Much has been said and written about the Christmas Truce of 1914, when Allied and German soldiers laid down their arms and came together to exchange gifts, sing carols and, according to some accounts, play a game of football. What is not often mentioned is the fact that two Scots Guards officers, Iain Colquhoun and Miles Barne, were involved in a repeat of the truce the following year and were subsequently court-martialed for fraternising with the enemy.
Although both sides had quickly resumed hostilities after the 1914 truce, the High Command was worried that such events undermined the men’s appetite for battle and issued strict orders that there was to be no repetition of the truce during Christmas 1915. They ordered the artillery and the machine gunners to fire off salvoes every few hours throughout the Christmas period.
Sir Iain Colquhoun’s controversial court-martial was the only blemish on a distinguished career as an officer in the 1st Battalion Scots Guards. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and bar and was mentioned in despatches for bravery in the field. The following is an extract from his diary:
“December 25th Xmas Day
Stand to at 6.30. Germans very quiet. Remained in Firing Trenches until 8.30. No sign of anything unusual. When having breakfast about 9 am a sentry reported to me that the Germans were standing up on their parapets and walking towards our barbed wire. I ran out to our firing trenches and saw our men looking over the parapet and the Germans outside our barbed wire.
A German officer came forward and asked me for a truce for Xmas. I replied that this was impossible. He then asked for three-quarters of an hour to bury his dead. I agreed. The Germans then started burying their dead and we did the same. This was finished in half hrs time. Our men and the Germans then talked and exchanged cigars, cigarettes etc for quarter of an hour and when the time was up I blew a whistle and both sides returned to their trenches.
For the rest of the day the Germans walked about and sat on their parapets. Our men did much the same but remained in their trenches. Not a shot was fired. At night the Germans put up Fairy lights on their parapets and their trenches were outlined for miles on either side. It was a mild looking night with clouds and a full moon and the prettiest sight I have ever seen. Our machine guns played on them and the lights were removed. Our guns shelled heavily all night at intervals of half an hour and the Germans retaliated on Sunken Road. I had to leave my dug-out five times during the night owing to shells.”
It might have seemed humane and reasonable to have allowed the Germans to collect and bury their dead, but the division commander, Lord Cavan, thought otherwise. Colquhoun and Miles Barne were placed under close arrest on January 4th. Charged with “conduct to the prejudice of good order of military discipline in that on 25th Dec they approved of a truce with the enemy and permitted a cessation of hostilities”, the pair appeared before a court martial on January 18th. Barne was acquitted, but Colquhoun was found guilty and received a reprimand.
General Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, eventually rejected the punishment.
Barne was later promoted to the rank of major but was killed two years later when a bomb was inadvertently dropped on his tent by a British aircraft.