One of the most eponymous – and in some ways, most tragic – images of the First World War is that of the Christmas Truce in 1914. A real-life event, the Christmas Truce has taken on an almost mythical status, to the extent where it was even featured in mournful conversation during the classic last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. The term ‘home by christmas’ also entered popular consciousness during the Great War.
The 1914 Christmas Truce really did happen. It began in an unplanned manner, with Tommy and Fritz initially not firing upon each other, and then exchanging compliments across no-mans-land, then advancing to meet each other and pass the time of day. Men swapped gifts, and in places even played football matches. There is something very warming and innocent about the Christmas Truce, in the early days of the war when men had hoped that the war would be over in time for them to be home by Christmas Day.
The British authorities were horrified by the truce. Heaven forbid that men might realise that their enemies were human just like them – it might make it harder to fight and kill them. In future years the Generals issued stern edicts forbidding fraternisation, to the point of threatening court martials, even to the point of treason. Despite this in 1915 there were attempts to renew the Christmas Truce, ironically enough by units of the Guards Division. This incident caused a minor scandal.
But where this book is important is the broader emphasis, looking at Christmas during wartime, and not just in 1914 on the Western Front. There are some fascinating stories about how men made the most of Christmas during wartime, even in the front-line trenches. There is something pretty stirring about how British troops always seemed to be able to find themselves a Turkey for Christmas Day. Loved ones at home were also able to send parcels and comforts, thanks to the British Forces enviable postal system. The King and commanders also made a habit of issuing seasonal christmas messages to their troops, and Wakefield has quoted from many of them.
And not only were British troops serving on the Western Front in France and Belgium. During the First World War British and Commonwealth troops spent Christmas in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, Italy, East and West Africa, Palestine and after the Armistice also in Germany with the occupation forces and in North Russia. The men spending Christmas in far-flung parts of the globe in particular must have felt far from home and their loved ones.
Excellent use is made of photographs in the Imperial War Museum‘s collections, of christmas cards sent home from the front, and also of soldiers diaries and personal accounts. Perhaps one area where the author could have expanded on is that of Christmases spent at sea by sailors of the Royal Navy – there must be plenty of photographs and accounts in sailors diaries, and the senior service definitely has more than its fair share of christmas traditions. Apart from that, this book is a very useful social history of the First World War, but with lessons that resonate far beyond that conflict.
Christmas has traditionally been a time when people take stock of the year just gone, the year to come and where they are in life. Christmas is also a time to think of those less fortunate than us, such as the British troops serving in Afghanistan over Christmas. Christmas also has to be a time when we pause to think that British troops have been serving over christmas for hundreds of years, and – sadly – probably will continue to do so for years to come.