A newly-discovered letter written during the First World War reveals astonishing details about the well-known truce on Christmas Day in 1914 – and one British general’s reluctance to mix with the Germans.
Unearthed by archivists, the letter, written by General Sir Walter Congreve VC, provides a graphic first-hand account of troops from opposing sides sharing cigars and playing football as fierce fighting continued nearby in northern France.
It was donated to Staffordshire's archive service in the 1970s and came to light during research to mark the centenary of the outbreak of war.
The remarkable document, which was sent to Sir Walter’s wife, reveals how news of the Christmas Day football match spread quickly along the front line.
But Sir Walter, who led the Rifles Brigade and drafted the letter after visiting trenches near Neuve Chapelle, declined to join in.
He wrote: “I found an extraordinary state of affairs - this am a German shouted out that they wanted a day's truce and would one come out if he did.
“So very cautiously one of our men lifted himself above the parapet and saw a German doing the same.
“Both got out then more and finally all day long in that particular place they have been walking about together all day giving each other cigars and singing songs.”
The senior commander, who survived the war despite losing his left hand in action, said he was reluctant to take part for fear that shots might be fired at such a high-ranking officer.
“I was invited to go and see the Germans myself but refrained as I thought they might not be able to resist a general,” he wrote.
“My informant, one of the men, said he had had a fine day of it & had smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army, then not more than 18.
“They say he's killed more of our men than any other 12 together but I know now where he shoots from and I hope we down him tomorrow.
“I hope devoutly they will.”
The letter, which will be put on public display at Stafford's Records Office tomorrow, goes on to chronicle how some battalions continued to exchange fire, while others played football with their German counterparts.
Commenting on the letter, Cllr Ben Adams, cabinet member responsible for Archives at Staffordshire County Council, said: “The 1914 Christmas Day truce is one of the iconic memories of World War One and to have such a detailed account from a high-ranking officer, written on the actual day is a real gem.
“The fact that the letter has come to light in the year we commemorate the centenary of the Great War makes its existence even more special.
“We are incredibly proud to be the custodian of such a valuable document which we will protect and preserve so it can be shared and enjoyed by generations for years to come.”
Anthony Richards, head of documents and sound at the Imperial War Museum, hailed the letter as an interesting addition to the various accounts of the Christmas truce story.
“A particularly nice feature of the letter is Congreve's reluctance to witness the truce for himself, fearing the temptation for the enemy to have a shot at him,” he said.
Sir Walter, who was born in Chatham, Kent, was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the face of the enemy during the Second Boer War in 1899.
His son, Major William La Touche Congreve, was also honoured with a Victoria Cross after being killed in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.
Additional reporting by Press Association
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