General who refused WWI Christmas Day truce

British and German soldiers put down their guns for football. Picture: PA

British and German soldiers put down their guns for football. Picture: PA

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A LETTER revealing a British general’s reluctance to fraternise with German soldiers during the 1914 Christmas Day truce has been unearthed by archivists.

The first-hand account of troops from opposing sides sharing cigars and playing football as the First World War continued to rage all around was written by General Sir Walter Congreve VC.

Set to go on display today, the letter was donated to Staffordshire’s archive service in the 1970s and came to light during research to mark the centenary of the start of the 1914-18 war.

Sent to Sir Walter’s wife, the document details how news of the Christmas Day football match spread quickly along the front line. Sir Walter, who led the Rifles Brigade, drafted the letter after visiting trenches near Neuve Chapelle in northern France on Christmas Day.

The senior commander, who survived the war despite losing his left hand in action, wrote: “I found an extraordinary state of affairs – this a.m. a German shouted out that they wanted a day’s truce & would one come out if he did.

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“So very cautiously one of our men lifted himself above the parapet & saw a German doing the same.

“Both got out then more & finally all day long in that particular place they have been walking about together all day giving each other cigars & singing songs.”

Describing how officers including several captains and a German colonel had joined the temporary ceasefire, Sir Walter said he was reluctant to take part for fear that shots might be fired at such a high-ranking officer.

He wrote: “I was invited to go & see the Germans myself but ­refrained as I thought they might not be able to resist a ­general.

“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 & 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, goes on to chronicle how some battalions continued to exchange fire, while others played football with their German counterparts.

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 VC after being killed at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

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