I have been meaning to start a Blog for a long time now and thought that today, with a little spare time, and a story to share that means a lot to me, might be the perfect opportunity, so here goes!
Each Christmas Day I try to spend a couple of minutes to think of two people in particular, Lance Sergeant Tom Gregory and Private Percy Huggins. To most people, neither name will mean anything at all, but to me Percy and Tom, and their collective experiences on Christmas Day 1914 in the trenches outside the village of Festubert in France are a perfect example of how 'normal' life and warfare blended together during the Great War. This is their story.
Early on Christmas Eve 1914 the men of the 1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment, a Territorial unit which was fairly recently arrived from the Britain, took their place in the front lines off a road known as the Rue De Bois. Half of the Battalion drew the 'long straw' and found that they would be posted slightly behind the lines in relative safety and comfort in a farm nicknamed 'Dead Cow Farm'. The other half of the Battalion, the 'short straw' men found themselves a little further forward in the frontline in what Private Clifford Lane of H Company described as 'a Brook! not a trench, but an actual Brook!'
Alongside Clifford and his comrades were the men of “D” Company who were predominantly recruited from the town of Watford. Serving in “D” Company, commanded by Captain Phillip Elton Longmore, were 36 year-old Lance-Sergeant Thomas ‘Tom’ Gregory and 23 year-old Private Percy Huggins. Tom was an experienced old soldier, and had seen action 15 years earlier in the Boer War as a regular in the Coldstream Guards. Tom's wife had given birth to their sixth child two weeks earlier, a child he was yet to meet. He was known throughout the Battalion as a crack-shot. In contrast, Percy Huggins was a young man from the quiet market-town of Ware who made his living as an assistant in his mother’s house furnishing business. Percy’s military experience was limited to rifle drill and an annual summer camp with his fellow Territorials. There seems little doubt that Percy looked up to his experienced Sergeant as a reassuring and steady leader.
The trenches at this time were fairly active with rifle fire particularly on the German side; ‘sniping’ at the front being a relatively new and incredibly deadly phenomenon. Nevertheless, there was some time for reflection and thoughts of home. Earlier that morning Private Huggins had received a very welcome letter and Christmas Parcel from his mother Agnes. He wrote to her:
My dearest Mum,
Thank you very much indeed for the lovely parcel and letters which arrived safely today. It is good of you all and I can't tell you how grateful I am and how I appreciate all your kindness. I read the letters over and over again.
The Christmas pudding we shall dispose of tomorrow if we are here. Am afraid there are no means of boiling or toasting it as French fireplaces, even if we had one, are all of an urn shape and entirely closed in. But you need have no fear for our digestions for they must be like an ostriches now considering what we have had to eat. So rest assured dear Mum that although cold the pudding will be appreciated.
Yes dear Mum, I know you all must miss me and no doubt can to some extent realise what my feelings are, for I cannot express them. But I console myself with the thought that I was guided by a High Hand when taking the step which placed me here, where my duty lies, and, believe me Mother, where I am proud to be, and only hope, by the Grace of God, to acquit myself honourably and be permitted to return to all the dear ones in safety.
It seems that Xmas will be spent by us out here, so we will make the best of it and remember you all in thoughts and prayers. You consider war a terrible thing but imagination cannot reach far enough, for the horrors of warfare that can be seen on the battlefield are indescribable and I pray that this may be the last war that will ever be. Now must say Goodbye Mum dear and God bless you. Your ever loving son, Percy xxxxxxxx
By 5pm on Christmas eve the light was fading and Percy, Tom and the men of the Herts settled down to a very cold and uncomfortable Christmas in the trenches. A short time later, German voices were heard across no-man's-land, singing Christmas songs. According to Clifford Lane this was almost immediately followed by a line of lanterns which appeared on the German parapet some 150 yards away. Lane said "The Germans were shouting over to our trench and before we could take any action we were ordered to open rapid fire, which we did. They didn't reply, they simply carried on with their celebrations, ignored us." - So it seems, the one chance for the Herts Territorials to participate in anything like a Christmas Truce in 1914 was rebuffed by a stream of .303 Lee Enfield fire, at quite a cost it would turn out.
Now the trenches along the Rue De Bois were a fairly new thing. In an area with a high water table they were regularly waist deep in water and combined with the bitter cold they made for a truly hellish night. Standing still was bad enough, but such was the nature of the ground that the Herts also had the distinctly unpleasant job of manning a forward 'sap' which projected some 100 yards towards the German line described as 'a sandbagged position with a step and space for one man to look out, accessed by a vile trench almost full with water'. What's more it ran "to almost within ten yards of a corresponding German sap."
As this position needed to be occupied day and night, it fell to a number of men in shifts of two hours to fulfil their duty. Around dawn on Christmas Day 1914 that duty fell to three men; Lance-Sergeant Tom Gregory, his friend Hamlet 'Harry' Bloxham and Private Percy Huggins.
Winding their way up what by now had become an incredibly quiet line towards their post, Tom Gregory probably installed Percy at the lookout position, doubtless with a few words of encouragement.
I quite often find myself wondering when I go back to Festubert, just what Percy's thoughts were as he stood looking out over no man's land that morning.I like to think his thoughts were of family, home, and how he had come to find himself in such an unusual situation.
A short time later, back in the main lines of the Herts a single shot was heard to ring out across no-man's-land. As things had been quiet for some time it drew considerable attention, although no-one could identify its source. The mystery was solved several minutes later when Harry Bloxham, reported to his company commander that young Huggins had been shot by a sniper and killed.
Reports of the time state that the death of young Huggins that morning enraged the men of “D” company, particularly Lance-Sergeant Tom Gregory, who approached Captain Longmore, demanding to take Huggins’ position in the sap and “return the favour”. Permission was granted and within minutes Tom and Corporal Bloxham had returned to the site of poor Percy’s demise. Scanning the frozen ground along the German line, the old veteran Gregory spotted the sniper and with skill acquired by years of hard campaigning, killed him with a single shot. Sadly, this was not the end of the exchange as Major Page-Croft wrote “shortly afterwards a bullet through the brain sent him to join his young comrade”.
Unbeknownst to Gregory, a second sniper in the German line had spotted him and as he brought his own rifle up to the aim he was shot, thus raising the death toll in this tragic Christmas exchange to three.
Whenever I relate this story out in France, or make a visit (and even now for that matter), I find myself imagining the Huggins, Gregory and unknown German families sitting down to their respective Christmas Dinners that day, I'm sure speaking with affection about their loved ones and how the hoped that they were 'making the best of it' in the trenches, wholly unaware that their relative had in fact been killed and would not be coming home.
More than 80 British Servicemen and an unknown number of German and Frenchmen fell that day, a day which today is almost exclusively remembered for 'the truce'. It is worth remembering, the truce was far from universal, and for many, 25th December 1914 was just another day of warfare on the Western Front.
So today, writing from the luxury of the rather warm and eminently safe foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France, I will spend a few minutes thinking of Percy and Tom.
Perhaps the final word in this episode should be a positive one. After their deaths, Percy and Tom's bodies were taken to the nearest Field Ambulance at Le Touret, where they were buried side-by-side. I was incredibly privileged to return here with Tom Gregory's relatives a few years ago (who have since become good friends), and by pure chance, as they went to sign the cemetery's visitor register, it was noticed that the previous visitors had been the relatives of Percy Huggins. The two families have since been in contact and the story of Percy and Tom has been remembered once more.