees in their trenches, precipitating a sudden burst of gunfire from the Scots who mistook the lights for the start of an attack. But the night was soon silent again. By morning, the spirit of Christmas had overcome the rancid propaganda fed to both armies to fuel the conflict. Men on both sides seemed to be determined to treat each other - for a while at least - not as demons but fellow human beings. The Seaforths and the Royal Saxons began to clamber out of their wretched, rat-infested, water-filled trenches and walk across the wasteland to greet each other.

At other points along the Western Front it was the same story, much to the horror of British High Command which - perhaps in an attempt to prevent any communication between ordinary enemy soldiers - had warned that surprise attacks could be launched at Christmas and New Year.

Niemann was astounded by the outburst of fellow feeling when alerted to the fraternisation by an orderly.

"I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy," he wrote. "Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real match got under way."

Years later, Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforths also recalled the event with a sense of wonder and incredulity.

"What a sight - little groups of Germans and British extending along the length of our front," he said. "Where they couldn't talk the language, they made themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill."

The men played for an hour and the Germans beat the Scots 3-2 but it is doubtful the score mattered. Niemann recalls the German hilarity when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots were wearing nothing under their kilts.

But the laughter - and the contact - was not allowed to last. "When our commanding officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it," recalled Niemann. "A little later we drifted back to our trenches." By Boxing Day, all along the front the shooting had restarted.

The spontaneous burst of fellow feeling was not repeated in the four years of conflict that followed, claiming so many millions of lives. But for a heartbreakingly brief period, the truce shone a light into the darkness of war.