Joe Brown

WWI

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Joe Brown's story

On December the 11th the 1st North Staffords took over the trenches in the Rue Du Bors area, generally known as the “Death Trap” or “Dead Man’s Alley”, and remained there till relieved on December the 31st. The trenches were in a worse condition than during the last tour. They were well over knee deep in mud and water, and all reliefs had to take place over the open.

The 24th and 25th of December 1914 saw the extraordinary spectacle of an unofficial truce between our troops and the Saxons who were opposite. On Christmas Eve “C” Company was holding the left section of the Battalion front, with “A” Company on its right. Everything had been normal up to evening “Stand down” and the Company Commander was having his supper in the Headquarters dug-out, when the Company Sergeant-Major put his head in and said “What am I to do, Sir? The Germans are sitting on their parapets, lighting candles and singing hymns!” The Company Commander at once went out and mounting on the fire step saw small lights all along the German trenches and heard many voices up lifted in song.

He decided to consult with the Officer Commanding “A” Company, who was the Senior Officer in the front line, and accordingly started to make his way down the trench towards “A” Company Headquarters. On his way he surprised one of his men in the act of climbing out of the trench and discovered that there was a German soldier in “No man’s land, ” who wanted to speak to a British soldier, so ordering his own man back, he slipped out himself to investigate. The German turned out to be a private soldier who had been a waiter at Brighton, and was anxious to exchange cigars for bully beef. The Company Commander asked to be taken to an Officer, and was conducted to the German front line, where he found a group of German Officers standing by a wall of a ruined farm house. They were very suspicious and asked repeatedly if he was armed “Word of a Gentleman. ” He was not and said so and finally his word was accepted. Christmas greetings were interchanged and finally the suggestion was made that Christmas Day might be observed as a day of rest and that the Infantry should not fire on each other, though of course, neither side could answer for their Artillery.

It was then agreed that all Infantry fire should cease forthwith and that the informal truce should continue until 11 pm (12 midnight German time) on Christmas night.

The German spokesman now asked for permission to bury the dead with whose frozen corpses “No man’s land” was strewn. The Company Commander, who was a very junior Officer, felt that he was getting rather out of his depth, and replied that a senior Officer would have to deal with that question. He accordingly went back to his own front line, and seeking out the Officer commanding “A” Company, explained the situation to him. The latter had no qualms, and immediately went out and arranged for the burial parties from both sides to leave their trenches at 10 00 a. m on Christmas Day, each side to bury the dead in their own half of “No mans land.” The remainder of the night passed in absolute peace, and at 10 a. m. on Christmas Day, parties of men armed only with picks and shovels, sallied forth from each side. Ten minutes later the inevitable corpse was found astride the half-way line and in no time the burial parties were merged in fraternal disorder.

Some Uhlan Officers, who had been transferred to the Infantry, came out and posed for photographs in the centre of a group of British and German soldiers. They were magnificently polished and clean, which unfortunately, the British Officers were not. Soldiers from both sides did as requested and exchanged cigars for bully beef (Spam). During all this time sufficient men were kept posted in our trenches to check any attempt at treachery and to prevent any of the enemy entering our trenches. The Germans evidently took the same precautions, for when Captain Ewald tried to get a peep into their front trench, he was promptly warned off by an invisibly sentry. As soon as the truce started the Saxons advised our men to warn the Battalions on their right to stop in their trenches as they were opposed by Prussians, described as “Bosen Kerie” (surly ruffians). At dusk the men of both sides returned to their trenches, but no hostilities followed the expiry of the truce at 11 p. m.

Shortly after “Stand Down” next morning “C” Company Commander was informed that a German Officer wished to speak to him in “no mans land. ” On going out he found a very polite and spotless individual awaiting him, who, after an exchange of compliments, informed him that his Colonel had given orders for a renewal of hostilities at midday and might the men be warned to keep down, please? “C” Company Commander thanked the German Officer for his courtesy, whereupon, saluting and bowing from the waist, he replied, “We are Saxons; you are Anglo Saxons; word of a gentleman is for us as for you”.

The troops were duly warned to keep down, but just before hostilities were due to re-open a tin was thrown into “A” Company’s lines with a piece of paper in it bearing the inscription, “We shoot to the air” and sure enough, at the appointed hour a few vague shots were fired high over the trenches. Then all was quiet again and the unofficial truce continued.

There are many stories current as to how the Christmas, 1914, unofficial truce started, but the above is vouched for by one of the Officers present throughout. The Battalion was relieved on the night of December 31st, and went into billets at Chapelle D’Armentieres. Corporal Joe Brown was there. (Dad).

New orders came down from Lieut Colonel de Falbe that daylight reconnaissance would be carried out instead of at night time. The Germans were still holding the trenches in strength. Battalion Commanders were to decide in what strength they were to be carried out. The troops detailed for the work of daylight reconnaissance were likely to get a warm reception, and decided to send out only one section under a Non-commissioned Officer. Sergeant Brown was chosen for this duty and at the appointed time he and his section (6 men) climbed over the parapet and set out in short rushes for the German trenches. They were immediately met by heavy fire but continued to advance until most had been hit, Sergeant Brown himself being shot through the left arm. He was the only one to return alive after eight hours of German action.

I can only think that Dad survived because he was the NCO in charge and so he would be the first one over the top. The enemy would not expect such a suicide attempt to be made in day light and would be a little late opening fire. Before he was allowed back in the trenches he had to answer a few question on some of them about soccer matches back home, team results and players names. He was then taken to the field hospital where he was operated on next day. He was one of hundreds of soldiers waiting outside in the field (paddock) some dying, others just surviving. Dads arm was sawn off. No anaesthetic was used. A piece of wood was placed in his mouth and he was held down by two staff. He eventually came round in a barn where some French nuns were doing the nursing. He was then sent home.

Unlike the conditions of our soldiers returning from action now, the men from the First World War were found a job on their return home. Dad’s first job was working for an Insurance Company. He collected the insurance money, which was one penny a fortnight. His second job was a Bus Conductor. They made a special ticket holder for him so he could collect the money and clip the tickets with his one hand. The last job he applied for was a Postman. He held this job until he retired at 65.