No Christmas Truce

No Christmas Truce for Tutbury Soldier

The first soldier from Tutbury to die in WWI was Grenadier William Edgar Priestley aged 22, of Cornmill Lane, who was killed in action on Christmas Day 1914.  He is buried in the Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy, Pas de Calais.  He was a professional soldier with 2nd Bn Grenadier Guards who had fought in the mobile war that took place in France between August and November 1914 when the end of the 1st Battle of Ypres saw the start of trench warfare.

It is often thought that the major casualties in WWI did not start until trench warfare became the norm, but mobile war took a huge toll before the post Ypres stalemate set in:

  • On the 22nd August 1914 the French lost 27,000 dead in one day – 8,000 more that the British lost on the infamous First Day of the Somme two years later
  • Between August and December the French suffered 329,000 dead and over 650,000 wounded
  • The Germans had 800,000 casualties (dead and wounded) – 3 times as many died as in the entire Franco-Prussian War of 1870
  • The small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of approximately 120,000 professional soldiers fought major battles at Mons, Le Cateau and the 1st Battle of Ypres – over 41,000 of the “old” British Army died before Christmas 1914 and now rest in the local cemeteries.  Four times times as many British soldiers died in 1914 as in the whole of the three year Boer War

William Priestley’s 2nd Bn Grenadier Guards landed in France in mid-August 1914 and were involved in heavy fighting right up to Christmas; from their original strength of 29 officers and some 1,000 men the Grenadiers lost 959 killed, wounded or missing by the end of the year – practically their entire strength.  On Christmas Eve alone, they lost 3 officers and 15 other ranks killed, with 9 missing and 29 wounded.

The book “Fifteen Rounds a Minute: The Grenadiers at War, August to December 1914”, by Major “Ma” Jeffries and others, says of Christmas Day

Hard frost and ground as hard as bricks.  Dykes frozen over.  

At daybreak a few Germans put their heads up and shouted ‘Merry Xmas’.   

Our men, after yesterday, were not feeling that way, and shot at them.

William Priestley died in that day’s fighting, shot by a sniper.

The legend of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is well known, with many accounts on the Internet such as the websites Hellfire Corner, Spartacus Educational and Wikipedia.  However, what is less well known is that the truce only applied to the Western Front and even then, only in a few parts – heavy fighting and snipers took their toll elsewhere.  

The website “The Long, Long Trail” has an account indicating the losses that were sustained, and fits in with the fact that for Tutbury, the first casualty of the war was Grenadier William Edgar Priestley.  “The Long, Long Trail” records that on Christmas Day 1914 the “2nd Grenadier Guards suffer losses in a day of heavy fighting”.

Most accounts talk of a general truce on Christmas Day and in some areas a five-day truce starting on Christmas Day.  The table below shows that in many areas this was not so.  Extracted from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website, it shows the countries in which the casualties who died were buried or remembered; this country is likely to be where they died.

The UK deaths were a combination of the wounded who died after repatriation and a large number of Royal Navy and Mercantile Marine men (see the second table).  

Even where the truce was supposed to be in operation on the Western Front, the table shows that, according to CWGC records, 22 died in Belgium and 57 in France on Christmas Day, 69 and 215 respectively over the five-day period.

Approximately 130 Regiments had men killed during this period; those suffering 10 or more deaths during the five-day “truce” are shown in the second table below.

The Mercantile Marine casualties in the second table were from three freighters; two were definitely sunk by a minefield off Scarborough and a third probably was.  Six of the Navy/Naval Reserve casualties were also from the same cause, the loss being an armed trawler on minesweeper duties.

The legend of the Christmas Truce hides the terrible reality that many families faced.

Christmas 1914 - Casualties by Country

Country of Burial
or Remembrance
Fri 25 DecSat 26 DecSun 27 DecMon 28 DecTues 29 DecTotal
Total1491066768112502
Australia11
Belgium226482969
Egypt42129
France5740363448215
Gambia11
Germany11125
Gibraltar112
India27110
Iraq22
Ireland, Republic of22127
Kenya213
Namibia112
New Zealand11
Nigeria12339
Pakistan112
Papua New Guinea11
South Africa11
Sudan11
United Kingdom5842182021159
United States of America11
Data extracted from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website.
Notes:
Australia – a member of the Australian Infantry Base Depot – death possibly due to accident or illness whilst serving.
Germany – presumably PoWs
Ireland – presumably died at home of wounds
New Zealand – a member of the "New Zealand Training Unit" – death possibly due to accident or illness whilst serving.
Papua New Guinea – there was a German Protectorate from 1884-1914 in the North-eastern part of New Guinea - it fell to Australian Forces in 1914.
USA - a Canadian Driver from the Field Artillery who was buried in Milwaukee

Christmas 1914 - Casualties by Regiment

RegimentFri
25 Dec
Sat
26 Dec
Sun
27 Dec
Mon
28 Dec
Tue
29 Dec
Total
ARMY
3rd Sappers and Miners1010
Coldstream Guards8442220
Gloucestershire Regiment521311
Grenadier Guards6211111
Middlesex Regiment4711
Royal Garrison Artillery3411110
Royal Scots2121410
Welsh Regiment3221412
NAVY
Mercantile Marine312051
Royal Naval Reserve8211214
Royal Navy5721318
Data from CWGC Database
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