The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 216th installment in the series.
December 25, 1915: A Second Christmas At War
On Christmas Eve, 1915, John Ayscough, a Catholic chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force in France, wrote a letter to his mother which probably captured the feelings of many Europeans during the second Christmas of the war:
By the time you get this… Christmas Day will have passed, and I confess I shall be glad. I don’t think you quite understand my feeling, and perhaps I cannot explain it very intelligently; but it comes from the contrast between the sense that Christmas should be a time of such immense joy and the unutterable suffering in which all Europe lies bleeding.
On the other side of the lines, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German nobleman living in Berlin, struck a similar note in her diary, with special attention to the burden left to women who’d lost husbands and sons and were now expected to grieve in stoic silence:
For weeks past, the town seems to have been enveloped in an impenetrable veil of sadness, grey in grey, which no golden ray of sunlight ever seems able to pierce, and which forms a fit setting for the white-faced, black-robed women who glide so sadly through the streets, some bearing their sorrow proudly as a crown to their lives, others bent and broken under a burden too heavy to be borne. But everywhere it will be the same; in Paris and London too every one will be gazing at their Christmas-trees with eyes dim with tears.
On Christmas Eve, Blücher attended mass at a hospital which she and her husband supported as patrons, and unsurprisingly found the normally joyous ceremony a somber affair, to match the cold beauty of Nature:
… the snow had been falling unceasingly, and as we all went off together to Midnight Mass at the Convent Hospital, the silent streets and houses lay shrouded with pure white snow. The church was crowded with wounded soldiers, nurses, nuns, and pale-faced, heart-broken women, and as the solemn music slowly wound its way through the dim shadows of the pillared aisles, it seemed to me as if our fervent prayers must meet in union, and rise like a cloud up to the very feet of God – prayers for the dying and dead, for comfort for the bereaved, and for ourselves, that we might never again spend such a Christmas of anguish and suspense…
For some people the connection between Christmas and grief was all too direct. On December 15, 1915, the British diarist Vera Brittain wrote after hearing that her fiancé Roland Leighton might not get leave in time to return for her birthday on December 29: “This is such a wretched War – so abundant in disappointments & postponements & annoyances as well as more tremendous things, – that I should scarcely be surprised to hear that everything I was looking forward to, which temporarily make life worth living, is not going to come off…” In fact Brittain was contemplating the possibility of marrying Leighton, on the spur of the moment, as she confided later in her memoirs: “Of course it would be what the world would call – or did call before the War – a ‘foolish’ marriage. But now that the War seemed likely to be endless, and the chance of making a ‘wise’ marriage had become, for most people, so very remote, the world was growing more tolerant.” On December 27, 1915 Brittain found out that Leighton had been wounded on December 22 and died of his wounds a day later.
But in the midst of inescapable tragedy, ordinary people still managed to observe the holiday with undaunted cheer. Wherever possible troops ate Christmas dinner or at least received extra rations (top, German soldiers with a small Christmas tree in the trenches; above, British children prepare for the holiday; below, British sailors enjoy a Christmas feast) and many received gifts from home, however modest – sometimes from perfect strangers. Jack Tarrant, an Australian soldier recently evacuated from Gallipoli, recalled a primitive Christmas on the Greek island of Lemnos, brightened by a present from Australia:
It was a lousy looking place – a dirt road, and one pump… We got to know the people a bit and they had a little shop and you could buy a few biscuits… And we enjoyed our Christmas dinner there. Someone had a tin of pudding, someone had a piece of cake in tins, and there was a billy can with a handle for each man… My billy can came from Kapunga from a little girl called Ruth – I wrote back to her and thanked her for the billy; her mother answered and said Ruth was only six years of age.
Another Christmas Truce
Better still, although the practice wasn’t nearly as widespread as the first Christmas Truce in 1914, in many places soldiers in the trenches disobeyed orders forbidding fraternization and once again observed an unofficial ceasefire, allowing both sides to spend the day in peace. One British soldier, E.M. Roberts, wrote home:
We wished one another all the good things of the season and we even included the Huns, who were about seventy-five yards away. They had hoisted up a placard over the parapet on which were inscribed the words Merry Christmas. It was a sight that touched the hearts of many of us and one that we will not forget in a hurry.
In some places they even socialized with their foes as they had a year before, exchanging Christmas greetings and presents. Henry Jones, a British subaltern, noted a few days later: “We had a very jolly Christmas… In that part of the line there was a truce for a quarter of an hour on Christmas Day, and a number of Englishmen and Germans jumped out and started talking together. A German gave one of our men a Christmas tree about two feet high as a souvenir.”
One of the most complete descriptions of the 1915 Christmas Day truce was left by Llewellyn Wyn Griffith, a Welsh soldier stationed near Mametz Wood in Picardy, France, who recounted camaraderie fueled by alcohol, followed by the exchange of gifts as soldiers from both sides traded for necessities, and finally the predictably furious reaction of their superiors:
The battalion on our right was shouting to the enemy, and he was responding. Gradually the shouts became more deliberate, and we could hear “Merry Christmas, Tommy” and “Merry Christmas, Fritz.” As soon as it became light, we saw hands and bottles being waved at us, with encouraging shouts that we could neither understand nor misunderstand. A drunken German stumbled over his parapet and advanced through the barbed wire, followed by several others, and in a few moments there was a rush of men from both sides, carrying tins of meat, biscuits, and other odd commodities for barter. This was the first time I had seen No Man’s Land, and now it was Every Man’s Land, or so it seemed. Some of our men would not go, they gave terse and bitter reasons for their refusal. The officers called our men back to the line, and in a few minutes No Man’s Land was once again empty and desolate. There had been a feverish exchange of “souvenirs”, a suggestion for peace all day, and a football match in the afternoon, and a promise of no rifle-fire at night. All this came to naught. An irate Brigadier came spluttering up the line, thundering hard, throwing a “court martial” into every other sentence… We had evidently jeopardised the safety of the Allied cause.
As always, one of the most important orders of business during a truce was burying the dead, both out of respect for fallen comrades and to make the environment less putrid for those still alive. Of course, among irreverent frontline soldiers there was always room for sheer absurdity. Another British soldier, A. Locket, wrote home:
I am pleased to say that I quite enjoyed myself on Christmas Day. We were having quite a spree with the Germans. We had an informal truce. Both sides met half-way between each other’s trenches. One of their officers asked one of our officers if they could come out and bury their dead, and our officer agreed, and then we went out to help them. I wish you could have seen the sight, there were hundreds of them lying dead. When they had finished their work a chum of mine fetched his mouth organ out, and you should have seen our fellows, we quite made the Germans stare. One of our chaps went across to the German trenches dressed in women’s clothes… They said that they were very sorry that they had to fight the English.
While it’s tempting to look back on these fleeting moments of humanity as testimony to the holiday’s special power over men’s hearts, the unsentimental truth is that informal ceasefires were a fairly common occurrence throughout the war (though by no means regular or officially acknowledged). This was especially true in “quiet” parts of the line, for example on the southern portion of the Western Front, where the hilly, forested terrain impeded hostilities, and also when both sides found themselves suffering at the hands of a third adversary – Mother Nature. Thus one German soldier, Hermann Baur wrote on December 11, 1915:
The position collapses partly, due to persistent rainfall. Our men have reached an agreement with the French to cease fire. They bring us bread, wine, sardines etc., we bring them Schnapps. When we clean up the trench, everybody is standing on the edges, as otherwise it is not any longer possible. The infantry does not shoot any more, just the crazy artillery… The masters make war, they have a quarrel, and the workers, the little men… have to stand there fighting against each other. Is that not a great stupidity.
A French soldier, Louis Barthas, left a record of what may have been the same encounter, viewed from the other side:
We spent the rest of the night battling the floodwaters. The next day, December 10, at many places along the front line, the soldiers had to come out of their trenches so as not to drown. The Germans had to do the same. We therefore had the singular spectacle of two enemy armies facing each other without firing a shot. Our common sufferings brought our hearts together, melted the hatreds, nurtured sympathy between strangers and adversaries… Frenchmen and Germans looked at each other, and saw that they were all men, no different from one another. They smiled, exchanged comments; hands reached out and grasped; we shared tobacco, a canteen of jus [coffee] or pinard…. One day, a huge devil of a German stood up on a mound and gave a speech, which only the Germans could understand word for word, but everyone knew what it meant, because he smashed his rifle on a tree stump, breaking it into two in a gesture of anger…
As noted above, informal truces were also called throughout the year to allow burial parties to venture into No Man’s Land. Maximilian Reiter, an Austrian officer serving on the Italian front, wrote in the fall of 1915:
After the unsuccessful action into which we had been drawn on an occasion towards the end of the year, the hill slope… which stretched away ahead of us, reaching a height of some 200 feet, was strewn with the bodies of our casualties… Eventually, the nauseous stench from the whole area, whenever the breeze turned in our direction, grew too much for all of us. I organized a burial party from some very reluctant volunteers, and seeing that a heavy mist had enveloped the whole front, I sent them out with picks and shovels, under orders to get as many corpses buried as they could, no matter how shallow the graves. The party had been working away for two or three hours when, as suddenly as it had arrived, the mist dispersed, leaving our men totally exposed, trapped in the open in full view of the enemy… From the safety of our dugouts, we all held our breath in an agony of anticipation. But the expected hail of fire never materialized. Instead, to our great astonishment, and not a little relief, shadowy figures carrying spades and shovels emerged from the Italian positions beyond the slope and moved cautiously down to join our men… We watched in astonishment as the Italians set up a huge cross made out of the branches of trees: then they set about digging the graves, moving among our men, shaking hands and offering copious amounts of wine from the large flasks which they all seemed to be carrying… By first light, however, the war had resumed, chiefly on the instructions of outraged Commanders on both sides. But for some long time after this strange episode, there were probably many on both sides who pondered the senseless waste and despair of battle, and longed to cast down their weapons and return to their homes and families.
No Truce with Nature
As some of these letters and diary entries indicate, soldiers once again faced miserable conditions in the trenches during the fall of 1915, as they had a year before, and things were only going to get worse with the arrival of winter, heralded by cold rain giving way to snow. One of the most common complaints on the Western Front, and especially in the low-lying areas of Flanders, was the ubiquitous mud, which was often described as unusually sticky, with a consistency “like glue.” On December 4, 1915, a British officer, Lionel Crouch, was forced to begin a message to his father with an apology for the state of the letter:
Please forgive the filth, but I am writing in the trenches and hands – everything – is mud… We have had nothing but rain, rain, rain. Some parts of the trenches are well over the knee in jammy mud. It is literally true that last night we had to dig one of my chaps out of the parapet and his thigh boot is still there. We can’t get that out. All the dug-outs are falling in… Of course they get no rest; they have to work all day and all night in order to keep the water down. The sides of the trench fall in and with the water form this awful yellow jam… There is one awful place nearly up to one’s waist… One can hardly see uniforms now for the mud. I’m caked all over – hands, face, and clothes.
Another British soldier, Stanley Spencer, recalled one particularly muddy evening in the sodden fall of 1915:
I spent the night partly standing on the slippery sandbags of the fire step, partly digging mud from the bottom of the trench and partly helping to remake the parapet a little further along where it had been blown in by a shell. The trench was about nine feet deep without revetment or flooring. The mud at the bottom was very thick and it was impossible to walk about in the ordinary way as we sank in a foot or eighteen inches at every step and we had the greatest difficulty in dragging our boots out again. During the night we had attempted to dig some out with spades but it clung fast and it was impossible to throw it clear. We soon gave up that method in favour of picking up large handfuls and slinging it over the parados like that. The result of this was that about a week later all my fingernails dropped off and it was several weeks before new ones grew and got hard again.
As the season wore on, the plunging temperature was an especially grueling trial for colonial troops who hailed from warm tropical climates. A Senegalese soldier named Ndiaga Niang, who served in the French expeditionary force in Salonika in northern Greece, recalled almost losing his feet to the brutal cold:
I was walking, but my hands began to get paralyzed because of the cold. I had my rifle in my hand, but I couldn’t let go of it because my fingers were completely bent. But I was still walking. After a while my toes began to be[come] paralyzed too, and I realized that I had frostbite and I fell down… I was taken to the infirmary to get healed. The next day I was taken to the hospital in Salonique, where all of the soldiers had their feet frozen. When the sun [became] hot enough, our feet were hurting so badly that everybody was shouting and crying in the hospital. And the doctor came and told me that he had to cut [off] my feet. [But]… when he arrived he found that I was sitting [up in bed]. So he told me “you are very lucky… you are going to get better.”
Adding to these natural miseries was the detritus of war, including unburied bodies but also all manner of more prosaic refuse, from empty food containers and feces casually tossed over the side of the trenches to huge mounds of broken or abandoned equipment, which no one could dispose of safely due to enemy fire. J.H.M. Staniforth, an officer in the 16th Irish Division, painted a disgusting picture of their surroundings in a letter home written December 29, 1915:
Imagine a garbage-heap covered with all the refuse of six months: rags, tins, bottles, bits of paper, all sifted over with the indescribable greyish ashen squalor of filthy humanity. It is peopled with gaunt, hollow-eyed tattered creatures who crawl and swarm about upon it and eye you suspiciously as you pass; men whose nerves are absolutely gone; unshaven, half-human things moving about in a stench of corruption – oh I can’t describe it… Because there’s no romance in it, oh, no; just squalor and sordid beastliness past all describing. However, I mustn’t say this, lest is should “prejudice recruiting” – good Lord!
Turning his gaze inwards, in the same letter Staniforth went on to describe the psychological impact from constant exposure to random incidents of horrifying violence, which inevitably gave rise to a strange indifference:
Well, I had my share of experiences. The Boche lobbed over a trench-mortar shell beautifully, which fell just a traverse away from where I was standing. One poor fellow was sponged out quite, we couldn’t find enough of him even to bury, and another had his head blown off. Do you know, although I was standing not half-a-dozen yards away, and of course I’d never seen anything like it before, I have absolutely no emotions of any sort to record. It just seemed part of the life there. That’s curious, isn’t it?
This emotional atrophy was complemented by a whole range of physical ailments – including typhus, transmitted by omnipresent lice; cholera and dysentery, spread by contaminated water, which could often prove fatal; tetanus; bronchitis; jaundice; scurvy and other nutritional deficiencies; “trench foot,” resulting from standing in cold water for extended periods of time; “trench fever,” a bacterial disease spread by lice first reported in July 1915; “trench nephritis,” an inflammation of the kidneys, sometimes attributed to hantavirus; and frostbite.
Lice proved to be the bane of soldiers’ existence in the trenches, as they were almost impossible to get rid of until the soldiers went on leave, when they were required to bathe with medicated soap. Barthas wrote in November 1915:
Each of us carried thousands of them. They found a home in the smallest crease, along seams, in the linings of our clothing. There were white ones, black ones, gray ones with crosses on their backs like crusaders, tiny ones and others as big as a grain of wheat, and all this variety swarmed and multiplied to the detriment of our skins… To get rid of them, some rubbed themselves all over with gasoline, every night… others… powdered themselves with insecticide; nothing did any good. You’d kill ten of them, and a hundred more would appear.
With tens of thousands of soldiers going on leave every month, controlling lice became an industrial operation. An Alsatian soldier in the German Army, Dominik Richert, recounted visiting a delousing station on the Eastern Front in late 1915:
This was as big as a small village. Every day thousands of soldiers were freed from their lice there. We first of all came into a large heated room where he had to undress. We were all in our birthday suits; most of the soldiers were so thin that they looked like a frame of bones… We moved on to the shower room. Warm water sprayed down on us in more than two hundred jets. Each of us positioned himself under a shower head. How good it felt as the warm water trickled down your body. There was enough soap, so we were soon all white from the lather. Once more under the shower, then we went into the dressing room. We were each given a new shirt, underwear and socks. In the meantime our uniforms had been collected into large iron tubes which were heated to ninety degrees [Celsius]. The heat killed the lice and nits in the clothes.
Killing lice wasn’t just a matter of comfort; as vectors for typhus they threatened to undermine the war effort by spreading disease in the civilian population behind the front, incapacitating factory and agricultural workers. They were also a constant threat in prisoner of war camps. Hereward Price, a Briton who became a naturalized German citizen, fought in the army and was eventually taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, recalled the terrifying spread of typhus in a Russian prison camp:
Men died where they lay, and it was hours before anybody came to remove them, meanwhile the living had to get used to the sight of their dead comrades. We were told how the disease started at one end of the barracks, and you watched it gradually approaching you, man by man in the line being struck down, and only a few left here and there. You would wonder how long it would take to come to you, and see it creeping nearer day by day… There were over eight thousand prisoners at Stretensk when the disease broke out, and to combat it there were two Austrian doctors. They had at their disposal a room capable of holding fifteen beds, and for medicine a quantity of iodine and castor oil.
While vaccines were available for some diseases, the pain involved with primitive mass inoculation methods could seem even worse than the disease itself. An Irish soldier in the British Army, Edward Roe, recalled receiving an anti-tetanus shot after getting wounded in May 1915:
On arrival all men who have been wounded file into a room wherein presides a gentleman in a white smock. He is armed with a syringe as big as a football pump. He is very businesslike and wields it as an expert clubswinger wields a club. “Open your jackets and shirts – First man.” “Oh! Oh!” He recharges the syringe. “Next!” I felt myself going white… I managed not to faint like some. The contents of the syringe raised a lump on my left breast as big as a toy balloon.
Finally, there were other, less serious conditions which nonetheless resulted in numerous hospital visits, reducing the effective manpower of all the combatants. Although there are few mentions of it in letters or diaries for obvious reasons, sexually transmitted disease was commonplace, with 112,259 British soldiers treated for various ailments including syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea in 1915-1916 alone, and around one million cases of gonorrhea and syphilis in the French Army up the end of 1917. Meanwhile the German Army recorded a total of 296,503 cases of syphilis over the course of the war.
Private Robert Lord Crawford, a nobleman who volunteered as a medical orderly on the Western Front, lamented the spread of another seemingly minor affliction with major consequences – scabies. Though easily cured, he noted that it was often left untreated: “It is a damnable infliction tickling one to merriment, then irritating to the point of torture and finally, if unchecked, scabies will prevent sleep, injure digestion, destroy temper and finally land the victim in a lunatic asylum. Madness indeed is the ultimate outcome of this disease.”