One of the enduring (and indeed endearing) images is the First World War is the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914. What began as the lighting of candles in the trenches grew to French, German and British soldiers sought each other out in No Man’s Land for the exchanging of gifts, souvenirs, stories and the occasional reference to football.
But these activities of 1914 don’t reflect the full spectrum of what Christmas could mean for the men in the trenches.
Even ignoring the Christmas Truce entirely the festive period brought the opportunity for far greater contact between the soldiers at the front, particular amongst the Entente nations.
Following the 1914 Truces the respective allied commands had issued strong orders prohibiting any fraternisation with the enemy and artillery bombardments or small trench raids were also common during the Christmas period. However this was only focused on preventing the opposing armies from mingling, there was still ample opportunity for allied soldiers to meet each other. Sporting activities between British, Belgian and French soldiers were fairly common at Christmas for most years of the war, with football matches in particular become a feature for those stationed behind the lines.
Events like this helped to show the common similarities between Entente soldiers but they could also highlight the differences. In 1914 the British soldiers each received a present from Princess Mary
Princess Mary’s Gift Fund 1914 Box, Class A smokers© IWM (EPH 1992)
These tins contained tobacco and cigarettes as well as a pipe, lighter, and pencil and paper for writing home. However upon seeing these gifts French and Belgian soldiers were given a clear indication of the apparent disparity in wealth between them and the British (and Britain in general) that would allow each British soldier to receive a gift of this nature.
Whilst the attempts to maintain combat focus along the front would mean that significant numbers of soldiers would remain in the front lines over Christmas, those stationed behind the lines could enter a strange world of both civilian and military life. It was not uncommon for British soldiers to spend Christmas day at the homes of French or Belgian civilians that they had befriended over the proceeding months. Additionally gatherings of allied soldiers in local bars and cafes were also widespread and these would often result in hearty singing between the various nationalities.
There were also Christmas cards that could be exchanged amongst soldiers at the front or those left behind at home that linked the war with Father Christmas.
Untitled© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13397)
The above is a British card.
Mikulás Idén a Rokkant Katonáké [This Year Santa Claus Belongs to the Invalid Soldiers]© IWM (Art.IWM PST 7182)
The above card is from Austria-Hungary and also features a variety of allied soldiers bundled up amongst the twigs.
Buy a Christmas Present© IWM (Art.IWM PST 10797)
This final card is also British.
Whilst the war did not really stop over Christmas, and the battles of Verdun and the Somme had largely put paid to any real attempts to form truces between opposing men by 1916, it did change noticeably for the combatants. All were aware that they were far from home on what was traditionally a day spent with family. The moves to celebrate with local families was largely motivated by an attempt to fill this gap with some form of recognisable structure and festive friendliness. For those left at home they were also reminded and encouraged to send Christmas to the front in some way shape or form so as to ensure their loved ones that they (and their country) had not forgotten them.
The idea that everyone believed the war would be over by Christmas 1914 is not entirely sound but, regardless, soldiers did end up spending four years of war in the trenches over Christmas time and the majority still had not been demobbed by Christmas 1918.
The soldiers rapidly learned that if they could not return home for Christmas themselves then there were ways they could attempt to replicate the experience and the spirit whilst deployed in the trenches.