SHAFAQNA –The Christmas truce of 1914 is supposed to have been the moment that the fighting of the Great War stopped and soldiers on both sides climbed out of their trenches to shake hands and play football.
The event mythologised in popular history was not quite what we think, however. The story of how German snipers killed two British riflemen on Christmas Day has been pieced together by a military historian 100 years after thousands of their comrades temporarily laid down their weapons.
While the guns fell silent along stretches of the Western Front, the goodwill ran out half a mile short of the Rue De Bois, near the French village of Festubert. There the frontline trenches were manned by a brigade of Guards, the British Army’s most professional troops, for whom the idea of fraternisation was inconceivable.
Early on Christmas morning the Germans had hoisted lanterns as a gesture of goodwill, only to have them shot out. In return, a German sniper claimed the life of Private Percy Huggins, 23, who was on sentry duty at a forward listening post.
The soldier’s death enraged his comrades. His platoon sergeant, Tom Gregory, an experienced soldier and marksman, demanded to take Huggins’s place so he could avenge his comrade’s death. He set about scanning the German trenches. As soon as he spotted the sniper, Gregory took him out with a single shot. Sadly, a second German sniper already had Gregory in his sights and killed him in a deadly split-second exchange of fire.
Huggins and Gregory were just two of the 149 British and Commonwealth servicemen who lost their lives on December 25, 1914, though many of those died of previously inflicted wounds.
The story came to light after the Huggins family offered his letters home from the trenches to the Herts at War project, an exhibition to mark the centenary of the start of the Great War.
Intrigued, the historian Dan Hill scoured military records, regimental diaries, letters and interviews with Great War veterans to piece together an account of the Christmas Day truce that never was.
He said: “There’s no doubt that a truce of sorts took place in multiple points along the line of trenches forming in France and Belgium. These men did shake hands and exchange gifts and wished each other a merry Christmas.
“The story of Percy and Tom’s tragic demise serves to highlight that December 25, 1914, was just another day on the Western Front for some.”
Gregory, from Watford, was a veteran of the Boer War and had been a postman before re-joining the army in 1914. He and his wife, Jeanette, had seven children, the youngest born on December 18, 1914, a week before his death. Huggins, from Ware, Hertfordshire, worked in his family’s upholstery business and was a member of the Territorial Army.
The two men were buried side by side at Le Touret Military Cemetery in Béthune, France.
Gregory’s granddaughter Audrey McLachlan, 80, said: “With this year being the 100th anniversary of the truce, people naturally talk about this wonderful event but to me it will always be the day my grandfather was killed.”