A white lie Christmas?

25th December 1914

Merry Christmas everyone. I am writing this from my leather wing-backed armchair, fire crackling in the grate, chestnuts roasting (must move back a bit) and dogs at my feet. A glass of Lisbon’s finest at my side is pepped up with some meths from the garage, while Val Doonican croons festively from the gramophone. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin…

Christmas day 1914 in Wulverghem began with a sharp frost and most of the day was foggy. The Dorsets’ war diary reads as follows:

Quiet Day
Nothing to report
Casualties Nil

Good eh? Now, as everyone is probably bored to the back teeth by already, there were unofficial truces up and down the line on Christmas Day 1914. There are countless reasons why it happened and I won’t go into those here. This book, The Truce, by Chris Baker looks very interesting if you want to read further – although I’ll admit that I haven’t had time either so you’re forgiven too.

The 5th Division’s war diary records the following information:

In afternoon opposite Sector B a large number of Germans and our men meet half way between the trenches and fraternize (sic). Badges show the Germans to belong to Schulenberg’s Landwehr Brigade.

The Bedfords, who now shared Sector B with the Dorsets, also record nothing much in their war diary.

Christmas cards from Their Majesties the King & Queen distributed to all ranks of the Battn. Also present from Her R. Highness Princess Mary. Cold & frosty day. Quiet day. Germans semaphored over that they were not going to fire. Hard frost all day.

However, the Bedfords website annotates this with “[note that a private diary by a battalion member records fraternisation between men of B Company and the Germans in No Man’s Land]” but it doesn’t provide any information about how to find this diary. I thought I would be able to post excerpt here but only found quotations from the 2nd Bn Bedfords. It’s easy to muddle reports as the 2nd Bn Bedfords also met up with Germans further to the south.

So Sector B was visited by Germans yet the Dorsets fail to report that any meeting took place. I am very skeptical about their side of the story. We’ve seen the Dorsets skirt around facts a couple of times since they came to France. Once when attacking Hill 189 in September and another time when their attack failed at Givenchy in October.

The History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919 quotes from Ransome’s personal diary.

“Nothing unusual in this connection occurred on the Dorset front, except that no shot was fired by either side , but further south a certain amount of “friendly” intercourse took place.”

If we believe the 5th Division’s war diary then the fact that Germans came across to Sector B surely contradicts this statement by Ransome. Its inclusion of a denial in the regiment’s official history could be seen as an admission of guilt – when no guilt was deserved in the first place. Did the Dorsets agree to a blanket ban on talking about what happened 100 years ago today? Perhaps regimental pride dictated this silence, or perhaps it was the CO’s wishes. Or perhaps nothing happened at all. Until I find any evidence the official history stands true, or course. But did the Dorsets meet with the Germans, or at least bury dead in front of the trenches together?

We know that 15th Brigade had been criticised by Smith-Dorrien in the offensive at La Bassée. Did they feel that admitting to any fraternisation with the enemy would further dim their star? Is that why the Bedford’s diary is also silent about Christmas day? I need to do more research about this in order to satisfy they were telling the truth. But it cannot be ignored that Germans did come over into No Man’s Land in their sector. Count Gleichen, who still commandeered the 15th Brigade, admits that it happened in his memoirs – he’s only a mile up the road at Brigade HQ in Neuve Église.

The trenches were much less pestered with shells and bullets than the Dranoutre lot, and it was easier work altogether for the men. We quite enjoyed it, and on Xmas Day so did the Germans. For they came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks. What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men. Let them come? You could not let them come into your trenches; so the only thing feasible at the moment was done—and some of our men met them halfway and began talking to them.

Whatever happened the Dorsets enjoyed a quiet day without the usual danger of enemy fire. I do hope Frank enjoyed his new vest and pants and perhaps a lovely bar of “Choc”.

I also hope you have a lovely day with your families.


A Twiss in the tale

20th December 1914

Today the weather lifted enough for the buzz of aeroplanes fill the air once more. The 5th Division’s war diary contains maps made by reconnaissance fly overs and the aeroplane was now proving itself very useful to both sides. Reconnaissance on the ground continued too. We learn, again through the 5th Division’s war diary, that Captain Twiss of the Dorsets discovered the enemy were holding the opposing trenches in strength. He also engaged and wounded a German patrol in No Man’s Land. I think this report was actually activity from the previous day, as the Dorsets diary doesn’t contain any further mention of patrols under the 20th December. The Dorsets’ diary records that the situation was quiet all day.

I hadn’t heard of Captain Twiss before today. Edward Kemble Twiss was born in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1882. It appears that he was attached to the Dorsets from the 10th Jats, Indian Army. When that happened remained a mystery but I hazard a guess that as the Indian Corps replaced the 5th Division at La Bassée at the end of October it might have happened then. He was certainly cited for a DSO as part of the Dorsets in November.

Looking at one of his medal index cards it looks like his disembarkation date was 18th September 1914 which is 8 days earlier that the rest of the Indian Corps. Was he in England on leave at the outbreak of war and shoehorned into a draft of reinforcements for the Dorsets? They were certainly desperate for officers at that time.

Twiss played first class cricket for the Europeans, one of four segregated teams who played each other in the Bombay Quadrangular; the other teams being the Parsees, Hindus and the Muslims. They played each other in various formats between 1892 and 1948. The match I found had Twiss taking 6 for 30 in just 14 overs. Impressive figures!

He survived the war and died suddenly in 1943 in Brighton aged just 60. His son was Admiral Sir Frank Roddam Twiss (1910-1994) who was the Black Rod from 1970 to 1978.


The ballad of Frank’s censor

PC to Miss Crawshaw franked 18 De 14 – censor Tilly / Lilly
dated 17-12-14

Dear Till

Just a few lines to your welcome letter which I received alright. Yes that will be best as regards the underclothes and don’t forget the socks then Till I will write you a long letter when I receive your parcel, so hope you won’t mind PC for now. No I never received the Choc. Don’t talk about rain we are having plenty. Glad to hear that Mattie got my letter ask him what he thought of it. Well I am getting on alright and as well as can be expected. Well by the time you get this Xmas will be here so will wish you a Merry time and hope to see you soon. Now I think this is all for now as time is scarce and I hope you are all in the best of health and still Totting love to all.


Another letter from Frank which is just a thank you postcard really. He still hasn’t had any chocolate from my Great Grandfather.

We now have the name of another censor, which is great. Geoff has written Tilly/Lilly and this is most probably Lieutenant Charles Otto Lilly. He went out to France as a subaltern with A Company. It’s very probably (one in four?) that he was Frank’s platoon commander. If this is true, then he’s probably the main contact Frank had with the officers of the Dorsets. Most communication from higher up would have come down the line of command through his NCOs.

Lilly was a similar age to Frank, just three years older. He was born in Paddington in 1890 to a wealthy family, just a few miles north from Brixton but a million miles away from Frank’s world. Lilly attended Public School (St Paul’s School in West London – here’s a 1908 cricket scorecard with him on) and then he joined the Dorsets in 1911 from a Territorial University unit but the Gazette doesn’t say which one. It was Jesus College, Cambridge as I’ve just found him on a War List of the Universities. If Frank and Charles ever did University Challenge it would be like this.

Lilly was mentioned in Dispatches in October 1914, and earned the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), presumably for the fighting around La Bassée (and possibly the 12th October 1914 when A Company held the bridge at Pont Fixe) where so many of Frank’s comrades ended their war. He sounds like a remarkable solider and it’s a shame we haven’t met him sooner. He’s actually the first officer I researched a few years ago and so I’ve blown the dust off my previous research today.

Lilly’s story will probably be returned to in the future so I won’t go into further details of his Dorset career here. He left the Dorsets in 1917 but he didn’t go far. He just took to the air. Lilly joined the 6th Brigade Royal Flying Corps, then part of the army, what eventually became the third arm of the forces, the Royal Air Force in 1918. He was assigned to a newly formed 120 squadron in 1918 so we can presume he flew bombers. He left the RAF in 1919 and returned to the Dorsets, but was put on the RAF’s reservist list as a pilot in 1940 aged 50. Lilly died in 1976 in Paddington, London.

Lilly wrote a memoir of his experiences and revisited Flanders in 1927. I would love to read it as it could be the closest connection to Frank there is apart from these letters. It’s quoted in Salient Points Three: Ypres & Picardy 1914-18 by Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith but it is listed in the bibliography as unpublished. I wonder where the authors accessed a copy?


I left this next bit off the post yesterday and those who get emails also got a garbled load of nonsense (more than usual) so apologies for the glitch. I blame the rum punch (I wish). The Dorsets marched at 3.50pm as the light faded and relieved the East Surrey Regiment east of Wulverghem. The relief was completed at a very precise 9.55pm. No one was hurt. I’ve posted the map in tomorrow’s post.

Snow rest for the wicked


19th November 1914

At 5am the Dorsets formed up to the west of Ploegsteert wood at Petit Pont, exactly where they had stood sixteen days ago. Although their experience in the woods had been fraught and miserable with danger, cold and damp, it must have felt like a holiday compared to La Bassée.

Now the Dorsets were on the move again and into the care of 14th Brigade. They marched at 7am, this time four miles to the northwest, via Neuve Église to Dranoutre (now Dranouter*), into billets and rest. Major Fraser resumed command of the Battalion. Heavy snow fell that day, which settled and froze solid by 4pm, according to the 14th Brigade’s diary.

* I’m using the old French terms for these towns. From 1921 onwards, Belgian place names changed into Dutch. For instance Neuve Église is now Nieuwkirke and Ypres is Ieper.

They have no fear in them

### 16th November 1914

In the yesterday’s letter, Frank reports that the first snow has fallen. The weather was definitely turning. Gleichen reports that at the time “the weather had turned beastly cold—snowstorms and sleet during the day and a hard frost at night”.

Frank gives Mabel his location by referencing the London Scottish. They had achieved the dubious honour of being the first Territorial battalion to see action. They lost nearly half their strength preventing the Germans breaking through the allies’ lines on the 31st October at Messines. He also mentions the Indian Corps which would have been from his time at La Bassée and seems especially impressed by the Gurkhas, who allegedly terrified the Germans “with their knives in their hands coming after them they have no fear in them when they start”. The letter is the most expressive of all the letters so far. His description of the hopelessness of men trapped out in the open is very moving.

Frank mentions a winner of the “French Legion of Honour who was killed.” The truth of this story is quite tragic. The battalion was awarded a Médaille Militaire, a French award that could also be given to foreign nationals. Lieutenant-Colonel Bols had decided it should be awarded to the machine gun section for its work on the 26th August at Mons. It’s not clear what date this happened or why the battalion won the award. It’s a story I will return to. Private Thomas Anthony Skipsey was selected as its recipient by the rest of the machine gun section. He remarked that he “would be the first to meet trouble”. He wasn’t wrong. On the 13th October Skipsey was shot and killed. The medal isn’t listed on his Medal Card, nor in the Medal Rolls, but it is noted on his CWGC casualty details page.

The Dorsets began to withdraw from their positions, getting ready for welcome relief. D Company went first, assembling at Battalion HQ with C Company at 6am. The machine gun was withdrawn from A Company’s trench.

At 2pm tragedy struck B Company. Some high explosive shells burst in one of their their trenches and buried part of a platoon. Men from C Company were sent to support them. At 6pm A and B Companies were ordered to withdraw from their positions but that was cancelled just half and hour later.

11th Brigade had already been informed that the Dorsets were to remain in their command for another day so all this movement seems to have been rather a waste of time. The 11th Brigade’s diary also rather testily notes that snipers had infiltrated the lines behind Hill 63 and the Dorsets are ordered to catch them. Lieutenant-Colonel Butler “suggests” the Dorsets assign observation posts on the top of the hill. The lack of any mention of this in the Dorsets’ war diary suggest to me that this “suggestion” carried a bit more weight than that.

I get the impression from the 11th Brigade’s diary that they had a less than favourable impression of the Dorsets. Whether this was due to inter-divisional rivalry or that the Dorsets’ reputation was tarnished from their disastrous time at La Bassée it’s impossible to say. I might be totally imagining this but the Dorsets’ star has definitely waned since the broiling heat of September.

The Dorsets’ diary reports 5 killed with 2 wounded. CWCG lists 5 men killed too. One of these men, James Henry Budden aged 34, came from a Peabody Estate in Vauxhall. I’ve just come home from one on the Old Kent Road. That is all.