Years of research have finally revealed the identity of a Buxton soldier who wrote home from the trenches of the First World War about the time when fighting ceased.
Private Frederick William Heath penned the letter that told of how the Germans wished the English Merry Christmas.
He wrote: “How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles.”
Alan Cleaver, co-ordinator of the Operation Plum Pudding website which transcribes letters about the Christmas Truce of 1914 from newspaper archives, said: “Out of the hundreds of Christmas Truce letters transcribed to date, the letter by Private Frederick W Heath is perhaps the most remarkable.
“It is a beautifully-written account from the start of the truce until its end. But sadly we knew nothing about Private Heath apart from his name and that his letter was published in the North Mail on Friday, January 9.
“Now, thanks to the hard work of volunteers Charles Woollam and Gill Joye his story can be told.”
Private Heath was born in the last months of 1888 at Buxton, the youngest child of Bertha and Albert Heath, a coal merchant and ironmonger, who later moved to The Wirral, where the young Frederick was a boarder at Calday Grange Grammar School.
It is not known when Frederick volunteered for service in the 13th (County of London) Princess Louise’s Kensington Battalion of the London Regiment, known simply The Kensingtons, but he joined them as they set sail for Le Havre on November 3, 1914.
After four weeks of rain, life in the trenches would have been pretty grim, but Christmas Eve 1914 was a dry day.
At dusk, the men of the Kensington Battalion were surprised to be hailed by German soldiers: “Englishman, Englishman, Happy Christmas to you” and shortly afterwards, his letter told of brightly-lit Christmas trees which started to appear along the German parapet. The following day, the Kensingtons mingled with their foe in No Man’s Land and learned that the opposing troops were the 158th Infantry Regiment.
Private Heath said: “Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity - war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn - a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”
Not all of the soldiers on the Western Front took part in the truce, but those who did wrote home with tales of singing and exchanging gifts.
There are a few stories of playing football but there was no official match and any games which did take place would have been an informal kick-about.
Early in the new year of 1915, Heath received his commission as a Second Lieutenant and other promotions followed swiftly. While a Lieutenant, he was given the rank of Acting Captain in June 1916 and was made an Acting Major during a stint at Battalion Headquarters in December 1917, then serving as a company commander and, in early 1918, as Second-in-Command of the Battalion.
On September 1, 1939, he was given an Emergency Commission in the Corps of Royal Engineers, serving throughout the Second World War, retiring by virtue of his age on June 8, 1949 with the honorary rank of Major. Major Frederick William Heath MC and Bar died on June 30, 1962.
Anyone who has anymore information on Private Heath, his family or his life in Buxton should contact Alan Cleaver on 01946 696907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of Heath’s poems he wrote instead of a report in March 1918 when asked to give an update on the German Spring Offensive, later to become known as Operation Michael:
There is nothing I can tell you
That you really do not know -
Except that we are on the Ridge
And Fritz is down below.
I’m tired of “situations”
And of “wind” entirely “vane.”
The gas-guard yawns and tells me
“It’s blowing up for rain.”
He’s a human little fellow
With a thoughtful point of view,
And his report (uncensored)
I pass, please, on to you.
“When’s old Fritzie coming over?
Does the General really know?
The Colonel seems to think so,
The Captain tells us ‘No.’
“When’s someone going to tell us
We can ‘Stand-to’ as before?
An hour at dawn and one at dusk,
Lor’ blimey, who wants more?”