Private Huggins (left) and his temporary grave, following his death on Christmas Day 1914
The Centenary of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is receiving much media coverage, but it was not universally observed.
At one point of the British front line, near the French village of Festubert, there was no fraternising and the war progressed just as it had in the previous weeks.
Christmas morning 1914
Private Percy Huggins, a 23-year-old soldier in 1st Battalion, Hertfordshire Regiment, had spent Christmas morning on sentry duty at a forward listening post just 20 yards from the enemy. Briefly taking a moment to peer over the top of the trench to check on enemy movements he was shot through the head by a sniper and killed.
His platoon sergeant, 36-year-old Tom Gregory, asked for permission to take Huggins’ place in a bid to avenge his comrade’s death. This he duly did, shooting the German sniper when he rose up to scan for another shot.
Gregory then located a second sniper and was just about to take a shot when his intended quarry opened fire and instantly killed the Briton.
The two men’s fate has been uncovered by the Herts at War project, an exhibition to mark the Centenary of the First World War.
Project researcher Dan Hill said: ‘Less than a mile to the north of [the shootings], we know the men of the 1st North Staffordshire Regiment took part in a truce and one also seems to have taken place to the south as well.
‘The truce probably bypassed the Hertfordshire Regiment because they were with the Guards Brigade who were incredibly professional and were highly unlikely to have fraternised.
‘The story Percy and Tom’s tragic demise on that day serves to highlight that December 25, 1914, was just another day on the Western Front for some.
Seven children left fatherless
Sergeant Gregory was a veteran of the Boer War, who had been working as a postman in Watford before rejoining the army in 1914.
He and his wife Jeanette had seven children; the youngest of whom, Lille, was born on December 18 1914, a week before her father’s death.
Private Huggins, from Ware, had worked in his family’s upholstery business before he joined the army.
In his last letter to his mother, Agnes, who was a widow bringing up seven children, he wrote: ‘I know you all must miss me and no doubt can to some extent realise what my feelings are for I cannot express them.
‘I long for the day when this terrible conflict will be ended. 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 this may be the last war that will ever be.
‘I have already asked [God], dear mum, that you will spend as happy a Xmas as possible and I will do the same.’
One soldier who was nearby, Corporal Clifford Lane, also of the Hertfordshire regiment, later recalled how at dawn on Christmas morning the Germans lifted lanterns above the trenches and called out to the British in the hope of a temporary truce.
The British responded by shooting at the lights, putting an end to any prospect of a ceasefire and effectively sealing the fate of Huggins and Gregory.
Witness to history
Speaking in an interview in 1983, Corporal Lane said: ‘There was a great deal of commotion going on in the German front line 150 yards away. After a few moments there were lighted objects raised above the German parapet, looking like Chinese lanterns to us.
‘The Germans were shouting over to our trench. We were ordered to open rapid fire, which we did.
‘The Germans did not reply to our fire and carried on with their celebrations. They ignored us and were having a very fine time indeed and we continued in our wet trenches trying to make the most of it.
‘They did make overtures but the Guards Brigade had the highest discipline in the army and you couldn’t expect them to fraternise at all and that is why we were ordered to open fire.
‘Apparently regular troops did respond to their overtures and engaged in this truce.
‘I greatly regretted it afterwards because it would have been a good experience.’