Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Court Martialed for a Christmas Truce: Captain Iain Colquhoun (1887–1948)


Captain Ian Colquhoun 

On 25 December 1915, Captain Ian Colquhoun of the 1st Battalion  Scots Guards and scion of a noble Scottish family was contacted by a German officer. A year after the 1914 Christman Truce, he was well aware of how determined the high command was to avoid a repetition. He described in his diary what ensued.

A German officer came forward and asked me for a truce for Xmas. I replied that this was impossible. He then asked for ¾ hour (three-quarters of an hour) to bury his dead. I agreed. The Germans then started burying their dead and we did the same. This was finished in ½ hrs time. Our men and the Germans then talked and exchanged cigars, cigarettes etc for ¼ of an hour and when the time was up I blew a whistle and both sides returned to their trenches.

For the rest of the day the Germans walked about and sat on their parapets. Our men did much the same but remained in their trenches. Not a shot was fired. At night the Germans put up Fairy lights on their parapets and their trenches were outlined for miles on either side. It was a mild looking night with clouds and a full moon and the prettiest sight I have ever seen. Our machine guns played on them and the lights were removed. Our guns shelled heavily all night at intervals of ½ an hour and the Germans retaliated on Sunken Road. I had to leave my dug-out five times during the night owing to shells.

After ten more days on the front, Colquhoun returned to a billet in the rear to find himself under arrest, charged with   “Conduct to the prejudice of good order of military discipline in that on 25th Dec he (1) Approved of a truce with the enemy (2) Permitted a cessation of hostilities”.

Friend and Defense Counsel
Lt. Raymond Asquith

As well as having the prime minister’s niece as his wife, he had Asquith’s son Raymond as his Prisoner’s Friend—which is what defense counsel are known as in [British] military discipline. Raymond Asquith was a fellow frontline officer—he was killed during an attack in the Battle of the Somme later in 1916—and one of the finest minds of his generation.

Asquith was unimpressed by the military hierarchy generally, in particular their tactical incompetence, but chose to serve at the front and had a high regard for his fellow trench officers and soldiers. Sir Iain’s detached approach to the court martial, his belief that he had done the right thing and stood by it no matter what some of his superiors thought, impressed Asquith—it was very much in line with Asquith’s thinking, as he later recorded.

Asquith’s efforts did not get Sir Iain acquitted but they ensured that his sentence was the minimum possible. Sir Iain was found guilty but only received a Reprimand. General Haig, who had been commander-in-chief, BEF, only since 10 December 1915, and whose duty it was to confirm or reject the punishment, was smart enough to see all the pitfalls of the sentence.

He personally rejected even a reprimand sentence and Colquhoun was immediately returned to full duties, although the conviction stood. He went on to a have a distinguished army career, and became Lord Lieutenant of Dumbartonshire soon after the war. Today we would applaud his actions and condemn the foolishness of Lord Cavan for bringing the charges in the first place.

His co-accused, Captain Miles Barne, against whom the case was even more flimsy, was found not guilty and returned to full duties. Later promoted to major he was killed in the Ypres sector of the front in September 1917. Raymond Asquith would also perish during the war, at the Somme in 1917.

On the day of his conviction he entered in his diary:

The whole Guards Division and everyone who knows the facts of the case all say that it was a monstrous thing that the court martial ever took place.

Sir Ian Colquhoun,
Laird of Loss,
Between the Wars

The case did not blight Colquhoun’s career. He rose to lt. colonel, earning the DSO, and remained popular with his troops even after the war, showing concern for the welfare of those who fought beside him.


  1. Where are the Captain Ian Colquhouns and Lt. Raymond Asquiths of today?

    1. The Colquhouns and Asquiths are very much with us. Today's military are expected to be much more thoughtful and sensitive than they used to be; in fact some would say that they have gone too far the other way and are too politically correct. But they face a different kind of enemy: can you imagine a Taliban commander asking for a truce in the way that the German officer did?

  2. Don't know. But in the civilian sphere Desmond Tutu measured up. So don't give up hope. (And NB even Trump is getting close to his sell-by date ... so again don't give up hope!)

  3. FYI and all others:
    Enter a general search for Tutu's Anti-Semitism. It was disgusting and on-going.