The Old Year Departs in a Tumult of Love and Sorrow: Vera and Roland Say Farewell; Verse from Edward Thomas, Prose from Rupert Brooke, and New Year’s Celebrations in France

Thursday December 31st

The old year departs in a whirl of the deepest & most conflicting emotions I have ever known, a tumult of love & sorrow. I went up to London to begin my shopping in a state of weariness & confused sensations, since I scarcely slept at all last night, partly because I was thinking about Roland and wondering just what I really did feel.

At lunch time Roland arrived outside D. H. Evans, where we had promised to meet him, in a taxi, & put us into it & drove off to the Florence Restaurant for lunch. In the taxi he gave me a lovely bunch of violets, sweet-smelling & fresh, very evidently proving that he had not forgotten my remark of yesterday. He was a little perturbed because he
had not brought Aunt Belle any flowers, but she smoothed him down most tactfully & then remarked “My dear lad, you can’t be expected to have two people in your head at once!” During lunch Aunt Belle by various questionings discovered that I possessed the incongruous quality of loving children. She asked Roland if he did & he replied “I am
afraid I don’t very much. In fact I would much rather have an animal than a child.” I chuckled to myself & determined to remember that remark, although when Aunt Belle was telling us how Daddy had always hated children until his experiences with us, he did say he was sure he would love a child of his own.

See? Chaperones help move things along. The world for a sympathetic aunt.

Next came the experience I was longing for & dreading. We drove to the Criterion (in a bus, for once, not a taxi) & waited in the entrance hall for Mrs Leighton & Roland’s sister Clare. I was very thankful for Roland’s moral support. I feared I should be quite overwhelmed & unable to utter a word. At last Mrs Leighton appeared & Roland went towards her to take her to us. From her appearance until the time she left me at the tailor’s door I lived in a glorious dream from which I did not want to wake, the heavenly experience of the magnetism of a personality utterly in tune with my own – despite the vast difference of experience, & the less vast one of years. Marie Connor Leighton the authoress of sensational novels, & Mrs Leighton the brilliant, strong-willed, utterly lovable mother of Roland, merged in a most extraordinary way into one of the most charming & attractive personalities I have ever met…

This is followed by an enthralled physical description of the larger-than-life literary lady, culminating of course, with her eyes:

…when I saw her brown eyes, so like Roland’s, but with a merry twinkle which his promise but have not yet acquired, I knew I should love her, & not be in the least afraid of her.

Mrs. Leighton–Marie Connor Leighton–may have had the advantage of age and literary eminence (of a sort), but she was probably the more afraid. She had more to lose.

She too wrote about this meeting:

I saw someone very small, very slight, very delicate-faced and yet very resolute, with amethyst-like eyes that looked straight into my eyes, asking me mute questions concerning the soul of the boy who had been mine only till now, but was not likely to be mine only for ever.[1]

Back to Vera’s account:

I was a little quiet at first, waiting to find my level, but Aunt Belle as usual started the conversation going &, with her lack of shyness & Mrs Leighton’s excellent & natural conversational powers, there were no possibilities of shyness though Roland & I said scarcely anything for a while…

Like Winston Churchill pursuing an indirect strategy–except efficiently and successfully–they head to the topic at hand through an examination of the most convenient surrogate, Vera’s brother Edward.

She was sure, she said, that he would marry & be a most admirable husband, but he would never have received a love letter… for he did not possess the “touchstone” for women as Roland & Victor Richardson, their friend, do. I agreed with this & said that though Roland, the first morning he had ever stayed with us, had patronised me & condescended & spoken in the Quiet Voice, I had realised that he possessed that touchstone. She smiled over the attitude of the masculine mind to the eternal feminine, & when he protested that he was as strong a feminist as anyone could be, she agreed with me that he argued from individuals, but said she thought his feminism was a
feminine quality because the individuals from whom he argued had been in his life right from the beginning.

Then she smiled at Roland & said, indicating me, “She’s quite human after all; I thought she might be very academic & learned.” I refuted this accusation with vehemence, telling her how much isolated I am at college, & how little affinity I have with the typical college woman. She looked at me keenly, & so kindly that I knew she liked me…

Vera’s account goes on and on: she is at pains to record every important moment of the momentous meeting, every sharp observation handed down by the great literary lady. She looks up to her, but she isn’t cowed, and she eventually segues to the recording of her own perceptions:

She & Roland absolutely adore each other. She said to me that he got most of his eccentricity from her & she is immensely proud of it too. Their absolute devotion & likeness to each other is almost sad in its completeness, &
made him seem more dependable to me than ever, for a man who cares deeply for his mother can be trusted very far.

Next, shopping, Then Roland taking the opportunity to dash off for some more flowers.

When we had finished he was waiting for us–again with a taxi–outside, & handed Aunt Belle some pale pink carnations, & me a glorious bunch of pink roses, all covered with dew & of so sweet a scent that their perfume seemed to cling to me like a benediction the whole evening.

How prosaic/poetic. But don’t worry, the clever kids will remain half-conventional, half-unusual. How’s this for a meet-the-mother topic of conversation:

We had a warm secluded corner at dinner just below the balcony. The table was round, & Roland sat opposite to me; I found it much easier to talk to him there than when he sat beside me. We started on a conversation which would have seemed extraordinary to any of the other people in the restaurant could they have heard it; we were discussing how we should best like to be buried…

I thought I should like to be burnt on a pyre, like Achilles, with all my writings & precious possessions with me, & Roland said he would like a burial like that of the Vikings of old, & that he would like to be put in a boat & then have the boat set on fire & allowed to drift out to sea.

The discussion grew more & more melancholy, though we were quite unsentimental over it, till finally I asked Roland whether he would like to be killed in action. Aunt Belle said “My dear girl, why do you talk about such things?” but he answered quite quietly:

“Yes, I should; I don’t want to die, but if I must, I should like to die that way. Anyhow, I should hate to go right through this war without being wounded at all; I should want something to prove that I had been in action.”

I sat looking at him with his expressive dark eyes & broad strong figure & suddenly was conscious of a deep sense of tragedy in my heart both for my sake & his; for mine because I love him & for his because it seems the greatest
crime in the world that so brilliant an intellect & so promising a character should soon be exposed to danger & death. So I went on “I know you’re the kind of person who would risk your life recklessly; I was talking to someone a short time ago & I said I thought you were the kind who believes in the ‘one glorious hour of crowded life’ theory; is it

He answered “Yes I think it is,” & I said “I know you’ll offer to ride with dispatches in front of a blazing fire or something of that sort.” He thought he probably would…

Pathos. Later it modulates into a minor key, as Roland–who, you may remember, can’t actually see well enough to properly command infantry–takes Vera to the theater and is forced to beg her permission to put his glasses on,

…& when I said that of course he must he did so & begged me not to look. Naturally I did look; they were not nearly as unbecoming as he thought.

As the evening wore on I thought less & less of the play & more & more of his nearness to me. It was just dawning upon me that I was a different person from the one who had received his books on my 21st birthday. It seemed an age since then. Everything these two days had been dreamlike & incomplete; almost everything we could have said to each other had been left unsaid, but I knew the one thing that made all the difference in the world – that the feelings which, ever since I had known him I had thought might quite possibly arise between us, were no longer a dream but a reality.

The most precious evening of my life thus far was over at last. We took a taxi from the theatre & arrived at Charing Cross with half an hour to wait for our train. He waited with us & we walked up & down the station for a while. It was a bright night with myriads of stars & a brilliant moon; the station was fairly crowded, with several soldiers & other people waiting for the New Year to come in. We were both very silent; perhaps he felt past speaking & I know I did…

I knew that this was not only a very different New Year’s Eve from anything I had spent before, but that it was the best day so far of my life, not so mad or intoxicating as I had imagined it might be, but, in spite of the dream element, something deeper & more full of acute realisation. And I knew too that, as it was the first of such days, so it might be the last, that perhaps I should not look upon his face again, & that against our future communion the stern “Nevermore” might be written in the annals of fate…

With a squeeze of the hand and then a wave from the carriage window, the train finally separates the young lovers.

I wondered as I sat there if in days to come I should look back on that evening as the beginning of the great glory of my life, or as an occasion which in silent remembrance I should forever mourn. Beside these newly-born dreams of a possible future my old dreams & aspirations grew pale, as would the moon’s cold splendour beside the passionate
flames of the sun. I felt then that I would give all I had lived or hoped for during the brief years of my existence, not to astonish the world by some brilliant & glittering achievement, but some day to be the mother of Roland Leighton’s child.

And yet the old dreams in themselves had not  faded but were intensified for his sake. And the New Year, with all its
giant possibility of grief & joy, came in while I sat motionless in the train, watching the dim railway lights in a blurred mist go swiftly by.[2]



Edward Thomas continued, today, a century back, to harrow his beloved woods with his gloomy-precise poetic sense. If Hardy the ex-stonemason is a lapidary poet, well then, Thomas is petrifying. The Hollow Wood is another dense chunk of a poem: hear the pretty birdies flitter, but keep an eye on the undergrowth–that stuff will entangle you and drag you down. Old Man Willow would like this one.


Rupert Brooke, by contrast, is resting today from labors poetic and military. He’s writing to Eddie Marsh–no doubt soon to be flying to the top of the inbox, over the importunities of promising but unfamous younger poets like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Isaac Rosenberg–and manages to combine friendly flattery with naked social climbing, near-solicitation-soliciting, and some good old-fashioned man-to-man sexism.

My dear,

I’d love to come to lunch with Clemmie & Winston. I’d rather come another day, though because I promised Cathleen Tuesday…

Desideration in regard to companions at the Ambassadors is divided into three parts.

1) People one likes to be with…

2) Amusing people (very important after Camp). If you knew how rarely desirable a good joke becomes to one after the mud–like a good liqueur or a divine sweet…

3) WOMEN. There one hesitates. Pro. is the fact that one aches, after camp, for femininity: the sound of skirts, the twitter of the creatures, the smell. Oh dear! Against is the reflexion that there aren’t many amiable ones: & that, at the best, they’re not very nice companions–not fully possessed of a sense of humour…

Is Violet [Asquith] in London? I’ve written to her at Walmer–wanting, really, to find out if she or anyone was going down on Saturday: so I could join them.[3]

Walmer is the 16th century castle now serving as the Prime Minister’s country house, and Rupert will secure his invitation.


Things are a good deal less interesting across the channel. For Morgan Crofton of the 2/Life Guards, New Year’s Eve meant footer–which his former command, the machine gunners, have been practicing regularly.


The last day of the old year. We are told this morning that we are to play our tie today for the Football Cup. Our Headquarters and Machine Gun Detachment is to play A Squadron Leicestershire Yeomanry.

The team went off in a hay waggon drawn by 4 horses to Hondeghem, where the match is to take place in a field near the General’s headquarters. Menzies, Walker and I motor over. I am to act as touch judge. The Chaplain referees. The match was good but we were outplayed… They beat us 6 goals to nil.[4]


Mairi Chisholm, after a quiet day at the hospital at Furnes, Belgium, reflected on what the year ahead might hold: “Death to many I am afraid and it remains to be seen which ones.[5]

We’ll give the penultimate word–less mortal, but no more uplifting–to the historian of the Irish Guards, quoting his own source material.

The [war] Diary [of the First Battalion, Irish Guards] ends the year with a recapitulation more impressive in its restraint than any multitude of words:

The country round this part is very low-lying, intersected with ditches with pollarded willows growing on their banks. No sooner is a trench dug than it fills with water… The soil is clay, and so keeps the water from draining away even if that were possible. In order to keep the men at all dry, they have to stand on planks rested on logs in the trenches, and in the less wet places bundles of straw and short fascines are put down. Pumping has been tried, but not with much success. The weather continues wet, an there does not seem to be any likelihood of a change. Consequently, we may expect some fresh discomforts daily.[6]


And closing out the year for us is the Nursing Sister, who got to spend part of the day doing what she loves best:

Thursday, December 31st, New Year’s Eve

This afternoon I went with Major _____ and the French Major and the little fat French Caporal (who is the same class as the French Major–or better) into Rouen, and they trotted us round sight-seeing. The little Caporal showed us all the points of the cathedrals, and the twelfth-century stone pictures on the north porch and on the towers, and also the church of St Maclou with the wonderful “Ossuare” cloisters…

This evening, New Year’s Eve, the French Staff had decorated the Restaurant with Chinese lanterns, and we had a festive New Year’s Eve dinner, with chicken, and Xmas pudding on fire, and Sauterne and Champagne and crackers. The putting on of caps amused every one infiniment, and we had more speeches and toasts.

I forgot to tell you that the French Major’s home is broken up by Les Allemands, and he doesn’t know where his wife and three children are. On Xmas night, during toasts, he suddenly got up and said in a broken voice, “À mes petits enfants et ma femme.”


References and Footnotes

  1. Anon. (Marie Connor Leighton), Boy of My Heart, available here.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 136-41.
  3. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 646-7.
  4. Crofton, Massacre of the Innocents, 103.
  5. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi go to War, 78.
  6. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 70.

Vera and Roland Meet Again at Last, and Have a Thrilling, Intoxicating Walk; Edward Thomas Descends into a Dark Place; T.E. Hulme is for France

A poem from Edward Thomas and a first letter from our only legitimate philosopher. But to Vera straightaway:

Wednesday December 30th London

This has been a day of surprising realisations and developments–half ecstatic, wholly turbulent. I travelled down with Edward by the 9:50: Mother & Daddy said goodbye to him quite cheerfully, which was more than I expected. We met Aunt Belle by the Charing Cross left-luggage office. She hadn’t changed a scrap since I last saw her, nor did she make any observation on the alteration of my appearance, though I was not grown up when she last saw me.

Ah! A girlish curveball from the self-possessed Queen of the Somerville Classicists. Whyever?


The portrait Roland sent to Vera last week, along with Tess of the D’Urbervilles and four other books; Vera would later remember that “his uniform and little moustache has changed him from a boy into a man”

We met Roland at the Comedy Restaurant & had lunch. It seemed perfectly natural to see Roland in khaki, I suppose because I saw him in the Corps at Uppingham. We were perfectly incapable of saying anything to each other during lunch.

Then I found myself in a whirl of the most surprising proportions–I had mentioned during lunch, quite without thinking, that I wanted to see David Copperfield, and nothing would satisfy him but that he should take us to-morrow evening. I demurred at first but Aunt Belle–who of course would have to chaperon me–was quite ready to go & finally I consented. Then he gave me a letter from Mrs. Leighton–written in her enormous inky writing, which almost makes a hole in the paper & looks as if it were done with the end of a match–asking me to tea tomorrow at the Criterion & saying she so hoped I could come & was to answer by Roland. I told him I would go & said “I do hope you haven’t talked about me to your mother so that she won’t expect anything.”


Vera Brittain in 1914

He said “But I have,” whereupon I expressed my anxiety about her having a preconceived notion of me, & my not coming up to it. I am so shy of seeing her for the first time because from what I have heard I know she makes up her mind & judges of people at once. If she likes me, she may be an immense help in my future career–if she does not, well, I dare not think of the consequences but I know it would have a great influence on Roland’s feelings, he believes so in her judgement. Then he wanted to buy me some violets but l said l would not have any to-day as they would only die, & I trust he will have forgotten by to-morrow.

Then he wanted to take us out to lunch & I finally had to give way even to that. Aunt Belle says “Well, he likes you, & why shouldn’t he enjoy himself if he likes?” & she reminded me of what I had already thought often myself, that it might be for the last time. In this time of tragedy there can be no postponement.

I’ll break in here to say that I wish I had a facsimile: I have put in paragraph breaks to two pages–surely more in longhand–of emotional downloading (as they called it in Edwardian times) utterly without any break.

He said he would try to join some regiment soon going to the front. I said rather sadly that I did not know whether I most wished that he should go because he wanted to, or that he should not go because I did not want him to, and I said “Do you want me to want you to go?” He answered “No, I shouldn’t like you to want me to go, but I want to myself.” He then asked me why I wanted to see David Copperfield & why I liked it, & I said the character of Steerforth had always appealed to me so much. He seemed pleased and remarked that he was just about to say Steerforth was the finest character in the book. Aunt Belle & Edward had walked conveniently in front all the way.

Aunt Belle is a splendid person to go with, she is keen about everything and took a special interest in Roland, whom she liked immensely. She came to the conclusion at once that he & I were certainly fond of each other, and seemed to encourage it, saying she approved of such things & that it was perfectly right we should feel so. While she was saying this I was wondering all the time exactly what I did feel towards him.

But the evening dispelled any lingering doubts. It was just dark, and all the streets were dim, as London ever since the war began has been lighted as faintly as possible, for fear of Zeppelin raids.

It was thrilling, intoxicating, to walk down dark Regent St. amid the hurrying crowd. We often lost sight of Aunt Belle & Edward & lingered until on one occasion Edward came back to hurry us up. We dodged the traffic, he guiding me very carefully through it, & tentatively touching my arm now & then, as though he would have taken it & kept me more secure that way if I had given him permission. But I did not though I should have liked to. He told me during this walk that London was a very appropriate setting for me; I was so glad because I love it so dearly.

We had somewhat of a rush at the end to catch our trains; in fact we missed one but found another that would do. Roland raced round after me carrying my bag & umbrella while I went from one wrong booking-office to the other. Finally Edward found us a carriage & pushed us both into it just as the train was starting. So my farewell to him was curtailed, which was perhaps just as well. Farewells are mournful things, & this parting with my beloved brother, of whom I may see very little before he goes to France, is too sad to dwell upon.

Granny was very pleased to see us, but was a little disappointed to find we were going out tomorrow night instead of staying here to bring the New Year in. However Aunt Belle launched into an account of Roland & me containing far more definite assertions with regard to us than I should have thought of making before. “You know, Mother, they really like each other,” she said. Granny seemed pleased & said “Oh, if that’s the case then of course it’s alright,” & she came into my room & asked me “Do you care about Roland Leighton?” so I said tentatively “Yes”; then she insisted further & said “But I mean do you really like him?” & suddenly I made up my mind in a moment, or rather, I saw that it had been made up for a long time, & I replied “Yes, indeed I do, really.” ‘Really’ being an expressive word the meaning of which on this occasion was scarcely mistakable…[1]

Looking back, she would add that “In those days people’s emotions, for all the War’s challenge, still marched deliberately and circumspectly to their logical conclusion.”[2]


Edward Thomas wrote another poem today. Yes! Another poem! And all the notebooks survive, meticulously dated! Are you not entertained?

I mention The Combe in part because it’s a pretty terrific poem and in part because it balances/reclaims/redeems the schmaltzy Manor Farm. A combe, or coombe–as almost everyone who has fetched a dictionary during the description of Helm’s Deep knows–is a little ravine or steep-sided valley. Thus, in much-managed rural England, a combe is place not of rural prosperity or Christmas card picturesqueness but rather a pocket wilderness:

The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark./ Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;
Ancient and dark: there is something elemental here, a hint of pre-Christian Britain, of a thing so fundamental–no, so earthy–that it is not going to answer to the Latinate names of our learned men. And dark is easy–yet ambiguous: is this darkness unenlightened and animal, the sort of tough old shade that can resist sunlight-signifying-change… or is it evil?
It’s a gnarly little poem, only a dozen lines long, and deeply gloomy. In short order the “ever” is annulled: the combe is violated; nature is torn up, for the hunt–that sport so many of our soldiers love–of a curious animal, stolid and wise and much-beloved of a certain sort of English writer, the sort that (like Thomas, like Tolkien, like Farjeon and Milne and many others) writes children’s stories and beast fables and nature stories without setting aside the matters dearest to his or her writer’s heart:
But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
Dark times for England’s heart.

We haven’t heard much from T.E. Hulme since his August enlistment in the Honorable Artillery Company. The austere philosopher/modernist gadfly/theorist of art is one of the many intellectuals–and the not inconsiderable number of radical modernists, for Hulme was by some accounts the brains of the whole Blast/Vorticist movement–who found themselves more or less unwilling to consider not fighting. Even though Hulme made it into the H.A.C., rather than a New Army unit, it was weeks before the regiment could clothe or house or equip him, and well into the fall before training began in earnest. Now, however, he has been haphazardly transformed from intellectual civilian to a soldier of a standard high enough to serve as a winter replacement.

Like many soldiers who obeyed the restriction against diary-keeping yet wished to maintain a record of their whereabouts and perceptions, Hulme settled on the expedient of sending a long series of detailed letter home. These, then, form his “war diary,” and today, a century back, marks the first installment:

Dec, 30th, 1914

We left Southampton about 4 p.m., after marching down the principal street, all out of step, and all the girls waving from the windows. (On the way down on Sunday, people waved to us from the back windows; all the troops go down that line so they have formed a habit.)

We had a very smooth crossing, 700 of us in a tramp steamer which was fitted out to carry cattle or horses… It sounds dreadful but it’s really all right…

We marched then, with all our equipment up a fearful hill about 4 miles to what is called a Rest Camp, a fearful place, deep in mud, where we have to sleep in tents which makes me very depressed. I hope we shan’t stay here long. All my clothes are wet through with sweat.

I am writing this in a little cafe, by the camp. Crammed full of Tommies of all sorts, where we are eating tremendously. We are all dreading the night for we are 12 in one tent and it looks like rain. The town seems absolutely empty but for the soldiers in red trousers, of all ages.

I thoroughly enjoy all events, like being seen off at the dock, except that there were only about 10 people to cheer us as the ship left the side, but it’s all very amusing–and the girls at the windows…

Send the first part of this letter to my Aunt. Ask her to send me a large pair of chauffeur’s gloves, lined with felt. (Any socks must be long in the leg). Also a piece of soap and a night light each week.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 134-6.
  2. Testament of Youth, 114.
  3. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 185-6.

Happy Birthday Vera Brittain; Donald Hankey on Class, Leadership, and Contentment

Tuesday December 29th

To-day was my 21st birthday. There is nothing whatever to say about it. To be of age according to the law & to be one’s own mistress does not impress me at all, nor does it fill me with grave & sober reflections. It is having nothing definite to do that makes another year seem a burden when one is at least on the way towards achieving one’s object, & things are happening, one’s life is made up by events & not increasing years.[1]

Well, good thing Vera‘s off to London tomorrow to visit Roland in London.


Donald Hankey, meanwhile, lays bare his soul for the benefit of an apparently feisty aunt. Hankey, like a few of our searching souls, has found contentment in martial comradeship and military routine. And/or is putting a brave face on for his aunt. And has not yet been to France.

Elstead, Dec. 29, 1914

Dear Auntie Mie,

Democrat, am I? I don’t know. Only in a limited sense. I don’t know any Dukes, Marquises, etc.,–not having the entree to their circle! But I know a good many gentlemen of aristocratic tendencies whom I like very much.

I don’t know that I believe in “blood”–by which I mean congenital superiority. But I most emphatically do believe that a certain disinterestedness, etc., which is a very necessary factor in the common weal, is most often and most surely attained among people who through their circumstances are removed from the baser ambitions and pretensions of the “climber”! Oddly enough, the man who is so aristocratic and wealthy as to despise or rather ignore social position and wealth often has most in common with the honest manual labourer who can never hope either for position or wealth, though he sometimes fails through lack of sympathy. Both are able often to be Christians and gentlemen in a truer sense than the intermediate class–at least such is my experience.

I don’t think that “fineness” such as you find among people of really good birth is ever anything but splendid. But what is horrible is pretence and hypocrisy, and the striving after the outward symptoms without any appreciation of the inner spirit…

It is rather hard to moralize without being a prig; but honestly I think I give most people their due if I can unless they appear to me to go hopelessly earthly or hypocritical! I don’t want any one to imitate my example: but I do want them to let me go my own way in peace, and I must say that they mostly do more, and send me on my way with benedictions! Which is very nice! I have very little bitterness in my composition in these days, and a great deal of thankfulness…

I have tried to do good. I have generally failed. Those whom I would have benefited have never prospered as a result of my efforts. But I have never failed to reap an abundant harvest of goodwill. It is very odd and not what I expected.

Here I am extraordinarily well treated. I am not a good N.C.O.; but whether officers, N.C.O.’s, or men, every one helps me through if they can. When I have spare time I sometimes just sit down and wonder at my luck, and contrast the extraordinary and increasing happiness of the last three years with the misery of the years before. I simply can’t understand it. I can only wonder at it.

I think that the secret of ruling men is to care for them. If your high-bred officer cares for his men as the best ones do they will do anything for him. If he regards them as animals and many do they will prove to be mules. Must stop.

Your aff. nephew,

Donald Hankey[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 134.
  2. The Letters of Donald Hankey, available here.

Edward Hulse Writes the Christmas Truce; Updates from Vera, Osbert, and Morgan

Three brief notes, today, then a lengthy look back at Christmas with Edward Hulse.

Osbert Sitwell wrote home to his father today, with little news but the weather. At least he was appositely folkloric: “As for the weather, ‘The rain it raineth every day.'”[1]


Vera Brittain has more exciting news to report:

Monday December 28th

I had a letter from Roland to-day in which he says that he is now with his mother in rooms in town & that she wants him to bring me to see her. I wrote & told him I could manage it quite easily one day, either Wed. or Thur.[2]


The cycle of home leave for officers has created a bit of a ripple for Morgan Crofton:


Went on a route march at 10 o’clock for about 2 hours. Weather inclined to be wet, anyhow dull but mild. At 2 o’clock we went out on bicycles for a staff ride to discuss a few simple problems with Torrie. Our start from this village was made the occasion of a good deal of levity on the part of the inhabitants and the troops, but we soon got down to riding our cycles with great skill.

General Kavanagh today went on seven days’ leave to England. Not much news from our front. All four corps are in the line there now with the Indian Corps in reserve. The new 27th Division has also arrived. Torrie goes on a week’s leave to England, leaving me in command here…

The day’s entry continues with ordinary local news and analysis of the events of the war elsewhere. Crofton is properly unperturbed at finding himself, retired as recently as August, now in command of an entire regiment of cavalry on active duty…


Hey, boring! Wasn’t Christmas more interesting?letterswrittenfr00hulsrich_0089

Sir Edward Hulse, 2/Scots Guards, quondam killer extraordinaire, has been so busy not killing Germans since Christmas Day that only today was he able to write to Mater at length about The Truce:

My Dearest Mother,

Just returned to billets again, after the most extraordinary Christmas in the trenches you could possibly imagine. Words fail me completely, in trying to describe it, but here goes!

On the 23rd we took over the trenches in the ordinary manner, relieving the Grenadiers, and during the 24th the usual firing took place, and sniping was pretty brisk. We stood to arms as usual at 6.30 a.m. on the 25th, and I noticed that there was not much shooting ; this gradually died down, and by 8 a.m. there was no shooting at all…

At 8.30 a.m. I was looking out, and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us; I told two of my men to go and meet them, unarmed (as the Germans were unarmed), and to see that they did not pass the halfway line. We were 350-400 yards apart at this point. My fellows were not very keen, not knowing what was up, so I went out alone, and met Barry, one of our ensigns, also coming out from another part of the line. By the time we got to them, they were 3/4 of the way over, and much too near our barbed wire, so I moved them back.

They were three private soldiers and a stretcher-bearer, and their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce. He came from Suffolk, where he had left his best girl and a 3 1/2 h.p. motor-bike! He told me that he could not get a letter to the girl, and wanted to send one through me. I made him write out a postcard in front of me, in English, and I sent it off that night. I told him that she probably would not be a bit keen to see him again. We then entered on a long discussion on every sort of thing. I was dressed in an old stocking-cap and a man’s overcoat, and they took me for a corporal, a thing which I did not discourage, as I had an eye to going as near their lines as possible!

Not very sporting, Sir Edward.

…The little fellow I was talking to, was an undersized, pasty-faced student type, talked four languages well, and had a business in England, so I mistrusted him at once. I asked them what orders they had from their officers as to coming over to us, and they said none; that they had just come over out of goodwill.

They protested that they had no feeling of enmity at all towards us, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers they had to obey. I believe that they were speaking the truth when they said this, and that they never wished to fire a shot again. They said that unless directly ordered, they were not going to shoot again until we did. They were mostly 158th Regiment and Jaegers, and were the ones we attacked on the night of the 18th. Hence the feeling of temporary friendship, I suppose…

I kept it up for half an hour, and then escorted them back as far as their barbed wire, having a jolly good look round all the time, and picking up various little bits of information which I had not had an opportunity of doing under fire! I left instructions with them that if any of them came out later they must not come over the half-way line, and appointed a ditch as the meeting place. We parted, after an exchange of Albany cigarettes and German cigars, and I went straight to H[ead].-q[uar]r[ter]s. to report.

On my return at 10 a.m. I was surprised to hear a hell of a din going on, and not a single man left in my trenches; they were completely denuded (against my orders), and nothing lived! I heard strains of “Tipperary” floating down the breeze, swiftly followed by a tremendous burst of ” Deutschland über Alles,” and as I got to my own Coy. H.-qrs. dug-out, I saw, to my amazement, not only a crowd of about 150 British and Germans at the half-way house which I had appointed opposite my lines, but six or seven such crowds, all the way down our lines, extending towards the 8th Division on our right. I bustled out and asked if there were any German officers in my crowd, and the noise died down (as this time I was myself in my own cap and badges of rank).

I found two, but had to talk to them through an interpreter, as they could neither talk English nor French. They were podgy, fat bourgeois, looking very red and full of sausage and beer and wine, and were not over friendly. I explained to them that strict orders must be maintained as to meeting half-way, and everyone unarmed; and we both agreed not to fire until the other did, thereby creating a complete deadlock and armistice (if strictly observed). These two fat swine would vouchsafe no information, and, beyond giving me a very nasty cigar, did nothing, and returned to their trenches.

It’s hard to resist the joke here that by being ungenerous and unsporting, yet by permitting holiday license–at least, unlike Stockwell, he admits that his orders were roundly disobeyed–to his underlings, he is partaking of the true Upper Class Christmas spirit.

It must be a real truce, since Hulse generously extends his class prejudice to the Germans. Fraternizing with the enemy is one thing, but having to talk to nasty fat bourgeois swine is a hardship, truly–and (unny how the landowner who retired in his thirties sees our hallowed small business owners as pasty students.

To get a sounder sense of the class situation, it’s worth recalling that Henry Williamson–young, timid and petty bourgeois– liked the looks of “gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles” and recoiled from the “big and arrogant looking” fellows that Hulse surely would have gravitated to. It makes one nostalgic for the days of intermarried upper class knights and sweltering, suffering kerns. Or need we be nostalgic at all, a century back?

Meanwhile Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc…

A German N.C.O. with the Iron Cross,—gained, he told me, for conspicuous skill in sniping,—started his fellows off on some marching tune. When they had done I set the note for “The Boys of Bonnie Scotland, where the heather and the bluebells grow,” and so we went on, singing everything from ” Good King Wenceslaus ” down to the ordinary Tommies’ song, and ended up with ” Auld Lang Syne,” which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussian, Wurtembergers, etc., joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!

Good stuff: it’s the proto-Pynchonization of modern war. “We chatted in a friendly manner and agreed to agree, but we all indicated that we all thought that we were all lying.” “We did it, but it felt as if we were acting out a fantasy.” “It was real, but it seemed fake.”

It gets better: from pre-post-modern menace to a “Cinematograph” scene that is only a few decades ahead of its time–and pure Disney:

…From foul rain and wet, the weather had cleared up the night before, to a sharp frost, and it was a perfect day, everything white, and the silence seemed extraordinary, after the usual din. From all sides birds seemed to arrive, and we hardly ever see a bird generally. Later in the day I fed about 50 sparrows outside my dug-out, which shows how complete the silence and quiet was.

I must say that I was very much impressed with the whole scene, and also, as everyone else, astoundingly relieved by the quiet, and by being able to walk about freely. It is the first time, day or night, that we have heard no guns, or rifle-firing, since I left Havre…

Just after we had finished “Auld Lang Syne” an old hare started up, and seeing so many of us about in an unwonted spot, did not know which way to go. I gave one loud ” View Holloa,” and one and all, British and Germans, rushed about giving chase, slipping up on the frozen plough, falling about, and after a hot two minutes we killed in the open, a German and one of our fellows falling together heavily upon the completely baffled hare. Shortly afterwards we saw four more hares, and killed one again ; both were good heavy weight and had evidently been out between the two rows of trenches for the last two months, well-fed on the cabbage patches, etc., many of which are untouched on the “no-man’s land.” The enemy kept one and we kept the other.

How bizarre to have “hunting” go from reality to metaphor to surreal reality.

After drinking a toast,

We then retired to our respective trenches for dinners and plum-pudding, one of which had been issued to each man in the Battalion that morning, also Christmas cards from King and Queen, Princess Mary’s card and present of pipe and tobacco, and a card from Lady Rawlinson, for 4th Army Corps. We all had a grand meal…

During the afternoon the same extraordinary scene was enacted between the lines…  at 4.30 p.m. we agreed to keep in our respective trenches, and told them that the truce was ended. They persisted, however, in saying that they were not going to fire, and as George had told us not to, unless they did, we prepared for a quiet night, but warned all sentries to be doubly on the alert.

So peace–but a temporary peace. One that can be turned to martial purposes.

During the day both sides had taken the opportunity of bringing up piles of wood, straw, etc., which is generally only brought up with difficulty under fire. We improved our dug-outs, roofed in new ones, and got a lot of very useful work done towards increasing our comfort. Directly it was dark, I got the whole of my Coy. on to improving and remaking our barbed-wire entanglements, all along my front, and had my scouts out in front of the working parties, to prevent any surprise; but not a shot was fired, and we finished off a real good obstacle unmolested…

Now just think what could be accomplished if the better sort of German could be contracted with?

…[Our Adjutant] found an extremely pleasant and superior stamp of German officer, who arranged to bring all our dead to the half-way line. We took them over there, and buried 29 exactly half way between the two lines. Giles collected all personal effects, pay-books and identity discs, but was stopped by the Germans when he told some men to bring in the rifles; all rifles lying on their side of the half-way line they kept carefully! They found poor Hugh Taylor close up against the enemy’s parapet (as most of our fellows were); he had been shot through the chest. They took him back to Head-quarters and buried him close by in a cemetery which we had made there…

Several other officers killed on the 18th are likewise identified and buried.

This officer kept on pointing to our dead and saying, ” Les Braves, c’est bien dommage.”

This episode was the sadder side of Xmas Day, but it was a great thing being able to collect them, as their relations, to whom of course they had been reported missing, will be put out of suspense and hoping that they are prisoners.

This stimulated a more sincere bout of gift-exchange:

When George heard of it he went down to that section and talked to the nice officer and gave him a scarf. That same evening a German orderly came to the half-way line, and brought a pair of warm, woolly gloves as a present in return for George…

…the same comic form of temporary truce continued on the 26th, and again at 4.30 p.m. I informed them that the truce was at an end. We had sent them over some plum-puddings, and they thanked us heartily for them and retired again…

Hulse’s letter goes on a great deal more: a German deserter with a false story of a planned attack led to a sleepless night as the artillery rained down and the infantry on both sides suspected the other of perfidy. Nevertheless, the truce held again on the 27th. Hulse finished one letter and immediately began a continuation:

The whole business of the past three days has been extraordinary and not easy to explain. Yesterday, shooting began again, down in the 8th Division, but although we explained to the enemy that the truce was at an end, never a shot was fired.

Although I do not trust them a yard, I am convinced that all they want is to see us making ourselves thoroughly comfortable and (as you will gather from what I said about them watching us put up obstacles and entanglements) to assure themselves that we are not going to attack; so much so, that I honestly believe that if we had called on them for fatigue-parties that night, to help us put up our barbed wire, they would have come over and done so.

They are, I am sure, pretty sick of fighting, and found the truce a very welcome respite, and were therefore quite ready to prolong it… they were the troops whom we had attacked, and some of them expressed admiration for us, etc…

However, it is all very curious…

Ever your loving,



References and Footnotes

  1. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 56.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 133-4.
  3. Hulse, Letters Written From the English Front, 56-70

Tolkien Paints; Charles Sorley on the Working Classes, Frank Richards on Magnificent, Lousy Bloomers; Thomas Hardy Thanks Ford Hueffer for an Unusual Christmas Card

Still in the thrall of Finnish language and mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien made a watercolor painting today, a century back, which he called The Land of Pohja, depicting a scene of cosmological enchantment from the Kalevala.[1]

the land of pohja photo thelandofpohja_zps32b91481.jpg


Charles Sorley wrote to his old headmaster today, a century back, with a belated apology for the effects of his canceled leave:

Shorncliffe, 27 December 1914

I should have written long ago to say what a disappointment it was to me that all leaves were suddenly cancelled and I was forced to ring off at the Lodge. However, such things give one a training–which I always gibbed at and refused properly to submit to at M[arlborough]. C[ollege].–in realizing that there are forces able to dock one’s seemingly reasonable desires. It just shows one what beastly people the Medes and Persians must have been to live under.

We had a very swinging Christmas one that makes one realize (in common with other incidents of the war) how near savages we are and how much the stomach (which Nietzsche calls the Father of Melancholy) is also the best procurer of enjoyment.

So much for clever/apologetic introductions. But what have we learned, really? As so often, the early subject of a subaltern’s self-instruction is in, now that he is thrown together with (and over) a large number of working class men, the ways and means of the dear old proles. Even from perceptive Sorley, more than a touch of short-sighted stereotyping here:

We gave the men a good church (plenty of loud hymns), a good dinner (plenty of beer), and the rest of the day was spent in sleep. I saw then very clearly that, whereas for the upper classes Christmas is a spiritual debauch in which one remembers for a day to be generous and cheerful and open-handed, it is only a more or less physical debauch for the poorer classes, who need no reminder, since they are generous and cheerful and open-handed all the year round.

One has fairly good chances of observing the life of the barrack-room, and what a contrast to the life of a house in a public school! The system is roughly the same: the house-master or platoon-commander entrusts the discipline of his charge to prefects or corporals, as the case may be. They never open their mouths in the barrack-room without the introduction of the unprintable swear-words and epithets: they have absolutely no “morality” (in the narrower, generally accepted sense): yet the public school boy should live among them to learn a little Christianity: for they are so extraordinarily nice to one another. They live in and for the present: we in and for the future. So they are cheerful and charitable always: and we often niggardly and unkind and spiteful.

Some questionable condescension here. Are you sure, guv’nor, that you understand “the” spirit of the lower classes so well? But Sorley takes it to an interesting place:

In the gymnasium at Marlborough, how the few clumsy specimens are ragged and despised and jeered at by the rest of the squad; in the gymnasium here you should hear the sounding cheer given to the man who has tried for eight weeks to make a long-jump of eight feet and at last by the advice and assistance of others has succeeded. They seem instinctively to regard a man singly, at his own rate, by his own standards and possibilities, not in comparison with themselves or others: that’s why they are so far ahead of us in their treatment and sizing up of others.

Sorley then returns to subjects more headmasterly–Athens and Sparta, England and Germany, analogies from Goethe, etc. But let’s stay with the class question for a moment.[2]


Have the working classes–especially any ex-teenage miner/long-service Regular private soldiers whose memoirs may have been tweaked to play to the expectations of a very young Public School officer–anything to say, today?

We had out first bath one day in the latter end of November, and on the twenty-seventh of December we had our second. Women were employed in the bath-house to iron the seams of our trousers, and each man handed in his shirt, under-pants, and socks and received what were supposed to be clean ones in exchange; but in the seams of the shirts were the eggs, and after a man had his clean shirt on for a few hours the heat of his body would hatch them and he would be just as lousy as ever he had been. I was very glad when I had that second bath, because I needed a pair of pants. A week before whilst out in the village one night I had had a scrounge through a house and found a magnificent pair of ladies’ bloomers. I thought it would be a good idea to discard my pants, which were skin-tight, and wear these instead, but I soon discovered that I had made a grave mistake. The crawlers, having more room to manouevre in, swarmed into those bloomers by platoons, and in a few days time I expect I was the lousiest man in the company. When I was stripping for the bath Duffy and the Old Soldier noticed the bloomers, and they both said that I looked sweet enough to be kissed.[3]


And here’s a very funny note from one of our writers to another. I’ll include the explanatory note provided by the editors of Hardy’s Collected Letters (and preserve their odd CAPITALIZATION):

Many thanks. Verses quite beautiful in their spontaneity.

Hueffer: Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford), novelist and critic; Verses: presumably Hueffer’s Antwerp (London, 1914), which he seems to have used as a Christmas card.

I hope–I desperately hope–that this is Hardy at his most brilliantly, incisively ironic (i.e. sarcastic.)

It is certainly Hueffer at his most hilarious.

The poem in question, recalling the destruction of Antwerp, of course, just in time for Christmas, begins as follows: “GLOOM!”

And he last verse ends: “There is very little light. There is so much pain.” (There is also a middle of the poem–not highly recommended.)

Merry Christmas!


References and Footnotes

  1. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 60.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley,  251-2.
  3. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 68-9.

Morgan Crofton Receives a Royal Gift, while Edward Thomas Shatters a Lover’s; Robert Graves Solicits Literary Attention; The Nursing Sister Consoles a Dying Man

It’s Boxing Day, and time for thank-yous. Edward Thomas, in receipt of two handkerchiefs and a set of glasses, writes to Eleanor Farjeon.

26 xii 14

My dear Eleanor,

You did not say which was the Sunday one, so I shall vary them to avoid mistakes. But thank you very much all the same. They are my style… The glass was excellent in itself and in its place in the series. Then unluckily I washed up the dinner things and tho I had not used the glass it was there. Well, I broke it. Lucky that nobody else did. I am sorry…

We had a pretty good day in the modified Thomas style, with fine weather and no bellyache. (Your box was opened in your style, by the way, which turned out very well.) I even wrote some verses which I try to copy out by tomorrow. Baba [Myfanwy, their younger daughter] and Helen and I got over to the Bones for a walk and Baba saw the prettiest halfmoon at the top (or bottom) of the downiest white sky, coming home. But it turned to rain, and today most of us feel pampered.

I am up in my study thinking about England. I’ve undertaken to write about what people (myself included) mean when they say England…

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[1]


Robert Graves spent Christmas at the Royal Welch depot in Wrexham, but he was convinced that soon–after all these boring and socially awkward months–he would be sent to France as a replacement officer. Expecting a final leave in London, he wrote to the literary impresario who had once befriended him on a visit to Charterhouse and advised him–of course, drat these Edwardian Public School boys!–to modernize his poetic language. (Graves: “and I have never used a thee, thou, or where’er since that day; or hardly ever.”) This, of course, was Eddie Marsh:

26 December 1914

Dear Eddie

On Sunday I went over to see Ralph Rooper at Gresford where I also met Fishbourne just back from Flanders with many wonderful tales of the War and a wounded head. They began talking about you as a common friend and that reminded me that last time I met you at George Mallory’s you asked me to look you up in Town this winter. I am getting a week’s leave from January 2nd-9th before I go out to the slaughter–a sort of respite like Jephthah’s daughter had in which to bewail her virginity–and would like to look you up sometime then from 18 Bina Gdns W. where I shall be staying.

Will you be in town then?

Yours sincerely,

Robert R. Graves[2]

Ah, Robbie. This is good textual support for the general image of Graves as clever, forward, and awkward: he presumes upon a thin acquaintance–Mallory (yes, the mountain climber–no spoilers!) had been his teacher at Charterhouse–to invite himself up, and he drops a clever biblical allusion and then leans rather hard on the “last leave.” Thou wouldst not refuse a meeting with a doomed poet, for shame? No mention of that fact that Marsh, as secretary to the gallivanting First Lord of the Admiralty, might be too busy to begin cultivating a recent-ex-schoolboy poet.

There’s also, possibly, a naughty little flourish here: many of Marsh’s friends knew that he was attracted to men, and if Graves knew this as as well then his bible story becomes doubly suggestive. Jephthah’s daughter is sacrificed because her father makes a rash vow in exchange for a military victory–it’s Isaac in reverse, Iphigenia as a farce–but she is allowed two months to “weep for my virginity.” Which of course signifies her short and unfulfilled life, not merely her sexual status. But anyway…


Morgan Crofton catches up on Christmas:


Still very frosty, but a very bright day, the country looked very pretty. Went for a walk with Torrie at 11 o’clock to visit the machine gun. Found the detachment hard at work playing football.

At 12 o’clock we received Princess Mary’s present. There were two sorts, one for smokers, and the other for non-smokers. Each contained an embossed brass box which held in one case two packets of tobacco and cigarettes and in the other, a large packet of acid drops…

I was one of the lucky ones for inside the writing case I found an extremely pretty little photo of Princess Mary.

There were only a few packets which had the photo. The brass box will make a very suitable companion to the chocolate box which I received from Queen Victoria on Christmas Day 1899 during the South African War.[3]



And the Nursing Sister:

Saturday, December 26th

Saw my lambs off the train before breakfast. One man in the Warwicks had twelve years’ service, a wife and
two children, but “when Kitchener wanted more men” he re-joined. This week he got an explosive bullet through his arm, smashing it up to rags above the elbow. He told me he got a man “to tie the torn muscles up,” and then started to crawl out, dragging his arm behind him. After some hours he came upon one of his own officers wounded, who said, “Good God, sonny, you’ll be bleeding to death if we don’t get you out of this; catch hold of me and the Chaplain.”

“So ‘e cuddled me, and I cuddled the Chaplain, and we got as far as the doctor.”

At the Clearing H. his arm was taken off through the shoulder-joint, but I’m afraid it is too late. He is now a pallid wreck, dying of gangrene. But he would discuss the War, and when it would end, and ask when he’d be strong enough to sit up and write to that officer, and apologised for wanting drinks so often. He is one of the most top-class gallant gentlemen it’s ever been my jolly good luck to meet. And there are hundreds of them.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 103.
  2. In Broken Images, 28-29.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 93-6. See yesterday for more receipts of the royal gifts.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

So This Is Christmas: War Is Briefly Suspended, If You Want It


Soldiers of Henry Williamson’s Battalion, the London Rifles, mixing with Saxon troops between the lines, Christmas Day, 1914. Unless it’s not–other sources have this as Boxing Day…

As a historical event, the Christmas truce is a bit slippery: like other less heart-warming battlefield events it was no unified, coordinated mass movement but rather a concatenation of many different individual actions, differently recalled.

Historians pretty much always fail to resist the urge to slap some simple larger meaning onto the events, making “the” truce into a unique moment of resistance to the horrors of war, or a last moment of old-fashioned European togetherness, or a sideways slipping into some counter-factual reality–a road, away from stalemate and slaughter and the rest of the wicked twentieth century, not taken.

It wasn’t any of these things. It was a series of compromises–truces, unevenly observed–wrought by men confronted by a new contradiction: war as fruitless and static suffering, and a common religious calendar indicating an expectation of… well, peaceful good fellowship. This is the first Christmas, the first major holiday, the first challenge to all those stories of the enemy’s perfidy and our heroism. And there are, as Michael Holroyd’s Christmas Eve letter indicates, other sorts of stories already in circulation.

The legend of what might take place in this first entrenched Christmas preceded the events, a fact which illustrates just how much the participants in these truces were driven by a sense of (conflicting) duty: there is plain old military duty, sure, but there is also the living up to expectation, the requirement that one act up to one’s preconceptions of proper and honorable behavior. We have seen this again and again in terms of the arrival of soldiers at the battlefield with the outdated heroic expectations of their reading–as Paul Fussell might have put it, you go to war with the last war you read about. And yet, in British and German culture alike, stories of Christmas miracles, of the thawing of hard hearts, etc., were very common… isn’t this how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t this what we should do, if we play this by the book? Screw the officers, let’s go have Christmas…

The Germans–in many cases units of Catholic and less enthusiastically militaristic Bavarians–seem to have taken the initiative. Many of the accounts from the French and Belgian sectors emphasize simple humanity or sincerely religious gesture: German troops along the Yser canal returned a looted communion vessel to the Belgians opposite and took i return their letters, to be sent to family members in occupied Belgium.[1] In many places truces were arranged primarily for the purposes of burying the festering, frozen corpses that lay between the lines.

Although mutual burials also took place along the British sections of the lines, in general the Germans and British seem to have had a more jocular time of it. In some places there was singing and shouted greetings, while the men of some units–including the 2nd Royal Welch–actually met and exchanged gifts with their “enemies.” (The soccer game(s) often mentioned in later accounts are not well supported by contemporary evidence, however, and if any occurred they were probably brief pick-up games.) While some units fraternized, others only a few hundred yards along merely refrained from ordinary sniping, and in other sectors the daily violence went on abated–and no one told the artillery it was Christmas.

So rather than pontificate (which didn’t work anyway–Benedict XV’s call for a Christmas truce was rejected by Russia and ignored, despite German grandstanding, by every other government) about the meaning of the truce I’ll let a few of our regular writers describe what they experienced, and then check in with several others at home or in Camp. One thing, though: we will start with truce experiences, then go to English Christmases, but I want to come back to Belgium and discuss Henry Williamson’s experience at the end. It seems to have had a huge impact on him, both in terms of the way he would write the war and the way he would come to see the world.

First, Frank Richards of the Royal Welch Fusiliers:

On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours rest–it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit–and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench. Buffalo Bill rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn’t the only one that was fed up with it. We did not allow them in our trench and they did not allow us in theirs.The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assured him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another’s health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.

…Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did… During the whole of Boxing Day we never fired a shot, and they the same.[2]

Dr. Dunn’s History adds some corroborating evidence for the Welch-Saxon truce. The maker of the signboard was the pioneer sergeant “Nobby” Hall, and Ike Sawyer is named as the first Fusilier to go and meet the Germans. And then we get to hear from Buffalo Bill himself, a.k.a. Captain Stockwell:

I think I and my Company have just spent one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see. It froze hard on Christmas Eve, and in the morning there was a thick ground-fog… the Saxons opposite had been shouting across in English. Strict orders had been issued that there was to be no fraternizing on Christmas Day. About 1 p.m., having seen our men get their Christmas dinners, we went into our shelter to get a meal. The sergeant on duty suddenly ran in and said the fog had lifted and that half a dozen Saxons were standing on their parapet without arms. I ran out into the trench and found that all the men were holding their rifles at the ready on the parapet,

Well there’s a slight difference: do we trust the captain who indicates that his men followed his orders, or the private who portrays the officer, elsewhere, as a dishonest bully and claims here that the men were moved to their own private truce, and the officer had to follow suit to save face? History! Buffalo Bill, tell us what you saw:

…the Saxons were shouting, “Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight to-day. We will send you some beer.” A cask was hoisted on to the parapet and three men started to roll it into the middle of Nomansland. A lot more Saxons then appeared without arms. Things were getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited, and the Saxons kept shouting out to them to come out. We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing Captain to appear. Our men were all chattering and saying, “The Captain’s going to speak with them.”

Yeah, I’m with Frank Richards. Even without the strong circumstantial evidence that Buffalo Bill is an asshole, he’s clearly spinning a yarn here that is at once self-aggrandizing and ass-covering:

A German officer appeared and walked out into the middle of Nomansland, so I moved out to meet him amidst the cheers of both sides. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count Something-or-other, and seemed a very decent fellow. He could not talk a word of English. He then called out to his subalterns and formally introduced them with much clicking of heels and saluting. They were all very well turned out, while I was in a goatskin coat…

Stockwell explains that the two officers very sensibly agree to ignore their orders to keep shooting, but that they should clear out of no man’s land. But the Germans have already brought out a barrel of beer, and social obligations are social obligations.

…We agreed not to shoot until the following morning when I was to signal that we were going to begin. He said. “You had better take the beer. We have lots.” So I called up two men to take the barrel to our side.

Note, please, the discrepancy about the number of beer barrels. Richards does insist, however, that it was weak stuff, impossible to get properly drunk on, in any case.

As we had lots of plum-puddings I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer. He then called out, “Waiter,” and a German private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer, and with much bowing and saluting we solemnly drank it amid cheers from both sides. We then all formally saluted and returned to our lines. our men had sing-songs, ditto the enemy.[3]


Edward Hulse was also involved in a prolonged and chummy truce, and he wrote perhaps the best-known contemporary letter about it… but not until the 28th. So we will look back again on the truce in three days’ time.

But it was not beer and plum pudding everywhere on the line. For the Irish Rifles,

The Christmas Truce of 1914 reached the Battalion in severely modified form. They lay among a network of trenches, already many times fought over, with communications that led directly into the enemy’s lines a couple of hundred yards away. So they spent Christmas Day, under occasional bombardment of heavy artillery, in exploring and establishing themselves as well as they might among these wet and dreary works. In this duty Lieutenant G.P. Gough and Lieutenant F. H. Witts and six men were wounded.

Earl Kitchener, their [ceremonial] Colonel, sent them Christmas wishes and the King’s and Queen’s Christmas cards were distributed. Their comfort was that Christmas night was frosty so that the men kept dry at least.[4]


Billy Congreve, our man on the divisional staff, has recently been highly critical of orders which failed to take into account the real situation at the front. And yet today, while men of his old battalion, the 3/Rifle Brigade, enjoyed “a day of perfect peace” and were entertained by a German juggler in No Man’s Land, Congreve, out of view of the front line, believes that tall of his division have obeyed orders and “opened rapid fire on” unarmed Germans, “which is the only sort of truce they deserve.” To add a further shading to the spread of opinions on what exactly is godly, sporting, or soldierly on Christmas day, Congreve’s father, a brigadier general, reported that some of his officers unwillingly followed their men into fraternization, but took the opportunity to locate a sniper’s loophole and, while sharing a cigar with the sniper himself, planned how “to down him tomorrow.”

Congreve does give the details of “a great Xmas dinner–oxtail soup (from a tin), fillet of beef with macaroni, oie rôti, plum pudding (on fire), caviare, champagne and port to drink. The chef quite rose to the occasion. It’s not a bad Xmas day, but I hope the next I shall spend at home.”[5]


Morgan Crofton also reports a Crofton xmas card 2quiet and Crofton xmas card 1culinary Christmas. Rather cleverly, someone turned the ubiquitous Field Service Postcard into a Christmas dinner menu/report card. See how many bad puns/forced war references you can find! (Both sides are reproduced, at right and below.)


Lady Feilding, writing to her family, reports a distinct lack of a truce in Pervyse.

Xmas Day 1914

To my family in general & each individual one in particular.

What a life! – Here I am on Xmas Day warming my toes up at the old dressing station – we thought the Teutons would have the decency to leave us in peace, as we expected they would be just as excited over their plum pudding as we over ours. But blessed if the offensive blighters didn’t spend the whole morning throwing shrapnel and shells at us, having gone to the trouble to bring a gun up closer too under cover of the fog – a really dirty trick & most unchristmassy I consider…

I never got to church this morning which was rather sad. There was midnight mass on in a barn last night about 3 miles off. I wanted so to go, but couldn’t very well as I didn’t hear about it until going to bed & could not go all that way alone – if I had known about it I could have got one of the soldiers to be a bodyguard…

Such a frosty day. Lovely for Xmas, a gorgeous morning but foggy now. We are very merry here — I feel we are friends & are having a much nicer Xmas than you people at home – the front is really the only place where one can be genuinely happy ‘on occasions’ these days…

Much love all – Luv,



So a range of opinions, then, on where Christmas cheer and peace of mind can be found. Mairi Chisholm, with Dorothie Feilding in Pervyse, adds the detail that the shells not only wounded several soldiers but did so as they were lining up to receive Christmas presents from the staff at the aid station. For the record, socks: “the joy of a new pair of dry socks was worth the risk.” And Christmas Dinner included not only plum pudding but also oxtail soup, fowl, and potatoes. And yes, shrapnel.[7]

While many soldiers and nurses in France and Belgium were longing for their families. Back in England, Francis Grenfell, still recovering from his wounds, is facing his first Christmas without his twin, Rivy, killed on September 14th. An orphan and now a lone youngest son, the family he longs for is his squadron, in France. John Buchan writes of the intensity of regimental identity–“Old comradeships in sport and play and the easy friendliness of peace-time are transformed into something closer even than friendship. Every communal success becomes an individual triumph, every loss an individual sorrow”–but seems to miss the point that Francis is most attached to the men of his actual squadron. This is small-unit esprit, loyalty to a particular group of men, each one known by name and face and habit, rather than affiliation with the undying life of the old regiment. Francis wrote this Christmas Day missive to his men:

I wish you all the very best of luck and good wishes for Christmas and the New Year. I am always thinking of you, and hope very soon to return. Sir John French said the regiment had exceeded the greatest traditions of the army, and in this ‘ B ‘ Squadron has played the leading part. You were the first squadron of the regiment in action at the beginning on 24th August, and have since always given the lead. Remember the brave that have fallen, and be determined to serve England as faithfully as they. You have all my very, very best wishes and thoughts. God bless you and keep you, and help you to remain the finest squadron in the world the only squadron that has got for itself already a D.C.M., a Legion d’Honneur, a commission, and a V.C.[his own], for what is won by the leaders belongs to the men. God bless you all.[8]


Rupert Brooke, utterly unseparated from the men under his command, writes instead to one of his many women friends–Christmas is also, of course, a traditional time for jollity.

Hood Battalion, 2nd Naval Brigade

Blandford, Dorset

Xmas Day

My dear Violet,

I couldn’t read in your letter where you were going to for Christmas (though I rather suspect you’ll be in bed at Downing Street).[9]

I get six days leave from Wednesday the twenty-ninth… are you going to be at Walmer for that week-end?

…Never say we’re not a hilarious nation. Christmas Day in the Naval Division is a revelation. The Battalion C.P.O., a very fat man, who has been drunk since dawn, is conducting the band in an Irish jig in the middle of the parade-ground. He can’t beat time, but he dances very convincingly… Half my stokers are dancing half-naked in their huts. They spent the night on cheap gin. The surrounding woods are full of lost and sleeping stokers…

I’ve discovered that this is the site of a Roman Camp. Does that move you? …I gave my platoon the slip yesterday morning (they were out gathering holly): and went a delicious country walk, decanting drops of a poem (don’t report me)–

‘And drowsy drunken seamen/Straying belated home,

Meet with a Latin challenge,/ From sentinels of Rome–‘

‘In dreams they doff their khaki,/ Put greaves and breastplate on:/

In dreams each leading stoker,/Turns a centurion–‘ etc…

Good luck for next year.


There is a fundamental injustice to this project–or at least an injudiciousness. Today is a sticky-huge pudding of Christmas bounty, but most days only a few of the writers I’ve been following produce dateable writing. And whatever they wrote–once we allow for the vagaries of manuscript survival and publication–becomes who they are, here. There are long silences and chatty periods; there are poems written with public intent and letters meant for a single pair of eyes.

So Rupert Brooke has been a bit of a dick, lately, writing catty letters to male friends and eyelash-batting flirtations to Cathleen, Eileen, Violet, et. al. But he’s also been writing a bit of poetry. Five sonnets, in fact, since November. Not, alas, dating them precisely, but mentioning them from time to time. Two days ago, for instance, he scribbled down a line for the nascent fifth of the sequence: “If I should die, think only this of me.”  Well, avert the omen–but a promising pentameter, all things considered. Today, a century back, he not only wrote the above light verse, but banged out the rest of that fifth sonnet. They will make a splash–which will give us a second centennial now in which to consider Brooke as a writer of verse.[11]


Edward Thomas, home with his family, is also writing on Christmas. It’s another poem, now known as “An Old Song I,” (a second “Old Song” will arrive tomorrow) and it appears to be a simple thing, another exercise in finding his own voice through his gentle mastery of old folk idioms, in this case the rural ballad tradition. There is a repeated refrain of “delight of a shiny night in the season of the year,” and at first it’s as if he’s written a new Christmas standard. But the rural singer voicing the six-stanza song swiftly proves to be very much Thomas himself:

I took those walks years after, talking with friend or dear,/ Or solitary musing; but when the moon shone clear/

I had no joy or sorrow that could not be expressed…

Since then I’ve thrown away the chance to fight a gamekeeper;/ And I less often trespass, and what I see or hear/ Is mostly fro the road or path by day: yet still I sing…

A gentle thought. But even on Christmas, even in the midst of another celebration of the English rural poetic tradition, Edward Thomas’s failure to fight–or, really, his failure to fruitlessly brawl–is eating at him.


Thomas Hardy minces fewer words in reflecting to a clergyman friend on the challenge posed to the conscious conscience during a wartime Christmas:

Max Gate | 25 Dec. 1914

We go to London occasionally on brief visits, but do not care about it in the winter, particularly now that it is so dark there. Dorchester is more or less full of soldiers & German prisoners, & I suppose this sort of thing will go on for a long time yet, for I see no prospect of any conclusion to the war.

A newspaper editor asked me to send him a Christmas greeting for his readers, & I told him the puzzle was too hard for me, seeing that present times are an absolute negation of Christianity…

Sincerely yours,

Thomas Hardy[12]


Time, then, to return to the front. I want the Nursing Sister to have the last word;–she is beginning to seem to be something like a star to steer by, a steady median: not in combat, but seeing its worst on a daily basis; conventional yet not entirely sentimental; a sharp observer who keeps her self at arm’s reach from all interpretive challenge even though no one is more literally in touch with the horror of war.

But first, a great deal of Henry Williamson, who experienced the truce, and then extensively re-wrote it in his later novel, A Fox Under My Cloak.

Princess Mary's Christmas Card, WilliamsonDec 26 1914 Trenches

Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In this pope is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Of course, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh, dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands.

This is Henry in his manic mode, writing high and fast, getting a bit too far ahead, repeating himself. He may seem to be showing an unusual sustenance-of-mood–he’s writing tomorrow, a century back, and yet still breathlessly excited. But the event continues:

Williamson relics-matchbox, Mary's gift, tobacco

Henry Williamson’s Christmas 1914 Relics: Princess Mary’s Gift Box, with tobacco and matches (A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War)

Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write [i.e. on Boxing Day too]. Marvellous, isn’t it? Yes. This is only for about a mile or two on either side of us (so far as we know). It happened thiswise. On Xmas eve both armies sang carols and cheered & there was very little firing. The Germans… called to our men to come & fetch a cigar & our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other, until, after much promising to ‘play the game’ a bold Tommy crept out & stood between the trenches, & immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands & laughed and then 16 Germans came out. Thus the ice was broken. They are landsturmers or landwehr [i.e. militias] I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking… We had a burial service in the afternoon…[13]

So a good time was had by all. Williamson is all exuberance, here, but his Christmas in No Man’s Land seems to have thrown its symbolic weight around his mind for years. It wasn’t so much that the hopeful message he took from the truce curdled with the continuation of the war–in fact almost the opposite.

It wasn’t the aberration of the truce that he continued to remember as much as its fundamental humanity, its appropriateness. War was the aberration. “Christmas” was an idea to try out in its new trench warfare context, but then it was over. Yet Williamson seemed unable to take the idea of “the brotherhood of man,”–or, more to the point, of the essential fellowship of German and English front-line fighters–and collapse it again, stow it away for the duration.

So to the novel. Williamson takes many liberties in writing Phillip Maddison’s Christmas Eve, adding in details of other truce accounts and inventing new events to give Maddison a more thoroughly symbolic experience.

For starters, Maddison is sent out into No Man’s Land on Christmas Eve night with a working party trying to stealthily reinforce a threatened position. Lying out on the frozen, torn earth in one of the curious goat-skin coats, under a dangerously bright moon, the men of the “London Highlanders” gradually realized that they will not be fired upon, even though they are improving their defenses. Then

from the German parapet a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a song Phillip remembered from his nurse Minny singing it to him. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht–Tranquil Night! Holy Night!

The grave and tender voice rose out of the frosty mist; it was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which he had come through a nightmare; a world finer than the one he had left behind, except for beautiful things like music, and springtime on his bicycle in the county.

A bicycle ride is, believe it or not, on the agenda for Phillip’s dream Christmas. But first, in the early morning hours, with all military discipline apparently in abeyance, he wanders into a temporary cemetery behind the lines, a clearing “which seemed almost of a fairy world, until he saw wooden crosses in rows. There was not a sound, as he stood there. It was as though all the soldiers had gone, except the dead.”

Williamson is really in fine form here, using the quirks of the man-child he has developed over several novels–his propensity for strolling reveries at any time, his awkwardness–in concert with the strange but historical fact that this uniquely non-violent day offered strange license to explore the new topography of war. Nor does Williamson the novelist shrug off his commitment to realism, just because the day was really like a dream: Phillip is stricken (as Henry apparently was, although he was too fastidious to put it into his letters) with a gastrointestinal complaint, and runs off now to squat painfully in a shell-crater.

On Christmas morning, the symbolic or expansive continues to mix with the historical. Phillip first explores a shell-damaged chateau, pondering the unburied bodies of several Germans, wondering about who they had been in life, whether they might have had friends, fears, etc. Heavy handed moral preparation, no?

The waking dream continues–the roman fleuve style of Williamson’s Chronicle is nowhere better suited to military history–and Phillip is soon trading smokes with Germans and chatting up a former London hotel waiter (both common occurrences, a century back).

But when Phillip witnesses a joint burial service, he doesn’t think of the honorableness of it, or feel the pleasure of a religious rite restored, or think of the families of the men whose identity disks are being retrieved, their fate now certified. He thinks of the humanity of the dead and soon comes to ponder the odd German claim that their men are heroes fighting the good fight.

A soccer game starts up between the lines, and Williamson again pivots his fictional creation away from the historical reality (although as noted above, there were probably no formal football games in No Man’s Land–yet stories about such things grew in the telling and pervaded the folk history of the truce). Phillip, the loner, decides that if a soccer game is acceptable, so will a solo bicycle ride be. Peddling off, he is carried away with the excitement of freewheeling freedom:

What a wonderful adventure it was! The whole thing was a miracle!

How the people at home would be utterly astonished, when they heard that the Germans were not just brutes, as hitherto everyone had imagined!

And then, of course, as with most of Phillip Maddison’s bouts of enthusiasm, he goes too far. In this case, literally. Here, again, fiction “improves” on history: Phillip accidentally turns north and east and rides straight toward the German outposts. He suddenly realizes that whatever truce held back where he began, here he might be shot as a spy (or madman). For once his enthusiasm carries the day, and as he shouts greetings in broken German, the sentries hold their fire.

The ride continues, behind the German first lines, and over the terrain near Messines and Wulverghem which had been the scene of the dreadful battle on Halloween. The impetuous, awkward boy is behaving ridiculously, dangerously, but he’s also, in a sense, rising to the moment.

Soon he realizes that he is not far from where his cousin’s battalion is stationed. Cousin Willy is in the London Rifles–a fictional cousin for a fictional protagonist, but serving in a real battalion, Henry Williamson’s battalion.

If Phillip’s long ride is a bit over the top, it’s in service of a remarkable little juxtaposition of history and fiction. Cleverly, unsettlingly, Williamson uses the real truce to cross a few miles of Belgium and bend fiction back into a confrontation with history. He brings the fictional alter-ego, by means of a surreal bike ride through the intervening Germans, to his own location near Ploegsteert Wood. He was there, and perhaps, if he were a pioneer of meta-fictional gamesmanship instead of a belated nineteenth century novelist, he might have confronted himself. Instead, he produces Phillip’s Cousin Willy to take his own place (literally his own physical location on that morning) and to carry on a sort of doubly-masked inner dialogue:

Willie was full of the strangeness of the Christmas Day.

“I’ve been talking to a Saxon, Phil, all night. We went out to the wire, at the exact same time. It’s most extraordinary, but the Germans think exactly about the war as we do! They can’t lose, they say, because God is on their side. And they say they are fighting for civilisation, just as we are! Surely, if all the Germans and all the English knew this, at home, then his ghastly war would end! If we started to walk back, and they did, too, it would be over!”

“I wish it were as easy as that, Willie.”

“But it is true, Phillip!”

“It would be a miracle if it could happen.”

“But this is a miracle now, Phil! Look, ‘For Fatherland and Freedom’! Isn’t that just the same as our side’s ‘For God, King, and Country’… Why then, when everyone wants it to stop, should it have to go on?

But here, later history intrudes. It’s against the rules for me to discuss the future, and Willie and Phil’s lengthy discussion of German and British Brotherhood, of war guilt and atrocity and the role of the press, is not really a 1914 conversation. It has too much of the quandaries of later, darker Christmastides. And the opinions the author mouths are not, to say the least, in accord with the current historical consensus. Axes that are now only gleaming lumps in the mind of the weaponsmith will later need much grinding…  better to end the real/fictional truce with observation instead of second-hand politicking:

The talk had taken place under the broken crucifix at the cross-roads of Le Gheer, about a hundred yards behind the British front line… German dead lay in the first cottage… one whiff was enough. Outside in the flooded ditch, just under the ice, lay a British soldier, on his back, his blue eyes open as though staring at the sky, arms extended, fingers spread. A look of terror was still visible through the ice.[14]


Lastly, the Nursing Sister:

7 P.M.–Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature. This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.–Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [wounded] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.[15]



References and Footnotes

  1. Hastings, Catastrophe, 556-8.
  2. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 65-7.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 101-2.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 70.
  5. Norman, ed., Armageddon Road, 96-7.
  6. Lady Under Fire, 40-1.
  7. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, 77.
  8. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 223-4.
  9. Violet Asquith is the Prime Minister's daughter, and the sister of one of Brooke's new friend's and fellow-subalterns.
  10. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 645-6.
  11. Jones, Rupert Brooke, 398.
  12. The letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 71-72.
  13. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 46-7.
  14. Williamson, A Fox Under My Cloak, 36-60.
  15. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

The Truce Begins; Edward Thomas Gets Sentimental; Wilfred Owen Goes to Mass; Vera Brittain Gets a Call After All; Max Plowman Enlists

Here’s an interesting Christmas Eve note: today, a century back, the young pacifist Max Plowman enlisted in the army–but in the field ambulances. This project will track a number of ways in which words like “honor” and even “courage” are twisted or misused, debased or drained of meaning, as the war goes on. But there are few traditions more courageous than those of the British pacifists–many of them Quakers–who chose to answer the implicit or explicit call to serve by taking non-combatant positions that nevertheless exposed them to significant risk. An RAMC ambulance driver was more exposed to artillery fire–even to machine gun and small arms fire–than serving soldiers in any but the front-line units. And stretcher bearers, whose sole job was to enter areas under recent, accurate fire, were exposed to even more. To volunteer for this duty was to assert at once an unwillingness to take life and a willingness to shoulder an equal or greater portion of the burden of personal risk and wartime suffering.

But not every pacifist made it through the war with his convictions unchanged. Plowman, tempted already into uniform by the pressure of his enthusiastic peers, will find the RAMC something of an unhappy compromise…


At home in Buxton, Vera Brittain was surprised by a lovely Christmas Eve extravagance.

Thursday December 24th

The sinfully extravagant Roland rang me up this morning & spoke to me, not for 3 minutes but for six. Amid all the crowds of things I wanted to say to him I could think of nothing & my conversation was unintellectual to say the least of it. He wished to know what particular book I wanted for my birthday among the moderns but I could think of no one in particular though I mentioned Henley, Francis Thompson, Kipling & Hardy.

Well, those early phone calls with boyfriends are tough. And Kipling and Hardy, at least, are right on point.


And Edward Thomas is thinking of England. The poem he wrote today, a century back–The Manor Farm–is of a piece with many of his early poems: it’s converted from notes of his rambles and it quietly captures some aspect of the changing seasons of rural life with insight and precision. This one, though, is a bit hokey, bending too far toward the sort of verse one might find captioning a sentimental Christmas lithograph. There is an ancient yew, a church-yard, and, for an ending, a light opera elegy:

But ’twas not Winter—

Rather a season of bliss unchangeable

Awakened from farm and church where it had lain

Safe under tile and thatch for ages since

This England, Old already, was called Merry.[1]

Well, it’s Christmastime in the country. And tomorrow, it will be Christmas in–and between–the trenches.


But first, midnight mass in Bordeaux, which Wilfred Owen attended along with the family he served as tutor. It was a heady experience for a poetic young man newly escaped from an evangelical Anglican background to suddenly find himself

All mixed up with candles, incense, acolytes, chasuble and such like. If I didn’t bow, I certainly scraped, for there was an unholy draught. How scandalized would certain of my acquaintance and kin been to see me. But it would take a power of candle grease and embroidery to Romanize me. The question is to un-Greekize me.

The force of this quip is classical rather than religious. Owen, it would seem, is not to be much seduced by the ceremonies of the Roman church or the sonorities of Roman poets–the obnoxiousness about Catholic ritual is meant to reassure mother.

But he does believe himself to be under the influence of Greek culture. This probably means, at this point in his continuing self-education, a Keatsian or Decadent-inflected idea of the Greek: sensuality, eros and truth–and, perhaps, a violent vibrancy.[2] We will track the evolution of these vague ideas in a few years, when they re-enter his poetry.


Further north, the Christmas spirit was swelling. A subaltern of the Hampshire regiment wrote to his parents about

a beautiful story of–the Wessex,[3] say–who had a fine singer among them, whom both sides delighted to honour: so the Germans just shouted ‘Half time, Wessex’, when desiring music, and everyone stopped firing. The songster climbed on to the parapet of the trench, and both sides joined in the chorus. If a senior officer of either side appeared, a signal was given and all hands lay doggo: then a fierce fusillade took place doing any amount of damage to the air twenty feet over the enemy’s heads, and the senior officer went back delighted with his enemy’s energy and zeal, not to say courage, in face of heavy fire. Then the concert recommenced.

The subaltern, one Michael Holroyd, segues in the same letter from this clearly embellished “tale” to a description of the beginnings, in his sector, of the famous Christmas Truce.

It is now, for instance, Christmas Eve, and I’ve just been out for an after-dinner stroll towards the enemy. We found the men in the intermediate lines singing loudly; not a shot from our own front or the Bavarians opposite. The moon looks down upon a slightly misty, pale blue landscape, and bending my ear to the ground I can hear a faint whisper of German song… I shall be greatly surprised if they or we fire a shot tomorrow; whatever Prussian warlords do, Bavarian troops are pretty sure not to desecrate Christmas Day…[4]

This will turn out to be both an accurate prediction and a reminder (rare in this context of truce) that “spontaneous” actions in war are always prepared long in advance by those forces, i.e. literature and art, which shape the perceptions and expectations of the spontaneously-acting soldiers. It’s good history to point out the difference between events and the legends that spring up after them–but better history to notice the legends that pave the way for the actions that shape the events…


The Royal Irish were in reserve, but headed for the line. Therefore Christmas came early:

On Christmas Eve after tea and the distribution of the Christmas puddings from England, the Battalion, with the Hertfordshires, relieved the 4th Dogras, 6th Jats and 9th Gurkhas. It is recorded that, the Gurkha being a somewhat shorter man that the average Guardsman, the long Irish had to dig their trenches about to feet deeper, and they wondered loudly what sort of person these “little dark fellas” could be.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Edna Longley, in the Annotated Collected Poems, has some good comments here on the "stylistic risks" that Thomas took in this poem. He did take some criticism for the sentimentality but, characteristically, stood by it. I'd like these to be slight missteps on the road to poetic greatness, but it's probably more accurate to say that Thomas, sprung full-grown from the mind of prose to stalk among the demigods of poetry, knew that his path encompassed even such quotidien byways. Like latter-day Bob Dylan he is neither embracing folk nor reacting from it, but writing very naturally as a latter day practitioner, ancient and modern at once.
  2. See Vandiver, Stand in the Trench Achilles, 131.
  3. This is an early example of a fictionalized regimental name--the "Wessex" don't exist, this being not a current county but an old term for parts of Southwest England. It recalls Hardy, in fact, who re-popularized the old name in his lightly fictionalized depictions of the area in his novels.
  4. Brown, 1914, 264-5.
  5. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 69.

Montague’s Tonsorial Miracle; Vera and Edward are Reunited; A Grim Day for the Nursing Sister; Christmas Wishes from Thomas Hardy

Punch, 12-23-14Today brings not a single update from the combat soldiers of the mostly quiescent Western Front. But Punch ran an illustration today, a century back (at right), which seems like it would have tickled the likes of Morgan Crofton et al. (There’s a straight line of humorous influence from here on back to the imperturbable Python officers of the Zulu wars.)

On now to a few of our regular informants, behind the lines and in England abed.

On 23rd December, 1914, the 24th Royal Fusiliers accepted the enlistment of one C.E. Montague. More on this odd battalion in a moment, but first, due attention to one of the best one-liners of the war. This concerns Montague’s wily evasion of the enlistment guidelines–he was a family man of forty-seven, and prematurely white-haired, while Kitchener had only asked for unmarried volunteers under forty. I think I’ve tracked down the oft-repeated bit to its source:

C. E. Montague… was so much moved by the invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war that he dyed his white hair, and, with a splendid lie, enlisted as a private…

We have all heard of men whose dark hair through fear turned white in a single night, but Montague is the only man I know whose white hair in a single night turned dark through courage.[1]

We’ll follow Montague’s career in the army as it develops. The 24th Royal Fusiliers, known as the “Second Sportsman’s Battalion,” was another battalion of the uniquely expansive London Regiment (which includes Henry Williamson’s London Rifles and borrowed London Scottish). At the beginning of the war the London Regiment was a loose grouping of many different clubby Territorial battalions, but several of these formations had now added “Service” battalions, i.e. additional, affiliated battalions of “Kitchener’s Army” volunteers.

It’s very confusing: the numbering stays sequential within the “London Regiment,” even though this unit has almost no significance, and the battalions will be assigned to divisions made up of other Kitchener units from other regiments more or less according to how quickly they can train and equip themselves. The “Sportmen” took their uniforms and specific-regimental-traditions-such-as-they-were from the Royal Fusiliers, but were themselves raised not by the Fusiliers’ recruiters but as a “Pals” battalion, i.e. a unit formed via a mass enlistment of men whose affiliation (however loose) was not with a traditional recruiting area and its local regiment but rather with each other, in civil life. Thus there were “pals” battalions made up almost entirely of miners, or dock-workers, or financial professionals, or even, most famously, of Public School boys too eager to wait for commissions..

The Royal Fusiliers thus raised two Kitchener’s (akar New Army) battalions, which we could also call “Pals” battalions. These were numbered as the 23rd and the 24th London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) and called the 1st and 2nd Sportsman’s Battalions because they were formed by a crowd of middle class volunteers self-identifying as sportsmen. The First Battalion in particular seemed to have a large of number of professional and semi-professional cricketers–the ranks being filled up, presumably, with men happy to go to war alongside a bunch of well-known cricketers.

Montague, who was apparently a skilled amateur mountaineer, chose this unit a-purpose: there was an assumption of physical robustness among sportsmen, so the 23rd (and, I assume, the 24th as well) chose to raise the typical maximum enlistment age from 39 to 45, which accordingly lowered the bar for Montague’s splendid lie. In any event, he’s in: a forty-seven year old volunteer private.


To Buxton, and a Brittain family reunion:

Wednesday December 23rd

Edward came back to-night & is really here. We all went down to the station to meet the last train from London which he came by. It was 50 minutes late, so we wandered up & down the cold platform with Daddy getting more inwardly irate every moment. I did not really mind waiting at all, except that I might have finished my Homer.

Vera, ever studious. But there’s a lot here, including a good bit on the romance of rail and a fairly accurate–but, of course, extremely over-optimistic–assessment of Britain’s strategic hopes. And their likely cost.

I always love a railway at night, the lights in the distance, the shunting & the red steam–even if it is cold & damp. At last the train came in, & he appeared, looking so fit & good-looking, in spite of having got up at 4.00 this morning. He seems so tall & absolutely grown up; I shall be proud for anyone to see him, he really is a fit object of devotion. He has never looked so well as he does in his military clothes. He told us his battalion belongs to Kitchener’s 3rd Army [i.e. “K3,” the “third hundred thousand,” formed into six divisions, numbered 21st through 2th, each division containing a dozen infantry battalions] & will probably go out in May. Apparently the French & English could drive back the Germans now if they wished & could have weeks ago, but they intend to wait until the New Armies come out so as to turn the action into a decided victory. So there is no doubt that Edward will go to the front & see fighting. When I read & read about the tragic deaths of only sons, of brothers, & husbands, I cannot think there is any reason why our one beloved representative of the Army should be spared. Christmas & the wondering where we shall all be a year hence, his accounts of their manoeuvres, his very good looks, all bring the poignant sorrow of war nearer home. Roland too is volunteering for the front from his reserve regiment, & may be tacked on to a Territorial Regiment that will go out all too soon. He rang up tonight to speak to me when I was meeting Edward; I was dreadfully disappointed to miss him.[2]

Disappointing indeed. We’ll have to see what tomorrow brings, and the Spring Offensive.


The Nursing Sister, of course, is focused on present–rather than prospective–sorrow.

Wednesday, 23rd

We loaded up at Lillers late on Monday night with one of the worst loads we’ve ever taken, all wounded, half Indians and half British…

It was a dark wet night, and the loading people were half-way up to their knees in black mud, and we didn’t finish loading till 2 A.M., and were hard at it trying to stop hæmorrhage, &c…

One little Gurkha with his arm just amputated, and a wounded leg, could only be pacified by having acid drops [a hard, or “sucking” sour candy, in American parlance] put into his mouth and being allowed to hug the tin.

Another was sent on as a sitting-up case. Half-way through the night I found him gasping with double pneumonia; it was no joke nursing him with seven others in the compartment. He only just lived to go off the train. Another one I found dead about 5.30 A.M…

…got to B. this morning, train full, but not such bad cases, and are on our way back again now: expect to be sent on to Rouen. Now we are three instead of four Sisters, it makes the night work heavier, but we can manage all right in the day. In the last journey some of the worst cases got put into the top bunks, in the darkness and rush, and one only had candles to do the dressings by…

The Xmas Cards have come, and I’m going to risk keeping them till Friday, in case we have patients on the train. If not, I shall take them to a Sister I know at one of the B. hospitals.

We have got some H.A.C. on this time, who try to stand up when you come in, as if you were coming into their drawing-room. The Tommies in the same carriage are quite embarrassed. One boy said just now, “We ‘ad a ‘appy Xmas last year.”

“Where?” I said.

“At ‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,” he said, beaming[3]


And in Dorchester, Thomas Hardy continues to round into form as the one older writer we can trust to keep a clear head about the war. He wrote to his friend Florence Henniker with theatrical gossip and Christmas wishes:

Max Gate, Dorchester | 23 Dec. 1914

My dear friend:

I have not written till now to thank you for your letter about the volume of poems, & I am glad that I combine with it by my delay a Christmas greeting which I wanted you to have from me…

At night here the sky is illuminated by the searchlights in Portland Roads, so we are kept in mind of the slaughter in progress. Mr. Asquith went to The Dynasts one afternoon, & liked it much. I hope you keep well, & will have a cheerful Christmas.

Yr affectionate friend,

Tho. H[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. H.W. Nevinson, Fire of Life, 349-50.
  2. Chronicle of Youth. 132-3.
  3. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, 70-1.

Multiple Updates from the Nurses of Pervyse–the Lady Letter Writer is Under Fire; Max Plowman, Pacifist, Sees a Way to Enlist; We Meet and Bid Farewell to Claude Templer

With the front once again frozen, the troops are on the move–or at least the more fortunate officers and nurses are.

Elsie Knocker left shell-battered Pervyse today, a century back, for Christmas leave in London, traveling along with her nominal commander Dr. Munro. Mairi Chisholm and Lady Feilding, along with one Dr. Jellett, a new arrival, stayed to man the dressing station. In London, Knocker will lunch with May Sinclair, the older writer who had been ignominiously returned from Belgium months before as unfit for the rigors of wartime nursing.[1]

Left behind, Lady Feilding experiments with the best sort of century-back “action writing,” preserving the violent moments of the day in her prose:

Dec 22nd

Mother darling–

I am very well – only very dirty. You should just see my neck! These bally Germans have been throwing a lot of things at us lately. As I write I am warming my toes over the fire, & there are a lot of shrapnel fuzzing round – bang – there’s another.

It’s another – bang! – but it’s extraordinary how little damage they do. The trenches are more or less shrapnel proof & very snug…

Bang! I wish they wouldn’t. It’s not done.

Much love,


“Diddles” then refines upon “DoDo’s” technique:

Dec 22nd

Father dear–

I haven’t heard from you for a long while. Do write me the back chat. I hope you will come out…

Lord Feilding will indeed “come out” next year, and thus enlarge significantly upon the family’s collection of archival letters.

We are still at Pervyse, it’s just a month now since we’ve been up here. We are very fit & very happy but oh so dirty. You should see my neck!

Such repetitiveness–as well as the habit of writing frequently to her mother yet still semi-regularly to her father–implies that they are living in different places at this point. It’s not a marital separation–Lord Feilding’s ardent letters will, if memory serves, soon prove this–but Lord Feildling may be on the move as he angles for a position in the expanding military. So young Lady Feilding reuses material, rather than writing to her father through her mother, as Henry Williamson and Wilfred Owen (and many others) seem to do.

They still shell a goodish bit & most days we have a few wounded in. As we have a car permanently attached here, we can run them straight back to the Fumes hospital without all that delay. We had four in yesterday from a s–

This smear a shell fell & made the house shake & me jump!

Well to continue… We had four in yesterday from a shell they got clean in the trenches — a very rare occurrence as they are firing from some way back & nearly all shrapnel. The shells that have come have somehow never fallen on anyone here before. They took a bit off the comer of the cave 2 days ago & made a mass of shrapnel holes in the bonnet of the old Daimler that was standing outside. Luckily the driver was inside the house, but a Belgian who was standing nearby got slightly wounded & we took him into our hospital.

Won’t it be an odd Xmas up here. But I am sure far less depressing than Xmas in England this year.

So Diddles-to-father-dear is more frank about the dangers of her life than Dodo-to-mother-darling. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see the shell-smear, that inky event horizon between war and writing?

Writing to Daddy, too, Dorothie tries out some nauseating, old soldier-style black humor:

Our only tragedy at Pervyse is our water supply. The only water comes from the cemetery yard where 358 dead Germans are ‘interred’. Yesterday the pump stuck & has not worked since & it is feared a Teuton has worked his way up the spout. General disgust but no one is brave enough to look & see.

Meanwhile water is getting very scarce.

Goodbye Mr Da dear. Bless you & much love this Xmas

From Diddles

Write me a nice letter do![2]


And now for some advance work. Max Plowman will one day get to France and write a very good book. But for now he is a journalist (and not so great poet) with an unusual problem. He’s thirty-one and just married, but he feels like so many others the pull of the war–and he’s a committed pacifist. He wrote to his brother today, a century back:

I think I’ve settled my enlistment problem. With luck I ought to be a member of the London Mounted Brigade of the Royal Field Ambulance by this time tomorrow. A territorial unit (as the jargon has it) attached to the H.A.C. Battery or King Edward’s Horse or some other Volunteer Cavalry Brigade…It will be pretty devilish I expect but there it is & God Almighty must expect to take a back seat when the British Officer is turned loose. I only hope I meet somebody fit to speak to.

That last bit makes Plowman sound as snobbish as some of our Regulars. He’s not. He had left school at sixteen to work in the family brick business, then moved on to a career in journalism, and he was a politically engaged radical. Although not particularly religious (as far as I can tell), in thoughtfulness, seriousness, and lack of “side” he matches Donald Hankey better than any of our current informants.

And he’s thought about what the war means, or should mean to him. He’s come to the conclusion that “repairing’s bloody enough work… but I seem to fancy it before progging hog’s flesh with a bayonet.”[3]


Finally, a rough introduction for another young officer (and truly lamentable versifier) whom we will not see again for some years:

Capt. [Clause]: Templer joined his regiment, the 1st Battalion of the Gloucesters, on the Western front in Nov. 1914. On the 22nd Dec. he advanced ahead of his platoon, to reconnoitre a German trench. Proceeding along the trench he came up with an enemy N.C.O. and was on the point of shooting him with his revolver when he was knocked senseless to the ground from behind by a blow on the head with the butt end of a rifle. He was sent back from the lines, a prisoner, to Lille and from there, with a number of other British wounded, he was sent to the prison camp at Hanover-Munden.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, 76-77.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 37-8.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 28-9.
  4. From the introduction to Poems and Imaginings, 6-7.