- from The War Illustrated, 25th December, 1915
- 'Christmas in the Trenches'
- by our War Correspondent / F. A. McKenzie
The Season of Peace in the Time of War : Memories and Musings
two Christmas 1915 coverpages from British and French magazines
CHRISTMAS in the trenches ! It strikes one as incongruous, doesn't it ? The celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace amid all the surroundings of war ! Yet there it is, and nowhere will the great day be more observed than in the front lines of our armies.
One's mind inevitably goes back at a time like this to the two previous occasions in modern days when Northern France was the area of war at Christmas-time December, 1870, and the Christmas of 1914.
Looking over the records and the pictures of 1870, when war was fought in the open, enables one to realise the vast gulf between then and now. But in 1870, as in 1915, the note of war was tragedy. There had been a long spell of bitterly cold weather. The Germans, then as to-day, had been counting on finishing the war before Christmas arrived, and were bitterly disappointed at their failure. France saw grim ruin daily approaching nearer. The French prisoners of war in German camps, revolting at their treatment, had conspired to rise up on the night of Christmas Day, to disarm their guards, and to fight their way back to France. Their plot was discovered.
Yuletide and Wars of Yester-Year
The French Army had few festivities. Food was scarce, money scarcer, and there was neither the time nor the spirit for even an hour of rejoicing. The Germans, however, had a merry day. Loads of gifts arrived by waggon from every part of their Fatherland. Deputations came to see that the gifts were properly distributed. There were Christmas- trees. In some of the places they started their festivities at 6.30 on Christmas Eve, with dances to the music of the regimental bands. They had feasts. The rooms were decorated with green branches, miniature candles, and toy confectionery. For a moment war paused. A few hours later deadly sorties and fierce advances set the ball rolling again.
The most remarkable feature in the trenches last year was the rapprochement that took place between the British and the German troops on parts of our lines, particularly on the Messines front. Who started it is by no means clear ; but for some days before Christmas arrived there was a decided slackening of hostilities. Then a voice from one trench spoke to the enemy in the opposite trenches, suggesting that there should be no more serious firing until New Year's Day. The soldiers started to come out from cover ; the British to the German trenches, the Germans to the British trenches. They exchanged drinks and smokes ; they had mutual sing-songs.
The Quaint Fraternity of Enmity
The thing was, of course, from a military point of view, a great scandal. If soldiers on opposite sides made friends with one another in this way, war would soon be impossible. Talking with the men who took part in these meetings weeks afterwards, it was easy to see how deeply they had been touched. They had. discovered that their enemies, who for weeks had been trying to kill them, and whom they had been trying to kill, were much like .themselves. The Saxon soldiers, who faced our troops at this point, were the best of the German Army, men who throughout had been most noted for their humanity, and who most nearly resemble our own lads. Surely these gatherings in the " No Man's Land " between the trenches were the very culmination of the irony of war !
There will be nothing of that this year. The Germans at many points are anxious to have an informal truce. They have already been calling out across their lines, "Christmas coming. No more shoot." But they are not meeting with any response. Our armies have too many bitter recollections from the twelve months that have passed, recollections that cannot be effaced. They have read of the treatment of our own soldiers in German prison camps. They have experienced the German poison gas. Every soldier knows many cases of the shocking treatment of our wounded. There will be no friendly stretching out of hands this year.
But Christmas will be observed in very marked fashion, and, unless some stern commander orders an advance on this day, things will be reported as "Quiet along the front." The parcels begin to arrive at least a fortnight before Christmas, and they arrive in such, overwhelming numbers that it is hardly possible to deal with them. Few soldiers but have at least some friend to send them something, and there arc organisations galore Christmas pudding funds, cigarette funds, county leagues and societies, and regimental bodies all pouring in seasonable fare. It would be a very good thing if all the luxuries that arrive around Christmas Day could be spread over the weeks before and after.
Signs and Symbols of Festivity
There will be decorations, if it is only of Christmas cards from home, even in the dug- outs. There will be feasts in the front lines. But the full celebration will be in the rest camps behind. There Christmas will be observed almost as elaborately as in barracks in England. The non-commissioned officers in many a regiment have already sent to England for their packages of vari-coloured tissue paper. From this the handy men of the company make all kinds of decorations chains across the ceilings of the huts, roses around the walls, and Christmas mottoes pasted on white sheets, and stuck up on the walls. Even the mud of the rest camps the thick, cloying, penetrating, indescribable mud, which must be felt to be realised will not be allowed to spoil the good temper on this day.
Christmas will start early, and there will be music everywhere, for the loneliest and smallest outpost at least have their Jew's harp. The Highland regiments will forget for the time that the real Scotch celebration comes on New Year's Day, and not on Christmas Day, and the skirl of the pipers will liven the air of many and many a camp. The regimental officers will, as they always do at such a time, come into real hearty personal contact with their men.
I would like to be at one of the of the dinners in the rest camps. I can sec them as on the show occasions I- have known. There will be a shell-case, or a couple of shell-cases, carefully polished, in the middle of the table, to hold some flowers that have come from home. There will be candles around, stuck in ginger-beer bottles. The glasses or mugs will '6c of infinite variety. Dinner will probably be eaten in comparative peace, for the German soldier is eminently a sentimentalist. Christmas is his great festival, and he will probably have no desire on his own side to force the fighting on that day.
Two Great Toasts of the Dying Year
There will be two toasts this year in many a hut and many an officers' mess that they did not have at home. One, drunk in silence, will be "To those who have gone' ; and the other, drunk sometimes with a lump in the throat, will be "To the dear ones at home." They will tell' tales of " Blighty," and think of us as we, seated around our own firesides, kept safe by their work, will be thinking of them.
That is how Christmas will probably be spent on the western front. I cannot think that there will be similar conditions in the Balkans. There our lads are likely to have nothing but strenuous, furious endeavour against desperate odds. Their parcels may or may not have come. Unless the situation has markedly changed between the moment of writing and Christmas Day, every man in the lines there will be on the qui vive all day, ready for anything.
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