History Book Reviews

Christmas in the Trenches – Alan Wakefield

It is perhaps some measure of our humanity that the brief, partial, and entirely unauthorised, Christmas Truce of 1914, has become one of the most celebrated events of the First World War. It had no lasting impact upon the course of the conflict; no advantage was gained, no territory was won or lost. Yet this event, in many respects so normal and equally so bizarre, continues to attract our attention and many books and articles have been written about that first Christmas in the trenches. What Alan Wakefield has done, however, is slightly different, in that he has investigated what happened on the other three Christmas periods of the war as well as the Christmas of 1918 when, if they were not yet at home, there was at least peace and where a degree of goodwill might be expected.

After the events of Christmas 1914, which shocked senior officers who were concerned that fraternisation with the enemy would diminish the army’s natural aggression, strict instructions were issued in advance of the Christmas of 1915. “Nothing of the kind” experienced the previous year would be permitted. To make sure of this the artillery was ordered to open fire at dawn and to continue firing slowly all day.

Generally these orders were followed, but at Laventie, for example, elements of the Guards Division did actually leave their trenches and met up with the Germans in No Man’s Land. Senior officers soon put a stop to this and it seemingly lasted for no more than about forty minutes. Afterwards an enquiry was held. This resulted in Captain Miles Barne, temporary commanding officer of the 1st Scots Guards and another company commander, facing a court martial.  

Bad weather, terrible conditions in the trenches and almost impassable ground in No Man’s Land, restricted all movement during December 1916. Nevertheless, and despite the warnings from GHQ, some units climbed out of the trenches and made their way through the mud to greet the enemy.

The Christmas of 1917 was a white one for many at the front. Though the troops celebrated as best they could, with whatever little extras they had been able to buy or had been sent from home, there was no fraternisation with the enemy, or at least none recorded. It would seem that no such thoughts entered the minds of the men. Possibly the war had dragged on too long, the killing just too great on both sides.

By 25 December 1918, everything had changed. Whilst it might be thought that this would be the merriest Christmas since war was declared four long years before, this was far from being the case. Men were anxious to return home. They had fought their war and won, and they expected to reap the rewards of victory.

Indeed for some of the troops that formed the army of occupation in Germany this was the least festive Christmas they had experienced. An example of this is recounted by a group of men from the Hampshire Regiment who were billeted with local a local family. “We went into a little back room and started our Christmas dinner (such as it was). The folk in the house were having their dinner of meat scraps and potatoes in the main room and the old lady kept coming and wanting us to come in with them but my mate was a bit awkward and said, ‘Why don’t they leave us alone’.”

The contrast in this fascinating book, between the Christmas of 1914, when the men disobeyed orders to cross No Man’s Land to greet the enemy and exchange gifts, and the one where they were actually living with the enemy, could not be more different.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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