I never knew my paternal grandfather. He died at the age of 59 in 1953, the year before I was born. By all accounts, he was a lovely man; my mother clearly had a soft spot for him, and she would often invoke his memory whenever I had given her cause to feel proud of me. Which, sadly, was not as often as it might have been. My post about his service in WW1, and the Victoria Cross won by his friend and comrade-in-arms Frank Young (Remembrance Sunday) is one of my more frequently-visited posts. In it, I reproduced two postcard-sized photographs of the two of them that I possess; taken in France, one after the other, posed at attention with a Lee Enfield rifle in front of a canvas backdrop. Fortunately, my grandmother had been an obsessive collector of family photos and I inherited her hoard. Not neatly arranged and labelled in an album, however, but entirely filling an old canvas holdall in tight-packed wads, like ransom money.
Recently, that post was seen by a student researching the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 for his dissertation. Nothing remarkable there. But -- and this is remarkable to the point of improbability -- in the process of his researches he had previously seen some private family papers belonging to an officer of E Company of the 1st/1st Hertfordshire Regiment. That is to say, my grandfather's company, recruited from the men of Letchworth, Royston, Baldock, and Ashwell in North Hertfordshire. Among these papers were some photographs, showing men from E Company at work constructing defences at Rue-du-Bois near Neuve Chapelle in France, during December 1914. Incredibly, he was struck by the resemblance between the sergeant in one of these and the photograph of my grandfather in my blog post, and emailed me with an attached scan of the Rue-du-Bois image: did I think this might be Douglas William Chisholm?
"Herts Guards" F.E. Young VC and D.W. Chisholm
Unquestionably, it is. I have been asked not to publish the image, as it is owned by the officer's family, so I will describe it. Six cheerful-looking men in uniform -- boots, puttees, 1902-pattern field dress, and peaked caps --are sitting atop a fresh earthwork, taking a break from their labours, posing for the camera in a tight group. From their expressions, it looks like someone has just made a wisecrack. Seated front and centre is my grandfather -- his face and prominent ears are unmistakable -- legs planted wide apart with arms resting on his knees and hands hanging loosely in-between, with a pipe dangling roguishly from his mouth, beneath a small, military-style brush moustache.
For his time and social class, he was quite a big chap -- five foot eleven inches* -- and the others are clustered around him in various relaxed seated postures. "These are my men!" declares the picture; he's three months away from his 21st birthday, but exudes all the natural authority necessary in an infantry sergeant. Behind them stands another NCO -- the quality of the photograph is not good enough to count his stripes -- grinning broadly. He's either the regimental idiot, or the enemy is reasonably far away. The landscape behind them is not yet a waste of mud, wire, and water-filled shellholes, but looks like agricultural fields look anywhere in northern Europe in December, divided by rows of leafless pollarded trees.
Here is the regiment's War Diary for that period (as edited and annotated by Steven Fuller):
17-11-14. We were shelled in the morning and had to leave the farm shortly after had one man killed and two severely wounded. In the evening we went into the trenches again & took over from the 1st Royal Dragoons and 10th Hussars 1 mile S.E. of ZILLEBEKE. Had 4 Companies in the trenches, 1 in support, 1 in reserve, remaining 2 at KILO 3.So it would seem that they'd had a rough, cold time of it during November and December, being marched around Northern France, being deployed in and out of the front line, and periodically shelled. They arrived in Rue-du-Bois, the location of the photograph, on 23rd December, just before Christmas 100 years ago. As one of the few territorial regiments in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, the Herts were keen to make an impression, surrounded as they were by regular soldiers, mainly elite guards regiments. By 1915 they had managed to distinguish themselves, and earned the honorary nickname, "The Herts Guards".
18-11-14. Remained in trenches. Corporal Boardman [2270 Ernest Arthur BOARDMAN] killed and one man missing. [Comment: Missing man was Private 2238 Frederick James DARLOW of Royston who was found to have been killed in action]
19-11-14. E Company was heavily shelled and lost 3 men killed, 19 wounded, 2.Lieut C.M. Down [Charles M. DOWN] wounded. In the evening we were relieved by the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards and marched back to our own former bivouacs. Slight fall of snow. [Comment: Killed in action today - Privates 2504 William BUTTS, 2747 George Haslear CATLIN, 2518 George Edward ELLIS, 2426 Walter William FLANDERS, 2428 Joseph William JOHNSON, 1911 Frank PULLEY, 2636 Phillip James ROBINSON, 2746 Henry WEST]
20-11-14. Marched at 11pm to METEREN, about 18-20 miles. Had tea at OUDERDAM. A very cold night. Joined our Brigade 4th (Guards) Brigade for the first time.
21-11-14. Arrived at METEREN and went into billets.
22-11-14 to 21-12-14. Bn remained at METEREN refitting and training. [Comment: Private 2598 Walter George WALKER of Hertford died in England from his wounds today]
22-12-14. Brigade marched from METEREN to BETHUNE and billeted there the night.
23-12-14. The Brigade marched to LES LACONS FARM and spent the day there. In the evening the Bn moved forward to Cross Roads - RUE DE BOIS and RUE L'EPINETTE in support of 2 ½ battalions of the Brigade in the trenches.
24-12-14. The Bn moved back to LES LACONS FARM and in the evening went into the trenches south of RUE DE BOIS taking over from 6th GHATS. 6 Companies in the trenches, 2 in support close to Headquarters.
25-12-14. L.Sgt Gregory [2301 Thomas Edward GREGORY] and Private Huggins [2701 Percy Henry HUGGINS] killed.
27-12-14. One Company was removed from the fire trenches to support. Each Company had 36 hours in support in rotation.
Photographs of men on active service during WW1 are very rare. Cameras were officially banned from the front line in 1915. That's why the same few images pop up again and again in documentaries. That one should have survived in which I have a direct personal interest; that a researcher should be sharp-eyed enough to spot a resemblance between one grainy image in an archive and another published on my blog; that he should be sufficiently motivated to contact me about it... This is an astonishing thing. Not least because it creates a fresh link between two blood relatives, exactly 100 years apart: you might say it's the ultimate Christmas card.
Now, an intriguing question-mark hangs over this story. A lot of attention has focussed on the so-called "Christmas Truce" of 1914, and the fraternisation and games of football that did or did not take place in No Man's Land between the newly-established lines of opposing trenches. By Christmas 1914 the Great-War-to-be had not yet become the cynical war of attrition and mass mechanical slaughter of conscripted cannon-fodder floundering in muddy trenches of popular imagination. The idea of cavalry charges was still lively in the minds of High Command. The ground was firm. The men of the BEF were all professionals or volunteers, and many of the latter -- like my grandfather -- had served before the War as "territorials", fully-trained weekend soldiers.
So, might there have been a kickabout in the frozen fields somewhere between Neuve Chapelle and Fleurbaix on Christmas Day 1914? If anyone would have been up for a game, it would have been sergeant Douglas William Chisholm of Letchworth, bookbinder, conceived in Edinburgh and born in the Elephant & Castle in London, pioneer Bermondsey Boy Scouts member, and a keen all-round sportsman and athlete. It's a nice, romantic idea.
The War Diary is silent on the matter, and unfortunately does not indicate which Companies had moved back into support, and which were in the trenches. It does record that two men of the regiment were killed on Christmas Day, however. This is unlikely to have involved football. So, if there was a temporary seasonal truce on that part of the Western Front, it didn't last very long.
Of course, this is the self-same Christmas that has become synonymous with self-deluding military optimism. "It'll all be over by Christmas!" Oh, no it won't.
* One of the great disappointments of my life was failing to get DWC's "tall" gene, and getting indomitable Nanna C's "short and squat" gene instead. Of their three sons, only one got it -- not my father -- and he went on to become a policeman.