The Christmas Truce of December 1914 has become an enduring image of the pointlessness of war.
A Midland soldier lived through the incredible moment – and now his diaries are being published.
Regimental Sergeant Major George Beck’s harrowing account of life in the trenches during the First World War has been revealed 100 years after they were first written.
RSM Beck’s handwritten diary describes the grim reality of the Somme and the use of poison gas during four years on the Western Front serving with the 1st Warwickshire Regiment.
His entry for Christmas Day 1914 notes: “Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs.
“Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our bully beef and jam. Majority of them know French fluently.”
He also describes how the sworn enemies played football, shared cigars and how a German band played God Save the King, which made the British troops think of home.
The soldier’s immaculate handwriting also records lighter moments during the heat of battle with a snowball fight against the French.
In his early entries, he describes the novelty of seeing aeroplanes for the first time and mentions the wounding of a Lieutenant Montgomery on 13 October 1914 – the officer who would become Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein.
RSM Beck was awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Cross in the war but turned down a commission to become an officer.
He was born in Budbrooke, near Warwick, in 1881 and enlisted in 1898, when he was just 18, serving in South Africa during the Boer War.
Rising through the ranks he was promoted to colour sergeant in 1905, which enabled him to marry.
In 1907 he married Eliza Attwooll, of Portland in Dorset, and settled on the island raising six children.
After the First World War, RSM Beck worked at the Duke of Yorkshire School, in Dover, for nearly four years until he was discharged on the grounds of ill health. He then worked as an inspector for the Portland Bus Company before dying of pneumonia and influenza on March 20 1928 at his home in Portland.
He was gassed at least once, and his death at 48 may have been partly caused by the damage mustard gas did to all those who survived it.
RSM Beck received full military honours at his funeral at St George’s Church on Portland.
His diaries remained with his family and have been given to the Dorset History Centre by his granddaughter Caroline Milverson.
The diaries will be published online from August 21 at news.dorsetforyou.com/rsm-beck-diary.
Mrs Milverson said: “I am delighted that more people will now be able to learn about my grandfather’s thoughts and feelings as he wrote his diaries 100 years ago.”
As well as posting the diary extracts on the blog, the history centre will also be ‘live’ tweeting entries from the diaries a century after they were written. They can be followed on Twitter at @RSM-GBeck.
The diaries have been transcribed over many months by history centre volunteer Alison Schwalm.
She said: “It has been a privilege to transcribe these diaries written by a courageous professional soldier, a non-commissioned officer who obviously cared greatly for his comrades as well as his young family at home.”
Extracts of Regimental Sergeant Major George Beck’s war diary
24th Dec 1914 - Point 63
Quiet day. Relieved 2nd R DUB FUS [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] in the trenches in the evening. Germans shout over to us and ask us to play them at football, and also not to fire & they would do likewise. At 2 a.m. (25th) A German Band went along the trenches playing “Home, sweet Home” and God Save the King which sounded grand and made everyone think of Home. During the night several of our fellows went over “No Man’s Land” to German lines & was given a drink & cigars.
25th Dec 1914 - Trenches St Yves
Christmas Day. Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our bully beef and jam. Majority of them know French fluently. A few men of the regiment assisted in burying the dead of the Somerset Light Infantry who were killed on 19.12.14. Fine frosty day. Very cold.
26th Dec 1914 - Trenches St Yves
Unofficial truce kept up and our own fellows intermingled still with the Germans. No rifle shots fired, but our artillery fired a few rounds on the German 3rd and 4th lines and Germans retaliated with a few rounds on D Coys (Company’s) trenches. Two wounded.
27th Dec 1914 - Trenches St Yves
No sniping. A few whiz bangs on D Coys trenches. One wounded.
3rd May 1915 - Shell Trap Farm (First mention of poison gas)
Heavily shelled during the morning, quiet in afternoon until about 4 pm when a cloud of German Gas was seen arriving catching 2 Regiments in the firing line which broke, the gas came on to us. Some of our men went back, but we formed up as many as possible & made a line in rear. Germans attempted an attack from the wood which was repulsed with loss. These last 3 days had shaken the Regiment up & affected the Morale of the Regiment & we are in great need of a rest.
20th Oct 1915 - Trenches (Sucrerie-Mailly-Maillet)
During night of 19th/20th about 12.30 am. A German approached D Coy & after being missed by the sentry a struggle ensued & the German fell into the trench, shot the Sentry in five places with a revolver & ran into living trench where he shot dead Pte Baker & stabbed Pte Spittle in the back making good his escape. Pte Ball & Pte Wall were on sentry at the time & warned the Coy to stand to – a search was made but no trace of the German. His cap was found in the trench. Battalion were relieved by 1st King’s Own Regt. At 8.30 pm. & marched to Billets in Forcevilla. Cold NE wind.
29th July 1916 - Camp - Poperinghe - Watteau Road (Battle of the Somme)
Trenches. Fine day. Very hot. Germans attempt to bomb our left post. D Coy. Attack repulsed very easily. Huns have 2 dead & have several other casualties. Our casualties 2 men shelled Div & Corps Comdr sends congratulatory message. Good information obtained.
19th Aug 1916 - Chateau
Very wet morning. Fine afternoon. Prepare for relief, which is cancelled about 2.3 pm. Very glad as trenches are bad through rain. Quiet day. Bad night, rats make a terrible noise.