Fr Ned Dowling’s first World War diary describes Christmas 1914 truce

‘On Christmas Eve . . . the enemy came out from his lair and sung out to us’

From ‘Christmas at the Front - Unpacking the Parcels from Home’ by the Italian-born British official first World War artist Fortunino Matania, reproduced in ‘Goodbye, Old Man: Matania’s Vision of the First World War’ by Lucinda Gosling in association with the Mary Evans Picture Library.

From ‘Christmas at the Front - Unpacking the Parcels from Home’ by the Italian-born British official first World War artist Fortunino Matania, reproduced in ‘Goodbye, Old Man: Matania’s Vision of the First World War’ by Lucinda Gosling in association with the Mary Evans Picture Library.

 

The first World War diary of an Irish Catholic priest has been found during a house clearance in Co Laois.

Canon Seán O’Doherty, now the PP in Durrow, Co Laois has authorised the publication of Co Kilkenny-born Fr Ned Dowling’s diary, which covers the period from late 1914 until the summer of 1915.

Fr Dowling served as a British Army Catholic chaplain and was sent to Flanders in November 1914, where he served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers regiment.

The full 90-page transcript of the diary (seen exclusively by The Irish Times) will be published for the first time in 2015 in, Kilkenny Voices from the Western Front 1914-1918 – the latest publication by historians Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan.

Fr Dowling’s description of the Christmas Truce – which seems to have lasted from Christmas Eve until the evening of St Stephen’s Day – is a rare eye-witness written account.

The British Army Catholic chaplain with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers regiment describes hearing, on Christmas Eve, the sound of singing coming from the German trenches and the Irish soldiers responding in “the same friendly spirit”.

Sent to Flanders in November 1914, he writes: “When on Xmas Eve, an hour or so before our relief (and what it meant to be relieved, the Germans knew quite well), the enemy came out from his lair and sung out to us, while our fellows were not behindhand in showing the same friendly spirit.

Spirit of temporary goodwill

“It didn’t mean that they wouldn’t cheerfully have bayoneted the lot in a charge, it only meant that as there was seemingly no immediate prospect of killing any large number of Germans according to the rules of the game, they were quite ready and curious to approach them in a spirit of temporary and strictly limited good-will.”

During the next two days, the soldiers from both sides approached one another “in a spirit of temporary and strictly limited good-will”.

Gifts were exchanged including “buttons, electric torches, cigarettes and cigars”. Fr Dowling himself received a gift of cigars from a German soldier from the city of Leipzig.

He described the famous football match as “a washout” because the gunners had been ordered to fire some rounds. The Irish soldiers had warned the Germans that this might happen – and even apologised. The Germans were understanding and said “they knew what selfish beasts gunners were, leading a soft-life at least a thousand yards from the firing line, and shelling poor helpless devils of infantrymen.”

Fr Dowling noted that: “There was mutual understanding and sympathy expressed.”

Eventually, the guns went quiet and “peace reigned once more”. Thereafter, he writes, “not a rifle shot was heard for several days”.