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Astonishing revelations of an unknown WWI truce

By Adrian Curtis

A Histon researcher has uncovered remarkable proof of a previously unknown truce between British and Austrian soldiers a year before the end of the First World War.

Eleanor Whitehead of the Histon and Impington Village Society, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, discovered from a taped interview made years ago with a surviving soldier how the enemies put down their weapons and shared wine and meat with each other – flouting the rules from commanding officers.

The fraternisation with their Austrian counterparts took place after Christmas 1917 on the battlefield near Padua in Italy. Troops shared coffee, wine, rations and also conducted tours of each other’s machine-gun posts.

Seen here in the recording studio listening to the old tape recordings about Harry Christmas are from left Geoffrey Smallwood and Eleanor Whitehead. Picture: Keith Heppell. (6488047)
Seen here in the recording studio listening to the old tape recordings about Harry Christmas are from left Geoffrey Smallwood and Eleanor Whitehead. Picture: Keith Heppell. (6488047)

The interview with British signaller Corporal Harry Christmas of Histon was found on a tape made by local historian Dr Alfred Peacock, who wanted to document life for the Suffolk regiment on the frontline before the survivors were lost.

Ms Whitehead revealed: “The revelation that fraternisation took place on the Austro/Italian front has only hit the headlines because Histon-born Dr Alfred Peacock thought it would be important to record the memories of surviving veterans of the First World War before they died.

“His family had the sense to send the tapes to a Cambridge archive, and Vanessa Wilson and her colleagues at the York Oral History Society understood their importance.

“Vanessa sent us copies of the discs and the relevant transcripts from the various people interviewed. I picked out pieces from well-known characters in the village to illustrate how they coped.

“The Brits were exhausted and had no axe to grind with the Austrians. It just shows the blokes on both sides recognised that it was beyond their control and was nothing to do with them and the fraternisation was probably the nicest thing that had happened to them in years.

“They came to like each other because the fraternisation went on for weeks and became like going to the pub to meet your mates.

“It shows the humanity of the ordinary soldier.”

In the transcript, Harry Christmas revealed: “You could tell what it was like – we had two casualties in four months and they were both accidents. The Austrians didn’t want it no more than we did. Our machine gun sergeant started it.

“I suppose he’d seen some of our blokes trying to talk to the Austrians and that’s how they palled-up.

“They were one side of the river and we was the other. There’d be an Austrians’ dug out, one night we used to go in there, and then the next night the Austrians would be our side and we all used to muck in.”

The corporal’s battalion was later ordered to go over the top near Cambrai in France and only 46 out of 648 soldiers survived. It is believed the vast death toll is one of the reasons the unofficial truce has not come to light earlier.


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