The diary of a First World War veteran has revealed his crucial role in the Christmas armistice of 1914. Richard McComb reports.
Robert Hamilton was an assiduous diary keeper, recording life’s daily occurrences between 1913 and 1950 with military precision.
The entries were no doubt pertinent to the author but generally were less than gripping for a wider audience. According to Robert’s grandson, Andrew Hamilton, who ploughed through his late forebear’s leather-bound volumes, much of the content was “unexceptional and rather dull”.
Thank goodness Andrew kept looking, however. As he scanned the diaries, the former Birmingham history teacher’s eye was caught by a slim, hardback volume. Unlike the rest of the collection, the text was typed rather than handwritten and was marked: “Diary kept by Captain R C Hamilton from August 5th 1914 to January 12th 1915.”
The volume contained fascinating details about the frontline service of Robert, a captain in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. There were stories of trench warfare, of boredom, random killing and belligerent batmen.
An entry for September 6, 1914, when the Warwicks were in northern France, is a succinct case in point: “On again at daybreak. Captured some skunking spies and shot them. Women and children we passed told awful stories of their atrocities.”
Four days later, Capt Hamilton, who commanded A Company, reports: “Stood to at 3.00am and moved off at 5.00. Halted while the guns opened fire, making a terrible din. This is hell. We came across numerous dead Germans. French farm girls came up with peaches and water.”
Andrew, a baronet living in Walton, Warwickshire, thought his relative’s account of life and death on the Western Front, of the sniping and the shelling, would be an invaluable resource for his pupils at Woodrush High in Hollywood, Birmingham, and later at Evesham High School, where he was appointed head of history. There is nothing like bringing history to life for jaded young minds.
Delight over the diary turned to astonishment, though, when Andrew worked his way through the entries up to December 25 and discovered, in his grandfather’s words: “A day unique in world history.”
It became clear that Capt Hamilton, who died in 1959 aged 81, had played a pivotal yet unrecognised role in one of the First World War’s most famous episodes – the celebrated Christmas truce of 1914, when opposing troops fraternised amid the slaughter and squalor of No Man’s Land.
His diary tells of the first tentative greeting between the frontline soldiers on Christmas Eve, the Germans shouting across the wire entanglements: “Are you the Warwicks?”
Capt Hamilton recounts how his former servant, a Pte Gregory, whom he had just sacked for making sub-standard tea, went “over the top” not on a bayonet charge but to collect his gift of a German cigar.
The officer was then asked to meet his opposite number in the 134th Saxon Regiment, which he pledged to do on Christmas Day. “I said I would meet him at dawn, unarmed,” writes Capt Hamilton.
Soldiers swapped buttons and badges. Others made toasts with mugs of rum. There were gestures of humanity, too, as men buried the dead of both sides.
The details of the extraordinary encounter in Flanders’ shattered fields are featured in a new book by Andrew Hamilton, titled Meet at Dawn, Unarmed, which focuses on his grandfather’s service with the Warwicks during the Great War.
Capt Hamilton, later to be made major and succeed his father, Frederic, as the 8th baronet of Silverton Hill (Andrew is the 10th), was born and brought up at Avon Cliffe, Tiddington, near Stratford-on-Avon. He married Irene (Renie) Mordaunt, second daughter of the dowager Lady Mordaunt, of Walton Hall, near Wellesbourne, in 1907. Her father, Sir Charles Mordaunt, had been MP for South Warwickshire.
The couple were prolific diary writers during Robert’s service on the Western Front and Renie’s entries are interspersed with her husband’s throughout Meet at Dawn, Unarmed, providing an insight into the traumas and tribulations of life on the Home Front. However, it is Capt Hamilton’s account of the Christmas armistice, on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood, known as Plugstreet, south of Messines, that provides the undoubted highlight of the book, co-written with First World War historian Alan Reed.
Capt Hamilton had previously served with the Norfolk Regiment in South Africa and by a weird coincidence the German chef who cooked at a regimental dinner, at Piccadilly’s Trocadero in 1912, cropped up in the “enemy” fire trench during the Christmas armistice. “He seemed quite delighted to meet some of his former clients,” writes Capt Hamilton.
A career soldier and later gentleman farmer, he had been called up into the Warwicks in 1913 and was among the first to sail to France with the British
Expeditionary Force in August 1914. His regimental brothers-in-arms included friends Bruce Bainsfather, the Great War cartoonist, who lived at Bishopton, Warwickshire, and Bernard Law Montgomery, better-known later as Field Marshal Montgomery, hero of the Second World War.
Soon after the momentous events of Christmas 1914, the full descriptions of which follow, Captain Hamilton returned to England on leave. He crossed to Folkestone on January 12, boarded a train and ate four boiled eggs in the restaurant car. He arrived home at 9pm, declaring: “All’s well that ends well.”
The officer, who appears to have been extremely popular with his men, suffered recurring problems with his ears, a condition exacerbated by shellfire and the grim trenches existence. His dodgy ears probably saved his life. Following an examination by two senior Army doctors, Capt Hamilton was deemed medically unfit for frontline service and was appointed commandant of a military detention barracks in Hereford.
Just a few months later, in April 1915, his battalion was decimated at the Second Battle of Ypres. Several officers who were with him at the front during the Christmas armistice were killed.
Capt Hamilton had loved the camaraderie of active service and viewed his new posting, dealing with conscientious objectors, with disdain. Andrew, who is 55 and has three daughters, says: “My grandfather was harsh with conscientious objectors and I feel pretty bad about that now. But he was an officer and he would do anything for a soldier in need.”
Andrew was initially concerned his grandfather’s diary description of the Christmas truce may have suffered from a “surfeit of truth”. But the contents appeared to be corroborated when he found Capt Hamilton’s original diary, written at the front, in pencil and standard issue purple crayon, and a second more detailed copy. The third, and final, typed draft contained only minor alterations from the trench diary, namely the omission of criticisms of the generals.
Ultimately, it is impossible to say if Capt Hamilton instigated the legendary Christmas ceasefire, which took place along the line, and certainly Andrew makes no claim in this respect. However, he adds: “My grandfather was there at dawn, meeting the Germans. Whether there were many other officers who had arranged to do this is difficult to say. But he was certainly one of the first to set it all off.”
* Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed, Meet At Dawn, Unarmed, published by Dene House Publishing, priced £16.99. To order, go to www.meetatdawnunarmed.co.uk
December 24 - I rode about in the morning but the mud and slosh made it most unenjoyable. We set off for the trenches at 6.30pm a little sad spending Xmas day in them. Crossing the well worn danger zone to our consternation not a shot was fired at us. The Dubs [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] told us as we relieved them that the germans wanted to talk to us. [Hamilton always uses the lower case “g” for the enemy.] When we were settled down we heard them shouting, “Are you the Warwicks?” To which our men replied, “Come and see.” They said “You come half way, and we will come half way, and bring you some cigars.” This went on for some time, when Pte Gregory, Double Ginger, my late servant, came and asked if he might go out half way. I said “Yes, at your own risk.”
Pte Gregory stepped over the parapet, and got half way, and was heard saying, “Well here I am, where are you?” “Come half way” they said, so on went Gregory, until he came upon two unarmed germans, and one fully armed, lying down just behind, with his rifle pointed at him, typically german. Gregory was unarmed and alone. Typically British. He got his cigar and spun them some magnificent yarns about the strength of his company, which amused us all very much when he told us later. They wanted me to meet their officer, and after a great deal of shouting across, I said I would meet him at dawn, unarmed.”
Xmas Day - I went out and found a saxon officer of the 134th saxon corp, who was fully armed. I pointed to his revolver and pouch. He smiled and said seeing I was unarmed, “All right now.” We shook hands, and said what we could in double Dutch, arranged a local armistice for 48 hours, and returned to our trenches. This was the signal for the respective soldiers to come out. As far as I can make out, this effort of ours extended itself on either side for some considerable distance. The soldiers on both sides met in their hundreds, and exchanged greetings and gifts.
We buried many germans, and they did the same to ours. The chef of the Trocadero was among the saxons in front of us, and he seemed quite delighted to meet some of his former clients. They told us quite frankly that Russia with her nine million soldiers was washed out, when Lieut Campbell of the Irish Fusiliers, who came out with me and who had heard, but did not believe that we went out and talked with the enemy, came along with his magnificent black beard. I took him out and said “What about this Russian?” They looked distinctly disappointed ... Wasey and I went to a concert in D company trench, and at about midnight, we attended another in our own. The Black Hat gang had rigged up an enormous dug out, and had plastered the walls with Tatler pictures of all the latest girls. They had a stove with a teapot singing away, and altogether it was a most enjoyable evening. A very merry Xmas and a most extraordinary one, but I doubled the sentries after midnight.
December 26 - The truce continues. Our guns opened fire on the second line german trenches, but not a rifle shot was fired all day. Such a relief to get one’s morning duties done in peace and comfort. It all seemed strangle quiet at night and I hope they are not cooking up some devilish plot. Wrote a longer letter to Renie [Robert’s wife]. The gang boarded the floor of my dug out, and put me in a stove and altogether made it so comfortable that my subs [subalterns] seemed to think they are entitled to it. The Xmas mail came out with stacks of good things for everybody. We all smoked german cigars.
Sunday December 27 - The truce continues, so we all walk about as if there was no enemy within a hundred miles of us. We have dug more trenches, made new parapets, and put up miles of entanglements, and at night we heard them doing the same. Can’t turn these talkative young subs out of my warm dug out with its fire. Shall have to detail a fatigue party to make them each, one of their own.
December 28 - It rained all day, and we were thankful we were going to be relieved tonight ... We were relived by the Dubs, and got down to our farm when an order came for a fatigue party of forty men to clear mud away tomorrow.