In his original Christmas Truce article, Taff Gillingham of "The Khaki Chums" gave a description of what the Chums has planned for their stay in the trenches over Christmas, 1999. In this update, you read what actually happened!
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Sgt. Gillingham "Somewhere in Belgium" - Christmas 1999.
It seemed like a great idea in the sweltering heat of southern Spain when we were filming "All The King's Men" with the BBC. A really ground-breaking trip of the kind that had not been attempted for at least 80 years! A detachment of the Khaki Chums would travel to Flanders and commemorate the 1914 Christmas Truce on one of the sites where it actually happened ('Plugstreet' where Bruce Bairnsfather the cartoonist - inventor of "Ole Bill"- spent Christmas Day 1914) and live for five days exactly how the troops would have at the time - mud, trenches, the full works. Of course, such a blatantly daft idea would never actually happen...
22 December 1999 saw nine Chums representing Regiments as diverse as The Royal Warwicks, The Bedfords, The Argyl & Sutherland Highlanders, The Cheshires, The North Staffords, The London Rifle Brigade, The Norfolks and The Scots Guards attempting to get nine Victorian doors, 500 sandbags, firewood, picks, shovels, food (all in period labelled tins) and vast quantities of junk that served no purpose other than to add to the general ambience of the proposed trench, into two vehicles that seemed to shrink every time something else was put in. After a tiring and heavily overloaded journey we arrived at the small hamlet of St Yvon at 7.00am on 23 December.
Work commenced immediately - a firepit was built and tea prepared. Meanwhile the endless sandbag filling went on. Our arrival had not gone unnoticed and the locals appeared offering hot drink, food and 'proper' places to sleep. Most left in a bemused state when we refused all offers of spare centrally-heated rooms - "Yes madam, we really are going to sleep in this very muddy hole in this very muddy field..." "And yes, our kit is all exactly spot on - right down to the underwear!" It really was - wherever you looked from paper labels on food to the small kit in the men's pockets - 1999 had been left totally at home.
3-Man Dug-out, Christmas Eve
By the end of the first day the trench was coming along very well. Owing to the high water table, the trench was dug 3' 6" deep and the parapet was built up another 3' with sandbags - all as per the manuals of the time. As darkness fell, there was not enough sleeping room for everyone - but someone was on duty all the time in any case.
The bottom of the trench 'ate' the timber planks (no duckboards in December 1914) as quickly as we could lay them - they literally disappeared into the bottomless mud. If left to its own devices the water would rise up several inches deep in a matter of hours and had to be baled out regularly. The night was very cold but mainly dry. Rifleman Maltby slept on the firestep all night with whoever was on duty at the time as company. The sleeping quarters were exactly as they would have been at the time - scrapes in the mud - 4ft wide, 7.5ft long and 2.5ft high. Three people could just squeeze into one with great difficulty and lots of discomfort. However, once inside they were surprisingly warm. The walls were built up from sandbags, but the base was dug 1ft into the mud. The top was roofed with old doors (originally taken from derelict farms - hence our need to take some with us!) and then covered with a thin layer of mud for (inadequate) protection against shrapnel. After a couple of hours you were aware of a wet sensation all around you and you always awoke to find yourself sleeping in a few inches of water with all your clothes soaked right through to the skin.
Christmas Eve, 8.00 p.m.
Christmas Eve dawned a bright, crisp day. Local and national newspapers, radio and television had all come to see the English 'nutters' sleeping in a muddy hole. They came from all over Europe to see us. From every country except predictably Germany and Britain. Overnight we had become the stars of Christmas 1999 and everyone wanted to see us. Over the next few days over 1,500 people came from as far away as the Belgian/Dutch border and the Brittany coast. One couple who had heard of our exploit on the the Hellfire Corner website came over on Boxing Day to make a donation and see us in person - a gesture we all really appreciated.
The digging continued throughout Christmas Eve, and by late afternoon the place was looking quite comfortable - a real home from home. In fact just the place you would love to spend Christmas if you didn't want to spend it in an alcohol-induced slumber in front of a warm fire stuffing yourself senseless and swapping presents that you neither want or need with others who feel the same.
The Trench at "High Tide"
After dinner - cooked as always by Mike Johnson of 1/Royal Warwick, we marched down to the Ploegsteert Memorial to The Missing to parade and lay a wreath to all those killed in the area. By now the rain had started to fall heavily and soon everyone was wet through. After the parade, as we marched back up the hill, we were accosted by a family who were half way through their Christmas Dinner (eaten by the locals at about midnight on Christmas Eve). We were invited in for drinks - and as the alternative was a wet muddy hole we accepted. We saw in Christmas (local time) and then an hour later Christmas our time (we were operating on British Military Time during the whole trip - ie normal UK time, as the British Army did so during the Great War). After draining our hosts beer cellar dry we trudged off back to our by now not-so Des Res. The water was already 2ft deep and we set to baling out. At about 2.00am, Russian TV arrived for a surreal interview in the dark, the rain and the mud. At about 3.00am, Bob Stedman started suffering the first stages of hypothermia. He was rescued from his dugout and taken into the nearest barn where he responded to treatment. By the following morning he was back in action none the worse for wear.
Christmas Morning - 2.5 feet deep
In the meantime, the storm which hit France and Belgium on Christmas Eve arrived in Force. It was the worst storm in Belgium for 50 years. Within no time at all, there was nearly 3ft of water in the trench and it resembled an indoor swimming pool. At 5.30am it was decided to abandon the trench for the rest of the night on safety grounds. Already several sections of the parapet had caved in.
Bailing out on Christmas Day
In 1914 there would have been a whole platoon of infantry holding this stretch of line and the Engineers would have been on hand to shore the sides up and pump the water out. I decided that I did not need to get anyone killed in the interests of reality, so we retreated to the barn (which was actually much colder than the tiny dugouts).Christmas morning dawned cold and bright and there were plenty of people arriving to wish us well. There were presents from families and friends at home who had sent gifts and cards out to Belgium to be delivered by the locals on Christmas Day. These were much appreciated. Everyone had a gift box from HRH Princess Mary. The smokers had cigarettes and tobacco - the non-smokers had sweets in theirs in the form of a slab of acid drops - all in very smart brass gift boxes with a portrait of HRH on the top. These gifts went down very well. Very special thanks to Charlotte and family of Varlet Farm, Poelkapelle, for all their help and support which was greatly appreciated as always.
Alf and Bob - Christmas, 1999
There were messages of support too from Chums supporters such as Spike Milligan, David Jason, Patrick Malahide, Sir Winston Churchill, and Earl Haig of Bermersyde to name (drop) a few. These really cheered the boys up.
At 10.00am there was Church Parade. The names of all those who were killed on Christmas Day 1914 - and also those who died of their wounds were read out and hymns were sung, including Abide with Me and Jerusalem.
By now the locals had brought us so many presents - mainly of the bottled variety - that we could have started up an off-licence. You would not believe how many people would go out on Christmas Day to see a group of foreigners baling water and mud from a hole in Belgium!
We really did strike a chord with the locals. Those of you who attend ceremonies in war cemeteries in France or Belgium will know that rarely do the locals show any interest. However, in all our tv and newspaper interviews we had explained our reasons for being there:
1) To raise money for ex-service charities.
2) To experience some of the life of the soldier 'first hand'.
3) And finally, at Christmastime when everyone enjoys themselves and drinks too much and eats too much and everyone has lots of presents, we hope that everyone will stop, just for one minute, and spare a thought for all those who fought here and died here.
Judging by the support we received from all across Europe we like to think that the locals did just that. (Our Charity Appeal has now nearly reached the £2,000 mark - and still the money comes in!)
The Memorial Cross
At the end of our stay we planted a large cross as a mark of respect for those who fought and died in the area. As with our wreaths we expected it to be uprooted and thrown away shortly after we left. Therefore it came as quite a surprise to hear that the local people had treated the cross with wood preservative and set it in a concrete base. Already there are several poppy crosses at its base and the locals will keep it well looked after. It is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914.
On Parade at the Menin Gate
On Christmas night we paraded at the Menin Gate and laid a wreath. Afterwards we marched through the deserted streets of Ypres on our way back to the trench. The rain continued to be very heavy and once again the whole trench was filled with water. Our Christmas Dinner was cooked in the farmers barn and a superb meal it was too thanks to the efforts of L/Cpl "Old Bill" Smith and Pte Johnson.
Reveille - Boxing Day
On Boxing Day morning my clothing was so wet I made a 'waistcoat' from two sandbags to wear under my tunic. My greatcoat was full of water as I had been sleeping in it in two inches of water. I put on my goatskin instead.
Sgt. Gillingham in the mud
The goatskins were great - the best bit of kit to have with you in a wet, muddy hole in Belgium. Totally windproof, they were very warm and I soon dried off. When I say dried off, I don't mean properly - at no time from Christmas Eve onwards were any of us dry. Feet were dried at least once every day and dry socks put on (until after you have used your third pair you have to put on the damp pair from two days ago!). Re-tying wet, mud-encrusted putties is a bit of an art form too.
At lunchtime reinforcements arrived - Ptes. Knights (Essex Rgt) and Stokes (Devons). On arriving they surveyed the scene and wondered why they didn't stay at home! They were soon as mud spattered as the rest of us. After lunch the local Fire Brigade offered to pump out the trench which seemed a good idea as we had lost quite a bit of kit in the quagmire. In fact it makes you realise why there is so much stuff still being dug up all over France and Belgium. We lost everything from trench lighters to clips of .303 and even an original period HP sauce bottle!
11.45 p.m., Boxing Day
On Boxing night we paraded again at the Menin Gate and after the Last Post ceremony we handed BF 10,000 to the Buglers as a donation to their funds in recognition of our ongoing good relations with them. We were then invited to a posh hotel for a meal as guests of Teddy and Tony Noyes - former President of the Old Contemptibles Association and Chairman of the Western Front Association respectively. This gesture was very much appreciated by all ranks.
We then headed back to the barn where we staged our final night concert party. The star turn was L/Cpl Old Bill Smith's Yuletide Trench Ditty with Pte Clover's tutu a close second. After a few beers everyone was content to stay in the barn on the comfy straw, but being the b*****d that I am I ordered them to take their positions for the final time. After much muttering, off they trudged to the muddy hole - with Clover wearing his filthy goatskin and his tutu.
The next morning we started filling the whole thing in again - an operation which took all day! After all our goodbyes and Thank-Yous we managed to catch a ferry at 9.00pm and finally arrived home still filthy dirty and damp many hours later. My kit is still covered with Flanders mud!
It had been an amazing experience. People have said "Ah, but you weren't being shot at" - but there was a truce - in most places that Christmas of 85 years ago it would have looked, felt, smelt and tasted just like it did last December.
Bruce Bairnsfather wrote a book in 1916 called "Bullets and Billets". Pages 44 to 49 could have been written by any of the Chums last Christmas (Bairnsfather was in exactly the same muddy field). Some of the boys said they wouldn't say they enjoyed it - but they wouldn't have missed it for the world. Personally, I enjoyed every filthy, wet, miserable mud-soaked second. In fact some of us would probably still be there now if we could!
Special thanks to all of you who have already sent in donations to our charity appeal. The money continues to come in and we are now very near to our target of £2,000. If you have not made a donation and would like to, please send cheques to:
THE ASSOCIATION FOR MILITARY REMEMBRANCE
218 Colchester Road, Ipswich, Suffolk. IP4 4QZ
Thank you for your support.
Taff Gillingham, CiC The Khaki Chums
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Copyright © Taff Gillingham, March, 2000.
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