Saturday 23 May 2015

Raising morale for second Christmas on Western Front

Christmas on the Western Front 1915 – 29 Dec 2015 (photo: in the trenches)

During the First World War on the western front in northern France, Christmas 1914 had seen some fraternising between British and German troops.  An unofficial truce operated along some parts of the front line, with even games of football between soldiers who had previously been shelling each other in the trench warfare. 

Many people in 1914 had expected the war to be over by Christmas, but of course this did not happen, and it was a different matter a year later.  110 Allied divisions faced 100 German divisions along the western front, and the war had taken a more sinister turn during the intervening twelve months when the Germans introduced gas at Ypres, and the British replied in like manner at Loos.  By December 1915, when Sir Douglas Haig took over as Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, the wet, wintry weather had turned much of the shelled area into a quagmire.  Men suffered from exposure through rain, snow and mud.  But from early December there was some cheer as Christmas parcels began to arrive from home.

London stores like Harrods and Selfridges introduced ‘war comfort’ departments, and produced catalogues of items suitable to send out to the troops - mentioning such delicacies as milk chocolates, coffee chocolates, West End toffee, butterscotch, cream caramels and chewing gum.  Soon the stores were offering for sale ready-packed standard boxes of food and ‘comforts’ – and they also produced boxes for prisoners of war.  Contents would include Christmas puddings, mince pies, packets of Woodbines and pairs of socks.

On each side of the conflict the authorities were determined to prevent any repeat of the unofficial truce of the previous year – the Germans went as far as saying any soldiers leaving the trenches to fraternise with the enemy would be shot as deserters. Both sides were concerned lest the men’s fighting spirit be diminished.  Yet fewer British men were inclined to fraternise by December 1915, since British towns had been bombed by Zeppelins, and especially after in May 1915 a U-boat had torpedoed the Cunard liner Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland - with 1,198 drowned.

So Christmas 1915 tended to be celebrated within each unit as best they could, in spite of enemy fire.  It was of course easier for those away from the front line to celebrate, especially if billeted in a village.  When civilians were about and able to join in, the village school might be used for a concert party, and there would be sports competitions.

During 1915 the war had expanded to other parts of the world, for it was the year of the disastrous Gallipoli or Dardanelles campaign.  This involved ANZAC troops (members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).  Many wounded and sick troops were evacuated by hospital ships to Britain, so that Christmas 1915 did provide many Australians and New Zealanders with a most pleasant initial experience of the mother country.  From early December troops were being evacuated from the Gallipoli peninsula, though those remaining in the dugouts and trenches had to cope with gales and torrential rain, longing for Christmas festivities to provide some diversion.

On Christmas morning an early service was held on the beach, with pews consisting of wooden planks on biscuit boxes, and an altar composed of packing cases covered by a slip of cloth and lit by two candles.  The planning and performing of concerts and pantomimes played a crucial part in maintaining morale in those depressing conditions, as it did for those on the western front. 

Sadly after 1915 the troops had still two (and for some three) more Christmases away from home, before ‘the war to end all wars’ was concluded.

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