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Christmas in the Great War

Weihnachtszeit: The Christmas truce-how British and Germans

British and German soldiers pose for a picture together in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day.

Christmas in wartime was a particularly emotive time for soldiers at the front, as well as civilians at home.  For men who could get home on leave, many arrived at train stations with a festive sprig of holly in their caps and enjoyed a few precious days with family and friends. Those who were  in hospital had their wards decorated festively and often were treated to entertainment by a visiting concert troupe, or else had a sing-song with nurses.

Those able enough to be moved, might visit the pantomime. For the inevitable majority who spent Christmas in the trenches, the public were anxious they were not forgotten and numerous groups and organisations arranged for wholesale despatches of “comforts” to the front from Christmas puddings to cigarettes. The most widespread Christmas gift was Princess Mary’s Christmas Tin, which was intended for every British and Colonial serviceman or woman and contained a message from the King, a photograph of the Princess and a pack of “smokes” (though nurses received sweets).

Famously on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914, at certain sections along the line, British and German soldiers ventured warily out of their trenches to meet in No Man’s Land, shake hands, sing carols, swap cigarettes or souvenirs and share photographs and mementos.  Second-Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, yet to become famous for his Bystander cartoons, took part in the so-called Christmas truce, exchanging jacket buttons with a German officer and, after, “one of the Boches ran back to his trench and presently appeared with a large camera”, regretted, according to his memoirs, never making arrangements to get a copy of the photograph that was taken that day.

Senior officers did not however, approve of this temporary cessation of hostilities and orders were given that no further fraternisation would be tolerated.  But for the  ILN magazines, the Christmas truce was a heart-warming seasonal story, and several artists’ impressions in the ILN and The Sphere appeared in early January 1915 (as well as photographs) helping to perpetuate the legendary event. The  ILN together with the other Great Eight magazines were famed for their Christmas Numbers, and the wartime issues did not disappoint combining a mix of humorous and sentimental pictures and colour covers, mining various festive wartime themes, such as buying geese at French markets or eating Christmas dinner in impossibly picturesque snowy trenches.