What most people remember about Christmas Day, 1914 is the now-famous Christmas truce, the unofficial ceasefire that took place along parts of the Western Front in France when parties of British and German soldiers ventured into ‘no man’s land’ between their respective trenches and sang carols and played football together, a lasting image of peace and humanity in the otherwise brutal World War One.

But for one Watford family, the memories are a little harsher. Lance Sergeant Thomas Edward Gregory, of St James Road in Watford, was marching through Lille Louvain in France on December 25 with the Hertfordshire Regiment, which was one of the first pre-war Territorial Army units to be called up to join the regular army when war broke out in August 1914.

One of the men, Private Percy Higgins from Ware, was killed by a shot from a sniper, and Thomas volunteered to take the sniper out, but was himself shot in the head and died.

Back home in Watford, his wife Jeanette had just given birth to their seventh child a week earlier, and she and the children remained unaware of Thomas’ death until January, when word finally reached them of what had happened.

“It was a big talking point in Watford because it was rather unusual to be killed on Christmas Day,“ says his granddaughter Audrey McLachlan, 80, who lives in Croxley Green, the daughter of Thomas’ oldest daughter Evelyn.

“My mum must have been about ten at the time, and of course everyone used to talk about the truce when they all played football and my mum used to say ‘Well, my dad didn’t play football, he was killed’.“

Audrey’s cousin Brian Gregory, who lives in Abbots Langley and is the son of Thomas’ oldest child Charles, carried out some extensive research about his grandfather and has now passed that information on to Watford Museum for its exhibition and commemoration of the First World War, The Great War: Watford 1914, which is on display now.

Life was very difficult for Jeanette and her children – Charles, Evelyn, Bill, Doris, Herbert, Fred and baby Lille, named after the place where her father died – after Thomas was killed.

He had been a postman and the Post Office looked after the family, sending the boys off to boarding school and two of the girls, Doris and Lille, to Watford Grammar School for Girls.

Thomas’ name was included on the war memorial that used to be above the door in the main Post Office in Market Street in the centre of town and that is now housed in the museum.

“They really helped out,“ says Audrey, “but life was very, very hard for them. My mum used to have to get up and get all the kids ready for school to help her mum. And money was difficult.“

As with many families at that time, the Gregorys never really discussed their loss or their difficulties.

“I asked my mum about it and she said it wasn’t talked about,“ says Audrey, who used to work for Watford Borough Council in the engineering department and who now volunteers at Watford Colosseum, “it was like trying to get blood out of a stone to get them to talk about it. It was strange.“

There was one story that Audrey’s mother Evelyn was willing to share, however, that Audrey has never forgotten.

“There was one little incident. She didn’t really remember him very well, but he came home on leave sometime between September and December and he brought her this little girl’s tea service. She was so thrilled to have it, it must have been quite something in those days, and she remembers running down the path to show her sister – and she fell over and broke it. She said to me, ‘You know what, Audrey? I never got over that’. That was the last time she saw him.“

Audrey took her Auntie Lille over to visit her father’s grave, in Béthune in northern France, when the latter was nearly 80.

“She’d never seen it,“ says Audrey, “it was quite a thing for her. It was very, very emotional. Just like the poem (Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier), he was born and brought up in Watford and died in a field in France, it felt very strange.“

But an interesting meeting arose out of that visit. Audrey signed the visitors’ book at the cemetery and shortly after returning to England got an unexpected phone call.

“Blow me down, the great nephew of Private Percy Higgins had visited the cemetery the next day and seen my entry, it was a weird coincidence. Their graves are next to each other. He rang all the McLachlans in the directory and got hold of me, and we met up. He gave me a couple of photographs of my grandfather that I’d never seen. It was very weird.

“I’m very proud that people are going to be able to read about him in the exhibition,“ Audrey continues. “I’m so proud of the fact that he was killed for us. You know all the old sayings we all say, but it’s true.“

  • The Great War: Watford 1914 is at Watford Museum, Lower High Street, Watford, until Saturday, September 27. Details: 01923 232297, watfordmuseum.org.uk