Scotland

World War One at Home: The first soldier to be killed after the Christmas truce

Walter Sinclair Smith Image copyright Other
Image caption Walter Sinclair Smith, pictured left, was hit by sniper fire late on Christmas afternoon

Scottish rifleman Walter Sinclair Smith is thought to be the first soldier to be killed after the 1914 Christmas Day truce.

His story was uncovered by students at Dunoon Grammar School when they were researching former pupils who died in World War 1.

They found that 20-year-old Walter was killed by a German sniper late on Christmas Day after an accidental gun shot prompted a return to hostilities.

The unofficial Christmas Truce, which took place at several places across the Western Front, is often celebrated as a symbolic moment of peace in an otherwise devastatingly violent war.

Along the front, a scattered series of small-scale ceasefires took place between some German and British forces.

Accounts suggest that men sang carols and in some cases left their trenches and met in No Man's Land to exchange gifts. There are even claims that a game of football was played.

At the time of the truce, Walter Smith was serving with the 5th Cameronians Scottish Rifles in the trenches near Armentieres in Northern France.

Image copyright Other
Image caption A temporary grave was erected on Boxing Day 1914

Joe Rhodes, former head teacher of Dunoon Grammar School, told the BBC's World War 1 at Home that the Smith family were well-known and respected in Dunoon.

Walter's grandfather had been provost and his father was an elected councillor.

Walter and three of his brothers had volunteered to go into the army. His youngest brother was not old enough.

Mr Rhodes says: "The four brothers were at the front Armentieres at Christmas and there was a truce.

"Such a thing had never happened before. The British were sitting in their trenches. They are damp, they are cold, they are miserable. All of a sudden they hear Silent Night being sung from the German trenches.

"Everyone started to get up and wander over this killing ground. When they went up they started to shake each others hand and they started to exchange gifts.

"This was something everyone was saying 'you can't do this'. 'You can't fraternise with the enemy, for heavens sake'. But it was Christmas Day."

Mr Rhodes adds: "A gun went off on the British side. It was by accident. Nobody was hurt.

"But someone in the German side fired and it was Walter Smith who was shot. He died the next day."

According to Mr Rhodes, the Germans apologised for Walter being shot.

He says: "Walter was a Cameronian, which was part of the Scottish rifles, and they were opposed by a regiment from Saxony in Germany.

"What the Saxons said was it was not they who had shot him, it was the Prussians who were further down the line.

"A Prussian sniper had fired deliberately at somebody and it happened to be Walter Smith. But they said sorry."

Walter was buried by his comrades in a quiet area behind the lines. His grave was marked by a simple wooden cross with a small evergreen tree planted behind it.

It is unknown if any of the three of his brothers who were serving in the same battalion at the time, witnessed his death or attended his funeral and burial.

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