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

Soldiers_of_the_5t_2962581b

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 We have seen this again and again in terms of the arrival of soldiers at the battlefield with the outdated heroic expectations of their reading–as Paul Fussell might have put it, you go to war with the last war you read about.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,

Diddles[6]

 

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.

Rupert.[10]

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.