In December of 1914, what came to be known as World War 1 was well underway. Few anticipated the extent of the global tragedy that would ensue, that it would go on for another four years, or that it would result in at least 20 million military and civilian deaths. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who survived and celebrated the end of that war could have anticipated that it would give rise to an even greater disaster in the form of the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which accounted for a further (likely underestimated) 25 million deaths.
As that first Christmas of the war approached, hundreds of thousands of young men from Germany, France, and all parts of the former British Empire, including Canada, were entrenched in long lines dug into the ground facing each other across fields known as “no man’s land”. Most were away from home for the first time in their lives, cold, hungry, desperately homesick and, one can only imagine, fearful of what lay ahead.
The events of that first Christmas have been recorded largely through the accounts provided by the soldiers themselves through letters preserved in a remarkable collection by the National World War 1 Museum (http://exhibitions.theworldwar.org/christmas-truce/incidents).
The words of those young men transcend the years to tell the story:
Sargent A. Lovell, – 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment, writing to relatives at Walthamstow, on Christmas Day, says:
“Christmas Day! The most wonderful day on record. In the early hours of the morning the events of last night appeared as some weird dream – but to-day, well, it beggars description. You will hardly credit what I am going to tell you. Listen. Last night as I sat in my little dug-out, writing, my chum came bursting in upon me with: “Bob! hark at ‘em!” And I listened. From the German trenches came the sound of music and singing. My chum continued. “They’ve got Christmas trees all along the top of their trenches I Never saw such a sight!”. Climbing the parapet, I saw a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of their line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations of every description, many of them in such positions as to suggest that they were hung upon Christmas trees.
And as I stood in wonder a rousing song came over to us – “The Watch on the Rhine.” Our boys answered with a cheer, while a neighbouring regiment sang lustily the National Anthem. Some were for shooting the lights away, but almost at the first shot there came a shout in really good English: “Stop shooting!”. Then began a series of answering shouts from trench to trench. It was incredible. “Halloo! Halloo! you English; we wish to speak.” And everyone began to speak at once. Some were rational, others the reverse to complimentary. Eventually some sort of order obtained, and lo! A party of our men got out from the trenches and invited the Germans to meet them half-way and talk. And there in the searchlight they stood, Englishman and German, chatting and smoking cigarettes together midway between the lines. A rousing cheer went up from a friend and foe alike. The group was too far away for me to hear what was said, but presently we heard a cheery “Good-night.” A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all,” with which the parties returned to their respective trenches. After this we remained the whole night through singing with the enemy song for song. “Give us ‘Tipperary'”, they cried. Whereupon an adjacent Irish regiment let loose a tremendous “whoop,” and complied with the request in a way as only Irishmen can.”
Published January 1, 1915 in The Bedfordshire Times and Independent
Miss N. Thody, 1, Peel-street, Bedford, has received a letter from Lance Corporal Cooper of the 2nd Northampton’s which gives an astonishing account of Christmas Day in the trenches. It is dated December 27th:
“At last I have found the time to answer all your letters. Well dear, you asked me to let you know what kind of Christmas I had. Well I never had a merry one because we were in the trenches, but we were quite happy. Now what I am going to tell you will be hard to believe, but it is quite true. There was no firing on Christmas Day and the Germans were quite friendly with us. They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return. Just after one o’clock on Christmas morning I was on look-out duty and one of the Germans wished me Good morning and a Merry Christmas. I was never more surprised in my life when daylight came to see them all sitting on top of the trenches waving their hands and singing to us. Just before we came out of the trenches (we came out of them on Christmas night) one of them shouted across, “Keep your heads down, we are just going to fire” and they sent about a dozen bullets flying over the top of our heads. Now who would believe it if they did not see it with their own eyes? It is hard enough for us to believe. What kind of Christmas did you have? I do hope you enjoyed yourself. I thought of you a good many times. I don’t expect it was much of a Christmas in England. I haven’t received mother’s parcel yet. I wonder what has become of it. I have had some eatables but they were nowhere near as good as mother’s.”
Published January 8, 1915 in Bucks Examiner
Rifleman J. Reading, writing to his wife, Mrs. Reading, of Germain Street,
“I hope you all had a merry Christmas; let me tell you how I spent mine. My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn – with a non-commissioned officer and four others – to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6.30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: “Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.” At 4 a.m part of their Band played some Christmas carols and “God save the King”, and “Home Sweet Home.” You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. Of course neither of us had any rifles. I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream. We took advantage of the quiet day and brought our dead in.”
Published January 15, 1915 in Essex County Chronicle
Private Farnden, of the Rifle Brigade, writing to his parents at Leyton, says:
“We had a very decent Christmas Day in the trenches. We had Christmas puddings sent up to us and a few of the boys and myself managed to hot them up, and with some sausage and potatoes and brussels sprouts, which we succeeded in foraging from a farm, we had a very good dinner. On Christmas Eve we were surprised to see Christmas trees alight on the tops of the enemy’s trenches. Some of the Germans (139th Saxon Regiment) shouted to our fellows to come over and have a drink and a smoke. They turned the searchlight on, and some of our boys went out and met them half-way. The first German who came along threw his arms around one of our chap’s neck and kissed him. Next they offered us cigars. On Christmas Day we were out of the trenches along with the Germans, some of whom had a song and dance, while two of our platoons had a game of football. It was surprising to see the German soldiers – some appeared old, others were boys, and others wore glasses. But they ‘played the game’ for that they, and some of them even went as far as to state they would not shoot so long as our regiment was on that particular set of trenches. A number of our fellows have got addresses from the Germans and are going to try and meet one another after the war.”
There are many such accounts. Apparently, a friendly soccer game broke out, won by the British 3-2!
What emerges in reading these accounts is the fundamental decency of these young people who found themselves caught up in world events far beyond their understanding or control. Despite all that, their instinct was to regard the men facing them across that space not as natural enemies, but as fellow human beings caught up in similar circumstances. None of those men of Christmas 1914 are any longer among us, indeed many will not have survived that war, but their words reach us today.
One of those young men was my wife’s grandfather. Orphaned in Scotland and transported to Canada at the age of 8 as one of “Dr. Bernardo’s Boys”, he was fortunate to be adopted by a kindly farming family near Creemore Ontario. Not so fortunately, he was drafted at a very young age and found himself in one of those trenches that Christmas Eve. He would be involved in some of the most horrific battles of that conflict and, at one point, was exposed to “mustard gas” requiring a long hospitalization. In a postcard to his sweetheart back home (who would marry on his return and become my wife’s grandmother) he wrote the following on December 2, 1917:
Just a few lines to let you know I am about the same, hoping you are in the best of health. Cecil is here. I saw him yesterday. Dear Howard my pal was killed just two days after I got gassed. Poor chap. I sure feel sorry.
Your sincere sweetheart, Jack.
Like most of his contemporaries, he never wrote or even spoke of experiences after the war, becoming a quiet, unassuming, and dutiful husband, father and grandfather known as hard worker and prodigious gardener in his later years. In fact, little would be known of his wartime service if not for those postcards and a few artefacts found among his possessions long after his death.
Certainly, we can appreciate parallels in the crises we face today. The world remains an uncertain place. Both real and perceived enemies abound – human, biologic, environmental. The “better angels of our nature” that Lincoln evoked in his first inaugural address seem elusive, both in others and ourselves. Through all this, the words and actions of those young men from that Christmas so long ago seem more meaningful than the political conflicts that took them to those fields or results of the battles they fought. They remind us that most people, left to their own devices, will do the right and kindly thing, that wars and pandemics do eventually end and, ultimately, what persists and endures is how we engage difficult times and treat each other.
Here’s to our better angels.