A Christmas Tale

The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment on 25th December 1914

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Lance Corporal 8808 Albert W Wyatt Norfolk Regiment. Albert would go on to serve in the Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire Regiments and the Royal Defence Corps

In November 2014 whilst planning a battlefield tour for Adaptable Travel, I was provided with very strong evidence of a site where we can now state that football was played on Christmas Day of 1914.

The party line laid down by the Norfolk Regimental history has this to say about the Christmas Truce of 1914.

‘On Christmas Day occurred the famous meeting with the Germans in ‘No-Man’s Land’ which drew down the wrath of G.H.Q. and a demand for names of officers, who, it was held, should have prevented it. The matter was eventually dropped, and no harm was, as a matter of fact, done, seeing that our men managed to have a good look at the German defences, and took good care that the fraternization did not spread over to their own trenches.’

It is little wonder when you look at that narrative that the reports of the Germans meeting the Norfolks was reported in a very official way by officers who reported back to G.H.Q.

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One of the official reports made by Captain John Percival Longfield of the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment about the Christmas Truce of 1914.

But over a Twitter discussion about the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment and their involvement in the Truce it became very apparent that this battalion did play football in no-man’s land between the lines just to the north of the Wulverghem-Messines road.

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The newspaper cutting detailing Albert Wyatt’s experences of the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Taff Gillingham, who is a co-founder of the Khaki Chums, sent me a load of information that he was given by Dick Rayner who is a highly respected local historian on the Norfolk Regiment. Within that information was a newspaper cutting detailing the experiences of a soldier called Albert Wyatt, who came from Thetford, and who was in the trenches with the 1/Norfolks on 25th December.

Albert recounts that they went into the line on 24th December with no firing and began to hear Christmas hymns being sung which came from the German lines and that eventually they joined in with the singing. On Christmas morning with thick fog and frost on the ground the Germans called over to them to come over and that wouldn’t fire and that eventually both sides met up and ended up wishing each other Merry Christmas.

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The German map suppiled by Rob Schäfer you will see Mittelferme and Backferme. On later British trench maps Mittelferme was called Mortar Farm and Backferme became Ontario Farm.

To Wyatt’s surprise he noted that they had been facing men old enough to be their fathers. He ended the account by stating,

‘We finished up in the same old way, kicking footballs about between the firing lines. So football in the firing line between the British and Germans is the truth as I was one that played.’

And we also have an account in an interview at the end of December 1914 with Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment who states,

‘On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.’

(Evening Mail, Newcastle, December 31st, 1914)

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Part of the British line for December 1914. The 1/Norfolks and 1/6 Cheshires were positioned in the field on other side of the Messines/Wulverghem road which can be seen in this picture.

What is significant about this is that Wyatt and Naden would have been serving with each other in the same place because the 1/6th Cheshires were attached to the 1/Norfolks to be trained in trench warfare. Naden’s accounts also backs up a lot of what Albert Wyatt stated and to me confirms this aspect of what occurred as being accurate.

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The road leading to Mittelferme which still has that name even today.

So based on that evidence on a battlefield tour with Hereford Cathedral School in November 2014, and with the use of a German map supplied by the German historian Rob Schäfer, I was able to show the staff and pupils where we can now confirm that football was actually played between both sides on Christmas Day.

I have since been told that I am the first battlefield guide to take an organised tour to the site to show the group where this famous event happened.

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A panoramic view of the area where the Norfolks and Cheshires played football with the Germans. Mittelferme is seen in the distance on the road in the centre. The British trenches are to the right of the other side of the Messines/Wulverghem road and no man’s land would have bee to the right of the road to Mittelferme. This image was taken in October 2015.

I have since taken other groups to this site and the latest was in October 2015. I took the group to the horrendous monument at Plugstreet Wood, which has since been given the nickname ‘The Rusty Bollard’ and explained the myths to the group. We then went to see Robert Barnett. And I would perhaps ask that if you do go to this sector then please miss out the Rusty Bollard and just visit Bairnsfather’s info board which is just up from there and also look at Taff’s cross. That, at the very least, will put you where the actual front was as opposed to the fake trenches that are now sat by the football memorial. Then walk into the wood and visit Robert because very few visitors to this area do.

I am sure the debate on all of this will rage on but ultimately as a battlefield guide I must try to ensure that what I am showing my groups is as accurate as possible so I have every intention of ensuring that this story is told at a site where we can actually state it happened.

I will finish by stating that I have been told that there is a postcard mentioning football being played by the Warwicks on Christmas Day of 1914. But this postcard has not actually been seen by the person who has made mention of this. If that confirms football being played by the Germans and English then so be it. But the main thing there will be when the postcard was written and what it states. Because football was as it stands at the moment was only played between the Warwickshires themselves but not against the Germans as is banded around by others and as is signified with the memorial at Ploegsteert. And I have recently been contacted by someone who has a letter from someone who served in the Warwickshires who was there for the Truce and notes that the letter was written soon afterwards and they state,

‘There is no mention of any football at Plugstreet, just trading souvenirs, smokes and drink.’

As I said in August this year when I looked at the myth surrounding the 5th Norfolks at Gallipoli on 12th August 1915 where I quoted a historian,

‘Let’s get this right for history’s sake.’

To get to the site take the N314 from Messines heading towards Wulverghem. Approximately 1.5 kilometres on you can turn right onto Kortestraat and you are now positioned in no-man’s land between the British and German lines of December 1916.

Thanks once again to Taff Gillingham who provided me with a lot of information and support last year when this all came out.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my followers.

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A Christmas Tall Tale?

Dispelling More Myths

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The romanticised image of the Christmas Truce of 1914. The reality of what actually happened does not mirror this. Football was not played enmasse by British and German troops during the Christmas Truce of 1914. (Note this picture comes from 2014 and was published in the Independent).

The famous wartime cartoonist, Bruce Bairnsfather, recounted an episode that has been lept on by others and it became one of the focal points for many of the Centenary events in held in 2014. This included the abomination that is now the football memorial that stands close to St Yvon and on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood, known as Plugstreet Wood to the British soldiers who served there.

He stated,

‘Around noon, a football match was suggested. Someone had evidently received a deflated football as a Christmas present.’

This mention of football came 40 years after the event when he was interviewed in 1954 for a television piece.

And, according to Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, two English soldiers brought a football to the German trenches.

The first account is false and the writings of Lt Zehmisch have been misinterpeted. I will come onto those later.

Also in an online article in the Telegraph dated 11th December 2014 the title stated,

‘Belgian monument unveiled to mark “humanity” of British and German soldiers who put down their arms and left their trenches to play football during an unofficial truce on Christmas Day 1914’

These headlines and articles were printed all over the world and there is that romanitised notion that men got out of their trenches and all played a jolly old game of football in no-man’s land when the guns fell silent.

Except that football between the British and Germans never took place at St Yvon and so the memorial to it is citing a piece of history that did not happen there.

The Christmas Truce that occurred on 25th December 1914 is fact and there are numerous accounts from the time that confirm this. But what is not as easy to confirm is the notion that both sides played football against each other. Certainly many of the veterans who were there that day refute this and there are few primary sources that mention this occurring.

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Bruce Bairnsfather who created ‘Fragments from France’ and who was serving at St Yvon with the 1/R.Warwicks when the Christmas Truce of 1914 occurred.

Sadly this has not been helped because we also have accounts from veterans recorded later on, such as that made by Ernie Williams in 1983, who had served with the 1/6 Cheshire Regiment, where he states,

‘The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side – it wasn’t from our side that the ball came. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kick about. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee – nothing like the soccer you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace – those great big boots we had on – and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.’

This is now widely considered by experts to be a fabrication of the truth where Ernie Williams was almost prompted into saying what he felt the interviewer, Malcolm Brown, wanted to hear. It is reputed that Malcolm Brown himself did not believe Ernie’s tale. And certainly when he is trying to intimate that football was played by 100s of soldiers on both sides, surely if that were so there would have been accounts from the time? So sadly there is the misconception that all over the line this occurred.

The accounts and reports about football have to be carefully studied because virtually all of them are false mainly because they came out a good while after the event, e.g. in 1916 or even later on as with the case of Ernie Williams. Or they come from men serving in regiments that if you actually looked at where they were they were not in the same place or can be discounted because of what others said at the time. This is what Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton had to say about it in their excellent book Christmas Truce which was first published in 1984 when we still had veterans who had witnessed the Truce to speak to. I would urge anyone who is interested in reading more about the truth behind the Christmas Truce to read this boo.

‘To many people it has come to be accepted that the central feature of the Christmas Truce was a game, or possibly games, of football in which British and Germans took part. Indeed, to some, the whole event is not so much ‘the truce’ as ‘the football match’. It is, of course, an attractive idea, carrying as it does not only the heart warming thought of enemies at friendly play, but also the appealing if politically niave implication that nations would be far better employed in settling their differences in the fields of sport rather than on the field of war. Yet there are those, including some veterans of 1914, who doubt if any football match took place at all.’

And this is why we have to state that Bairnsfather’s mentioning of football in the TV interview is not true. This came way after the event took place!

There is no doubt Bairnsfather and Zehmisch were serving at St Yvon when the Christmas Truce happened.

In ‘Bullets & Billets’ Bairnsfather gives a very clear account of what happened at St Yvon on Christmas Day 1914 and it does is help to corroborate what others said who were serving with the 1/R.Warwicks at the time.

Captain Robert Hamilton noted that A Company of 1/R.Warwicks would have played the Saxons but were relieved. CSM 6229 George Beck wrote in his diary that the Germans shouted across a challenge to play football on Christmas Eve, but then there is no mention of a game being played. What we can also confirm is that C Company of 1/R.Warwicks played a game among themselves.

This is now generally agreed that this is the the game mentioned by Lt Zehmisch of IR134 whose account from his diary actually says,

‘The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.’

That statement even now could be interpreted as confirming football was played between both sides.

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The hideous memorial to football on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood. Except football between the British and Germans did not happen there! (Image Centenary News)

However, the reality is that Taff Gillingham of Khaki Chums fame met the son of Rudolf Zehmisch and Barbara Littlejohn, the daughter of Bruce Bairnsfather, in March 2002. This is what he had to say about what they said about this incident.

‘…both Rudolf and Barbie were very clear on one thing – that there was no football between 1/R Warwicks and IR134 at Plugstreet. Rudolf made it very clear that his Father’s diary refers to British soldiers playing a game amongst themselves. At no point does he refer to a game between the Warwicks and his own men. The German military historian Rob Shaefer agrees with Rudolf.’

In relation to Bruce Bairnsfather he went on to say,

‘Barbie was equally adamant. As she pointed out, had there been any football there her Father would have mentioned it in his book and almost certainly drawn a cartoon of it as, in her words, ‘My Father loved the absurd things in life.’

 

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The sketch that Bruce Bairnfather drew on Christmas Day where he snipped buttons off a German.

And this is my final argument with regards to Bruce Bairnsfather. He details everything about the day in ‘Bullets and Bayonets’ and the main theme he concentrates on when he sees the Germans in no-man’s land is this meeting.

‘I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. We both then said things to each other which neither understood, and agreed to do a swap. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange.’

The reality is that, of the thousands of men who may have taken part in the Truce, only around 20-30 men may have played football with the Germans.

But we do have accounts from German soldiers, written soon after the truce, to state that they played against their British opponents. But it is one specific incident that only occurred in one specific part of the Western Front.

Two German soldiers, one called Johannes Niemann, both served in IR133 and Niemann recounts his experiences whilst serving in trenches on a frozen meadow at Frelinghien.

‘… Then a Scot produced a football … a regular game of football began, with caps laid on the ground as goalposts. The frozen meadow was ideal [to play on]. One of us had a camera with us. Quickly the two sides gathered together in a group, all neatly lined up with the football in the middle … The game ended 3:2 to Fritz’.

From the History of the Saxon IR 133: Das 9. Koeniglich Saechsische Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 133 im Weltkrieg 1914-18 at p 32

The second account comes from a letter discovered more recently where the second soldier from IR133 wrote to his Mother and mentioned, “playing ball with the English” so this helps to confirm the account by Johannes Niemann and the position mentioned by Niemann correlates to his regiment playing against the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. However, we do not have anything concrete from the 2/A&SH to confirm they played against the Germans.

Now that is perhaps enough to confirm football being played on Christmas Day but there only one is more story that can be corroborated from the 1000s of then out there that cannot and we will look at that on Christmas Eve because it involves the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment.

 

A December Story

The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment December 1914

Part 1

Private 3/7271 Walter George Hardiment

Private 3/7271 Walter George Hardiment

At the beginning of December 1914 the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment was serving in and out of the trenches around Wulverghem in the Ypres Salient. By now this area had become a quieter sector now that the 1st Battle of Ypres had come to a close and the Norfolks were getting to know their craft as they learnt about trench warfare and many men died through sniping and artillery.

On 3rd December they relieved the 1st Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment in trenches on the Wulverghem-Messines road. The war diary for the battalion is very basic and there is no mention of casualties within it.

The history of the Norfolk Regiment in the Great War had this to say about this period.

‘Wherever they were, the men were working hard. If they had not to supply working parties for the improvement of trenches, they were busy at training, either general or in special subjects, attacks, machine gun or Lewis gun instruction, or one of the inumerable special branches which characterize warfare in the twentieth century. In the front and support trenches it was always the same, utter discomfort, constant shelling by the German artillery in varying quantities, and with varying results in the shape of casualties.One day there would be no casualties, the next perhaps fourteen or fifteen, the next two or three.’

However, with records that we can access, we know that 8 men were killed between the 4th and 23rd December 1914.

The first man to be killed was Private 8640 william Fuller aged 19 who was the son of Fred and Maria Fuller of 120 Ber Street in Norwich who was killed in action on 4th December. Next came Private 7271 Walter George Hardiment, also aged 19, the son of Ann Sophia Hardiment of 15 Morley Street in Norwich.

Private 7068 Arthur Coggles and Private 7021 Edgar Shearman were killed in action on 6th December 1914. I visited Arthur ‘s grave in Poelcappelle British Cemetery in December 2015 in just over 100 years after he died and it is sad that Edgar, who was 32, has no known grave and is now commemorated on the Menin Gate. Edgar was the son of Mrs. E. Shearman of Sugar Alms Houses in King’s Lynn and the husband of Jane E. Shearman of 4 Wanford’s Cottages Wood Street in King’s Lynn. Again there is no mention in the war as to what happened to them.

This area was considered to be a quiet sector but in 1914 it was far from being that way and there were still actions being fought in that sector right up to Christmas.

On 14th December an attack was launched by the 8th Brigade at Wytschaete this failed with heavy casualties.

On 18th December 1914 another attack was launched by the 22nd Brigade at La Boutillerie this also failed with heavy casualties.

On 19th December one man from the Norfolks was killed. This was Lance Corporal 7310 Sydney Bacon from Shouldham. So today is the 101st Anniversary of Sydney’s death.

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Robert Barnett who was 15 years and 6 months when he died.

There is another anniversary for this date and another action occurred around Plugstreet Wood when the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Division were ordered to attack a position called the Birdcage with the objective of keeping enemy troops from being moved as reserves to Arras where the French were attacking.

One of the tragedies in all of this was that a boy soldier died on this day. He did not come from Norfolk but I visit him every year.

Rifleman Barnett was born on 25 June 1899 at 147 Mare Street, Hackney, London. His name at birth was Raphael Glitzenstein and he was the son of Barnett and Esther Glitzenstein.

Following a family argument, he left home and enlisted in the Army where he lied about his age and changed his name to Robert Barnett using his father’s first name.

There are many places on the Western Front that are hidden away and are not as well trodden as, for instance, Essex Farm. Rifle House Cemetery is hidden away in Ploegsteert Wood and is what the Tommies of WWI came to call Plugstreet Wood.

When the attack went in the 1/Somerset Light Infantry, the 1/Rifle Brigade and the 1/Hampshires met with furious machine gun and rifle fire as the three battalions tried to cross shell-holes filled with water, slimy mud and well positioned barbed wire. The attack failed with virtually no objectives being taken.

The 11th Brigade took heavy casualties, with some being incurred by their own artillery as they lay in no man’s land as they sheltered from the German fire. The 1/SLI lost 6 officers killed or wounded with 77 other ranks killed or wounded. The 1/Hampshires lost 1 officer killed and 40 other ranks killed or wounded. And finally the 1/Rifle Brigade lost 3 officers killed and 66 other ranks killed or wounded.

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The grave of Robert Barnett in Rifle House Cemetery in Ploegsteert Wood.

He had been in France and Belgium since 9th October 1914. He is one of the youngest soldiers to die in WWI. He lies in a lovely cemetery in a beautiful wood. Whenever I visit this sector, or take groups there, I always ensure that we pay our respects to him.

We dwell on the myth of football being played in this sector, which it wasn’t, but we can’t forget that this boy died and was recovered and buried by both British and Germans alike on Christmas Day. He is not often visited when you compare him to Joe Strudwick who is visited by everyone. So I will come back to this in my next blog.

On 20th December two men were lost. These were Private 6361 Jack Grigglestone from Thorpe Hamlet and Private 7090 Sydney Samuel Cork who died of wounds. Jack has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate and Sydney was buried in Nieuwkerke (Neuve Eglise) Churchyard.

Finally, Private 7188 Albert Edward Woodbine was killed on 22nd December aged 26 and was the son of Mr. and Mrs. John Woodbine of 117 Goldwell Road in Lakenham.

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The area where the 1/Norfolks were positioned for this period. Their trenches would be between the two roads in grid T & U and also intersected the road between Messines and Wulverghem. The lines in red are the German lines.

On Christmas Eve the weather changed to a hard frost. In the evening the Germans were seen to place Christmas trees with candles on their parapets and they are heard to be singing carols. It was here that something amazing would happen on Christmas Day, even after all of the killing had gone on, and we will look at this on Christmas Eve of 2015 and look at the truth and myth behind the Christmas Truce.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas 1914

Dispelling More Myths

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This image has nothing to do with the Christmas Truce of 1914. The original caption states. ‘Battle of Epehy. British wounded and German prisoner sharing a cigarette at an advanced dressing station near Epehy, 18 September 1918. Note captured German Maxim 08/15 (Spandau) light machine guns in the background.’ (IWM Q 11538)

Now you might ask why am I writing about Christmas in 1914 when this blog site is about Norfolk in the Great War. Well there is method to my madness and this will become apparent later on in December when I tell you the story of the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment on Christmas Day 1914.

But before I do that I want to write about some myths that I see on numerous social media sites and photo sharing sites such as Pinterest. And this will have a bearing on what I write later on. There has been much debate about the Christmas Truce that occurred on 25th December 1914. This is where British and German troops came out of their trenches and met in no-man’s land. This is fact and there are numerous accounts from the time that confirm this.

But with regards to images there are a lot out there that have nothing to do with the truce and this first blog I want to dispel the myths surrounding images of the truce and there is a rule of thumb for those. These are:

  1. There are no photos of British and German troops playing football.
  2. If you see any images of British and German troops wearing steel helmets they have nothing to do with the truce.
  3. If you see an image that relates to the Christmas Truce check before you pin, share, retweet or post.

So let’s look at this image…

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Certain sites and places such as Pinterest will have you believe this is Christmas 1914 and depicts British and German troops meeting in no-man’s land. The reality? This image was taken during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. And the original caption states, ‘German prisoners waiting to be interrogated. Pilckem, 31 July 1917. Note a Gibraltar cuff-title worn by a German POW. The British soldiers on the right are probably servicemen of the Irish Guards.’ This comes from the IWM collection Ref No Q 5724.

The clue here, even if you cannot source the picture, is steel helmets. Neither side had the British ‘Brodie’ type helmet or the German ‘Stahlhelm’ helmet in 1914. In fact they were not widely issued until 1916. So if you see pictures like that then they are incorrect.

The next image…

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This image is often reported as British and German troops playing football in no-man’s land. There is a connection to Christmas with this image, but it has nothing to do with 1914. The original caption is, ‘Officers and men of 26th Divisional Ammunition Train (Army Service Corps) playing football in Salonika, Christmas 1915.’ Again this can be found on the IWM site, Ref No Q 31576.

So let’s look at an image that did come from Christmas 1914.

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This image is 100% accurate and shows Riflemen Andrew and J Selby Grigg posing with German soldiers of the 104th and 106th Regiment. This image was taken at Ploegsteert in Belgium on the front of the 11th Brigade of the 4th Division. They were taken by Rifleman Turner on a pocket camera and were sent to London newspapers by Rifleman Grigg who is believed to be the soldier with the service cap, IWM Image Ref No Q 11745. Note that nobody is wearing helmets, less the German with the pickelhaube which was worn in 1914.

One more image from 1914…

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This image is captioned, ‘British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). Burying those killed in the attack of 18 December.’ Image Ref No Q 50720.

Note there is no football being played and you will not find images showing that. So in the next part of this blog we will look at truth and myth surrounding that and what actually happened on 25th December 1914.