Leyland soldier was first ‘over the top’ in famous Christmas Day truce

'Daredevil' World War One soldier Henry Heyes, from Farington
'Daredevil' World War One soldier Henry Heyes, from Farington
  • Henry ‘Daredevil’ Heyes was the first to shake hands with the Germans on Christmas Day, 1914
  • Soldier returned home a hero after receiving bravery medal
  • Died from an accident during bombing practice in France a year after his wedding

The incredible story of a ‘daredevil’ Farington solider – the first man to go over the top and shake hands with the enemy on Christmas Day – has been unearthed.

Historian Joan Langford is researching all of the soldiers who fought in the First World War in preparation for a war memorial to be placed in Farington Park later this year.

“If you see any relatives in Leyland who have lost men out here, just tell them from me that they must keep their hearts up”

Farington soldier Henry Heyes, writing back home in 1915

And she has come across articles in the Chorley Guardian and Leyland Hundred Advertiser from July 1915, which tell the remarkable story of Henry Heyes, who was considered a hero in his hometown.

“Leyland’s DCM hero, Sgt H. Heyes, has been home for a week, and enthusiastic scenes witnessed his departure for return to duty on Wednesday night,” the paper read. “After a narrow escape, Sgt Heyes, who is in the Scots Guards, joined a bombarding party of the Borderers, and took charge when the officers were killed, and succeeded in capturing 250 yards of German trenches.

“Previous to this, Heyes had earned distinction in his own regiment. He was known as ‘Daredevil Heyes’ and an officer related to a comrade that on Christmas morning Heyes was the first man over the trenches to shake hands with the Germans and spend a short time with them.”

It went on to say that a ‘send-off’ meeting was held in honour of Sgt Heyes in the Leyland Public Hall on July 6, 1915, before a huge crowd of people escorted him to the railway station, with the Leyland Band playing en route.

“At the station, Heyes briefly addressed the crowd and appealed to the young men to go out and avenge those Leyland soldiers who were now below the soil,” the write-up said. “He left Leyland by the 9.37 train for London.”

Sgt Heyes was also possessor of the Russian Cross of St George, for bravery.

He attended St Ambrose Church and lived at Golden Hill. He was the son of John and Margaret Heyes, who went on to live in Preston Road, Farington.

In a letter penned from France in November 1915, he wrote: “For days we had been bombarding the German trenches, and I know it had fairly demoralised the Germans who happened to be in the trenches in front of us, as the prisoners we captured afterwards were nothing more nor less than nervous wrecks.

“Before our troops charged we gave them a proper good dose of gas, and I have no doubt it would fairly touch the Germans too, when they saw it coming, as they were being played at their own game.

“They started it first, but you know the old saying ‘two can play at that game’.

“You may think that we are losing a lot of men just now, with a few Leyland lads being killed, but I can tell you it is nothing compared to the Germans; on this front alone they must have lost 200,000.

“I have seen as much as any man in the war, without boasting, and it will give you an idea that I know the result of battle when I see it.

“Where Germany gets her men from I don’t know. But they are old men and young lads now; it is not the same army we fought against at Ypres etc, at the beginning of the war.”

He added: “I am glad to say that the tide has turned on this front now. If the men will come forward we will finish this war in good time.

“If you see any relatives in Leyland who have lost men out here, just tell them from me that they must keep their hearts up.

“We are not all dead yet, and there are a lot of local lads still out.”

In September 1915, it was rumoured locally that Sgt Heyes had been killed, but it turned out to be untrue, and in January 1916, he married Hettie Wiles, from London.

They spent their honeymoon in Brighton before he left for the front line once more.

Sadly, it was reported in March the following year, 1917, that Sgt Major Heyes, also known as Harry, had died “due to an accident during bombing practice in France.”

He is buried in the La Neuville Communal Cemetery in Somme, France, and his name is on the war memorial in Church Road, Leyland; the St Ambrose Memorial in Moss Lane, Leyland; the mural plaque in St Ambrose Church, Leyland; and the Scots Guards Memorial at Edinburgh Castle.