Colonel John Esslemont Adams

Biography of Colonel John Esslemont Adams

Christmas Day 1914 was one of the strangest and most moving moments in the history of the Great War. The guns had fallen silent on Christmas Eve and the sound of men singing carols had drifted across the lines. The following morning some German soldiers left their trenches, unarmed, and calling on their British counterparts not to shoot. What followed will never be forgotten. Men laid down their arms and worked side by side to bury the dead. They worshipped together and later played football, exchanged gifts and drank to a peaceful Christmas. Scots were there in numbers—the 6th Gordons and 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards. One Scot, a Glasgow graduate, played a most important part that day.

John Esslemont Adams was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, on 25th May 1865. His father, John, was a schoolmaster, the Rector of St.John’s Grammar School where Esslemont, as he was known, was educated prior to University. The family home was at Gilbertfield, Hamilton. He was young when he went up to Gilmorehill, just fourteen in 1879 when he matriculated in the Arts Faculty. Esslemont would be a student for thirteen years, emerging in 1892 with both an M.A. and a B.D., and broad interests in both curricular and extra-curricular activities. As an undergraduate he focussed mainly on Latin and Greek, though in the session 1882-83 he took classes in Natural Philosophy, Mathematics and English. The following session he continued his studies in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy before returning to Classics and graduating M.A. in 1888. He was a successful student and won a Coulter Prize, of £2.10 shillings, for the best essay on ‘The Cases Which Led to the Decline of Sparta in the Fourth Century B.C.’ He also earned a Distinction in the Muirhead prize examination of books read throughout the session of 1887-8 in the Private and Senior Class in Latin. Esslemont decided on a career in the ministry and went on to study at the Glasgow Free Church College, later Trinity College. He graduated BD in 1892. His family papers add some further details about his life at this time. “As the most distinguished student of the year at Divinity Hall, [he] was awarded the Stevenson scholarship…He kept wicket for the University Cricket X1….During or immediately after his University years he travelled in Palestine and Egypt…He had a fine singing voice as a young man and was offered a place with the D’Oyly Carte Opera; this he declined in order to respond to a call to the Presbyterian ministry…His first appointment was as an assistant minister at North Leith.”

When war began Adams was a family man and an experienced minister. He had married Marion Gallacher in 1902 and their daughter Mary was born in 1908. When War broke out he volunteered immediately, leaving his congregation at the West United Free Church, Aberdeen to minister to the men of the Gordon Highlanders on the Western Front. War and winter weather in 1914 lowered the spirits of the men and Adams had just completed a burial service on Christmas Day when he saw men beginning to emerge from the trenches. While Colonel McLean attempted to stop them it became clear that something quite unique was happening. Adams went over to speak to the German officers, in the hope of securing a truce to bury the dead lying on no-man’s land. It was the beginning of an extraordinary, if brief peace. After the dead were buried he and a German Divinity student officiated at a service, during which the 23rd psalm was read in English and German. At the end of the service he shook hands with the German commander. The truce lasted until the 3rd January 1915 when the guns were heard again. The football match became part of legend, but it was also a moment of stillness and reflection that was in no small part due to Adam’s ability to move by his words and the resonance of his voice. It was a quality that defined him as a preacher. Later in the war, he officiated at the burial of John McCrae, author of, ‘In Flanders Fields’. It was a challenge to reach for the words that would honour the creator of this great poem, but Colonel J.M.Elder, commander of the No.3 Canadian General Hospital of which McCrae was second in command, wrote to Adams, thanking him for the most beautiful and affecting prayer he had ever heard, a sentiment shared by all who were there.

Colonel Adams had a distinguished war service and played a major part in bringing order to what had been, pre-war, a disorganised Army Chaplain’s Department. He was appointed a Senior Chaplain at Boulogne in late 1915 with responsibility for integrating support for the different denominations of chaplains in the field. He remained in this role until May 1918 when he was posted to the Front to become directly responsible for the work of the Chaplain’s Department there, having between fifty and sixty chaplains under his command. Scarcely had he taken up this post as Assistant Principal Chaplain in France than he broke his right ankle and was invalided to a military hospital in Glasgow. In October he was ordered to Egypt to be a Senior Presbyterian Chaplain in Mesopotamia. He remained in Cairo until mid-1919. He came home with many decorations to attest to his war service - the Military Cross (MC), presented to him personally by the King, and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He was also twice Mentioned in Despatches (MID). He returned to his ministry in Aberdeen and was honoured by the conferment of a Doctorate of Divinity at Aberdeen University in 1928.

The part played by Colonel John Esslemont Adams on Christmas Day 1914 has been represented in films and documentaries including the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel and a BBC broadcast entitled ‘The Christmas Truce’. It has come to stand for common humanity in the face of an inhuman war. Colonel Adams was never in doubt as to the identity of the transgressors and edited a book, an excoriating account of German atrocities, entitled, ‘Their Crimes’ in 1917. He died on 22nd April 1935.


Colonel John Esslemont Adams
Rank: Colonel
Regiment: Army Chaplains Department
Degree: MA BD
Awards: Military Cross, Distinguished Service Order, Mentioned in Despatches
Comments: N/A
Note/Press Clipping: N/A
Photo ID: N/A


University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records (Matrics R8/5/1/1-R8/5/8/1, GU Calendars, GU RoH)

The Scotsman, 5th January 1915

Personal Papers of the late Professor W.G.S.Adams, including letter from Colonel J.M. Elder to Colonel J.E.Adams, 1 February 1918

Rev.W.M.MacGregor, Trinity College Glasgow Souvenir of the Union 1856-1929

British Newspaper Archive (online)

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