Wednesday, December 28, 2016

World War Wednesdays: First World War Christmases After the Truce, 1916

British troops celebrating as best they can in a trench, 1916, Imperial War Museums
     I hope everyone had a great Christmas and that there are lots of leftovers for this week! I thought I'd put together a brief post on this World War Wednesday for you to enjoy while relaxing, which is a follow-up to last week's about the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front. Part of why the story of the truce is so spellbinding is the fact that it was never repeated, making it the only period of ceasefire between the start of the war in 1914 and Armistice in 1918. I thought it might be interesting to explore what those other First World War Christmases may have been like, as demonstrated through the London Free Press (curated by @LdnOntWWI on Twitter) and photos from Britain's Imperial War Museums.

     According to a press report of unknown origin from 19th December 1916, the legendary Truce was confirmed as a unique phenomenon which was not to be repeated:
Many Christmas Presents For Men in Trenches, but They Will Fight All Day 
With the British Armies in France, Dec. 18 (Via London from a Staff Correspondent of the Associated Press)-- Thousands upon thousands of packages from "home" are pouring in for the soldiers of the British empire fighting in France, as harbingers of Christmas, but the usually glad season of "peace on earth, good will to men," will bring no cessation of hostilities this year, and Christmas day promises to go down in history as just another twenty-four hours of ceaseless shelling and war activity all along the line.
This promises to be the most bounteous Christmas of the three the British "Tommies" have spent on the foreign field of battle, and the problem of transporting the big and little parcels cross channel and through the various stages of progress to the very front trench itself has been one not easy to solve for even Christmas tokens cannot be allowed to interfere with the real business of the war-- the constant bringing up of shells, shells, shells.
Through rain, fog and darkness, by day and by night, the British guns ceaselessly pound the German trenches. Prisoners recently captured say that the effect of the everlasting drumming of the guns drove them insane. Captured letters written from the trenches speak of the terrors of the constant shelling. "Death is far better than this," wrote one private to his wife.
     This message to presumably British and Commonwealth readers appears to be an attempt at boosting morale on the home front and reassuring relatives of soldiers that their men were going to enjoy at least some comfort that Christmas. It also portrays the British as having the upper hand in the battle and generates hope for the coming year. 
British troops purchasing geese for their Christmas dinner in the marketplace at Bailleul, December 1916, Imperial War Museums
    Closer to home, the London Free Press had its own uplifting Christmas message for readers in 1916:
Merry Christmas! Message to People of Forest City
Hope For Victory In War Before Another Yuletide Is Generally Expressed.
Anglicans Suffer Heavily, Says Bishop
Leading Citizens and Clerics Join In Kindly Wishes For Their Fellows
Greetings from official London and from eminent representatives of the clergy of many denominations were communicated to citizens of the Forest City through The Free Press this afternoon.
Three Christmases under war conditions find Canadians with an even more fixed resolve to have their part in bringing the great European cataclysm to a victorious termination, and from all sides come expressions of sympathy with those who have come under the conqueror's temporary sway, of satisfaction that Canada is able to enjoy the blessings of peaceful domestic conditions, and of confidence that before another Yuletide comes, right and justice will have been restored by the overwhelming force of allied arms.

British troops (the soldier on the left thought to be of the Worcestershire Regiment) purchasing mistletoe from women on a market, Montreuil-Sur-Mer, December 1916, Imperial War Museums
   Finally, the Christmas Day 1916 edition of the Free Press published a message to all British empire troops from King George and Queen Mary: "District Headquarters to Communicate Royal Good Wishes to Men in Khaki To-Day:"
King George and Queen Mary Send Greetings to All Troops Of the Empire Confident They Will Achieve Victory
Special Message of Cheer to the Sick and Wounded Wishes Speedy Restoration to Health
Two Christmas messages from the King and Queen to the soldiers and sailors of the empire were received yesterday at district headquarters here for publication.
One of the messages was to troops on land and sea everywhere in the empire. The other was particularly addressed to the sick and wounded. Her Royal Highness the Queen joined in the message of cheer to those suffering from wounds or disease. Both greetings will be communicated wherever possible to the men concerned today. Following are the two messages as received by cable yesterday morning:
"To the sick and wounded:
"At this Christmastide, the Queen and I are thinking more than ever of the sick and wounded among my sailors and soldiers. From our hearts we wish them strength to bear their sufferings, a speedy restoration to health, a peaceful Christmas and many happy years to come.
"George, R. L."
The general message read as follows:
"I send you, my sailors and soldiers, hearty and good wishes for Christmas and the new year. My grateful thoughts are ever with you, for victories gained for hardships endured and for your unflinching cheeriness. 
"Another Christmas has come around and we are still at war, but the empire, confident in you, remains determined to win. 
"May God bless and protect you.
"George, R. L."

     I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the Christmas season exactly a hundred years ago, and I appreciate your taking time out of the relaxing part of the holiday season to read it! Many thanks to @LdnOntWWI on Twitter and the Imperial War Museums. 
     Thanks for reading,
Delany Leitch (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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