Father Christmas

Lieutenant Colonel George B. Laurie
1st Battalion, Royal Irish RiflesLaurie

I used to be up at cockcrow when a small child on Christmas Day, to see what Santa Claus had brought me, and I shall be up early enough to-morrow in all conscience too, but for a different reason—standing to arms—so that I shall not get my throat cut.

Best of love to you for Christmas. Whilst you are in church I shall be in the trenches, but both doing our rightful duty, I trust.

(Lt-Col. Laurie to Wife, 24 Dec 1914)

On 25 December 1914, George Brenton Laurie described the Christmas truce in No Man’s Land as “English and German, begin to swarm out to meet each other.” Suspicious, Laurie initially held his men back before going to investigate himself. The Germans complimented the colonel on his battalion’s marksmanship and were eager to learn if the Canadian Division had arrived yet. The armistice held for two days until both sides resumed the fighting.

Writing to his wife shortly after Christmas, Laurie mused:

So now this is the queer position of affairs: we fire a pistol shot off at 12 midnight to-night by arrangement, and they reply with some shots over our heads, after which things continue to hum as before. You have no idea how pleasant everything seems with no rifle bullets or shells flying about. I need hardly tell you that we have kept our men ready in the trenches all the same, as we do not trust our friends further than we can see them.

Born on 13 October 1867 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Colonel Laurie was the son of General John Wimburn Laurie (1835—1912), an English-born veteran of Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, the first Boer War, and the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. The elder Laurie had been Conservative MP in the Canadian Parliament (1887—1891) and MP in the British Parliament (1895—1906). While serving on the Western Front in December 1914, Colonel Laurie realized that he was spending Christmas in the trenches “like my father did exactly 60 years ago.”Laurie

In 1885, George Laurie joined the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles while they were stationed in Halifax. He accompanied the regiment to Egypt in 1888, and fought in Boer War, in which one of his brothers was killed. In 1912, Laurie was promoted to lieutenant colonel in command of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, which he led to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force in November 1914.

During five months on the front, Laurie kept regular correspondence with his wife, Florence Vere-Laurie. Witnessing the fatal head wound of a fellow officer, Laurie declared, “Such a place to die in!—but Heaven will be Heaven after that.” Despite the “horrid” trench conditions, Laurie professed courage and determination: “My nerves have grown stronger, as I’ve had a good baptism of them when going about.” However, the colonel explained:

As an unmarried man, I should not mind the danger either very much, having had a certain amount of experience in Egypt and South Africa, but as a married man, I hate it, because I think it would probably make a great difference to our young people when they grow up if I get killed.

In the final letter to his wife, Laurie asked, “Can you imagine me charging down with the regiment shortly after dawn into Neuve Chapelle? I will write more about it all if I am spared. There is heavy fighting before us.”

He was killed the next morning on 12 March 1915 while going over the top. Revolver in hand, Laurie called out to his men, “Follow me! I will lead you!” before he was shot through the head. One of his officers mourned, “Our brave Colonel had departed from us, and we can only hope that he has got his reward for his heroism in the next world….”

Major Clinton-Baker, second-in-command of 1st Royal Irish Rifles, wrote to Laurie’s widow assuring her that Laurie had died “A true soldier’s Death.” Clinton-Baker assumed command of the battalion but was mortally wounded less than two months later on 9 May 1915.

Letters of Lieut.-Colonel George Brenton Laurie, 1921

2 thoughts on “Father Christmas

    • He didn’t. He was born in Canada and commanded a British Army battalion. No reason to be too exclusive here. My site is ultimately about detailing individual experiences of war and command. Expect to see infantry battalion commanders as well as majors, British officers born in Canada, and other interesting figures.

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