Category Archives: World War I

Open Christmas Letter: December 1914

While I was researching the Christmas Truce of 1914, I came across the “Open Christmas Letter” of 1914, a piece of history I had not read about before.  World War I took place between 1914 and 1918, a time in which women in both Europe and America were battling for the vote.  In fact, the war helped the women’s suffrage movement by giving women a chance to step into traditionally male roles as more and more men went off to fight.  Their contributions did not go unnoticed, and both the UK and the US passed women’s suffrage amendments in part due to their efforts.

By December of 1914 it was obvious that World War I would not be a short conflict.  Several German suffragists wrote letters to Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), who published them in Jus Suffragii, the journal for the IWSA.  The letters expressed these women’s desire that the war not divide them and they remain united despite the bloodshed, “by the common striving for the highest object–personal and political freedom.”

Emily Hobhouse, author of the Open Christmas Letter

Emily Hobhouse, author of the Open Christmas Letter

British suffragist Emily Hobhouse read the letters and decided to take action in what would become the “Open Christmas Letter.”  101 fellow suffragists signed the letter before sending it to the US press (because the two nations were at war, the British suffragists were prevented from directly communicating with those in Germany).  The letter, published under the heading: “On Earth Peace, Goodwill towards Men,” offered a Christmas greeting to the women in Germany and Austria: “The Christmas message sounds like mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to such of you who feel as we do.”  It continued with a call for peace among the nations:

Is it not our mission to preserve life? Do not humanity and common sense alike prompt us to join hands with the women of neutral countries, and urge our rulers to stay further bloodshed? …
Even through the clash of arms, we treasure our poet’s vision, and already seem to hear

“A hundred nations swear that there shall be
Pity and Peace and Love among the good and free.”

May Christmas hasten that day..

On March 1, 1915, the German and Austrian suffragists responded to the letter.  Their reply, entitled “Open Letter in Reply to the Open Christmas Letter from Englishwomen to German and Austrian Women,” was signed by 155 suffragists and printed in Jus Suffragii.

To our English sisters, sisters of the same race, we express in the name of many German women our warm and heartfelt thanks for their Christmas greetings, which we only heard of lately.
This message was a confirmation of what we foresaw—that women of the belligerent countries, with all faithfulness, devotion, and love to their country, can go beyond it and maintain true solidarity with the women of other belligerent nations, and that really civilised women never lose their humanity…

Rosa Mayreder, one of those who signed the response to the Open Christmas Letter

Rosa Mayreder, one of those who signed the response to the Open Christmas Letter

This shared hope of peace spurred the IWSA to hold an international peace conference of women in The Hague rather than their regular International Alliance meeting.  At the meeting Julia Grace Wales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, presented her ideas on bringing about peace, which came to be known as the Wisconsin Plan.  Wales’s plan envisioned an international group made up of neutral nations who would gather in order to serve as mediators between warring countries and also to provide peaceful solutions.  The Wisconsin Plan was unanimously adopted by the 1,150 women who attended the conference, and a delegation was selected to travel to neutral countries and present the plan.  One of these countries was the then neutral United States, and President Woodrow Wilson would later use many of the ideas from the Wisconsin Plan when creating his Fourteen Points.  Through these women’s efforts to bring about peace, they helped to bring about the League of Nations.

Source: Wikipedia

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A Christmas Truce

German and British soldiers

By December 1914, four months after the start of World War I, the “Race to the Sea” was complete, and two parallel lines of trenches ran from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.  The devastating effects of modern warfare were becoming alarmingly apparent, and some, such as Pope Benedict XV, called for a truce between the warring countries.  But as we know, the call for a ceasefire went unheeded, and the war would continue for four more years.

However, that first Christmas on the Western Front saw a number of spontaneous temporary ceasefires among the men on both sides of No Man’s Land.

In the days leading up to Christmas, German and British troops received a number of care packages, both from home and from their governments.  German soldiers decorated their parapets with candle-lit Christmas trees and sang carols, which could easily be seen and heard by the British troops, who were sometimes no more than 30 yards away.  The trees became a conversation piece between the trenches.  As the men spoke of Christmas, mutual goodwill led to carol singing, and in some areas, German and British troops actually met in No Man’s Land (at this point not the shell hole laden muddy nightmare it would later become as the war dragged on).  There they exchanged presents (items taken from their care packages), and in some cases, buttons from each others’ uniforms as a type of souvenir.  There was even an instance of a soccer game that took  place between the two sides.

In all, roughly 100,000 men participated in this unofficial truce.  It is important to note that this number mostly consisted of German and British troops.  The French and Belgian soldiers were not as involved because at this point their land was occupied by the Germans, and any Christmas feelings of goodwill were overshadowed by this fact.

christmas truce

In most cases the men did not receive any discipline for this fraternization.  This was due to the mixed reaction by both the British and German commanders when they heard the news.  Some made clear their disapproval of such actions and the dangers that could come from interacting with the opposing side.  Others did not see any major harm coming of the impromptu ceasefires, and felt that it might give their troops time to strengthen their trench structures, since they did not have to worry about being picked off by snipers or shell fire from the opposing side for a few days.

Some of the ceasefires ended with the close of Christmas Day–though a few lasted until the start of the New Year.  And in some sectors no truce took place at all, providing no respite from the routine of war.

Evidence of Christmas truces in 1915 and 1916 were also recorded.  Private Ronald MacKinnon, a 23 year old from Canada, wrote a letter home about Christmas on Vimy Ridge in 1916:

“I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars.”

Private MacKinnon was killed four months later during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

British and German troops meeting in No Man's Land, Christmas 1914.

British and German troops meeting in No Man’s Land, Christmas 1914.

After 1916, the armies on both sides made a concerted effort to prevent further fraternization with the enemy.  They scheduled bombardments to take place on Christmas Eve so the opportunity to share Christmas tidings would be impossible.  Troops were also shuffled around to different sectors along the Front so that they never became too friendly with the men in the opposite trenches.

Today, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has become legendary.  It gives us a bit of hope for humanity, knowing that even during the horrors of World War I, men from both sides were willing to put their guns aside for a day and offer goodwill towards men they were told to hate, to shoot, to kill.

Sources: First World War.com, Wikipedia

For more, check out this YouTube clip from a PBS documentary, featuring the Christmas Truce of 1914:

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Propaganda Posters of World War I

While the United States did not enter the First World War until 1917, they produced more war propaganda posters than all the other belligerent countries combined: 20 million copies of approximately 2,500 different posters.  The United States’s Publicity Bureau quickly learned that propaganda posters worked as “a silent and powerful recruiter.”

Posters were an excellent way to disseminate news and information in an era before radios were commonplace in homes.  The images were effective, and one did not have to be literate to understand their meaning.

Harry A. Garfield, the head of the wartime United States Fuel Administration, spoke of posters’ ability to get the word out to people:

“I can get the authority to write a column or a page about fuel—but I cannot make everybody or even anybody read it. But if I can get a striking drawing with or without a legend of a few lines, everyone who runs by must see it.”

Some of the most successful poster artists came from magazine and book publishing, which makes sense, as they had been trained to create artwork that was evocative.  And that was the point of propaganda posters–to appeal to one’s emotions and give one cause for immediate action.

Below is a selection of war propaganda posters found in the digital “North Carolinians and the Great War” project by UNC Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South program.  These posters were widely distributed in North Carolina, and throughout the United States.  You can see the full collection here.

Source: American Posters of the Great War by Dr. Libby Chenault

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Last Dispatches

The Harry Ransom Center (a research library and museum at the University of Austin in Texas) is putting together what looks like a wonderful exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I.  The new exhibit will tell the story of the war through letters and diaries from soldiers, among other primary resources.  The museum gave The Daily Beast website a look at the final letters from famous English writers, which is posted on their website (visit it here: Last Letters from World War I Literary Heroes).

Seeing these last letters in the soldiers’ own handwriting humanizes the war in a way that nothing else can.

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Birdsong: Part II

I’m a bit behind posting my thoughts on part II of Birdsong.  The conclusion of the series did not disappoint.  I know that there have been some mixed reviews about this adaptation, but I felt the production was solid throughout and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the main complaints has been the flashbacks to Stephen’s life before the war threaded in throughout his wartime experience.  But as I said before, I think this only strengthened the story.  The horrors of the war are so vividly depicted that the viewer needs a chance to escape to a time before the nightmare began, just as it is likely the soldiers would have done when things became too much to bear.

Stephen going over the top during the Somme Offensive

Birdsong portrays the First World War very well, hitting all of the major notes that made this war so devastating, including the horrendous loss of life during the Somme Offensive.  I don’t want to write too much in the event some of you have not seen it, but I strongly urge you to watch it online on PBS while it is still available.

There’s also a good interview with Eddie Redmayne about his role as Stephen Wraysford which you can read here.

Jack Firebrace & Stephen Wraysford

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Birdsong: Part I

Written in 1993 by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is considered a classic of modern English literature.  It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a troubled young man who falls deeply in love with a married Frenchwoman named Isabelle Azaire in 1910.  The book follows Wraysford into the trenches during World War I, and through his eyes the reader experiences some of the major battles fought on the Western Front.  Millions of copies of Birdsong have been sold worldwide and it is regularly voted one of Britain’s favorite novels.  It is considered so significant, in fact, that it is required reading in British schools.

All that being said, I’ve tried picking the book up twice, and have twice failed to finish it.  It’s a tough read.  I breezed through Part I, the portion focusing on the love/lust relationship that develops between Stephen and Isabelle.  But at the beginning of Part II I was suddenly plunged 45 feet below No Man’s Land into a claustrophobic earthen tunnel with Jack Firebrace, a completely new character that had nothing to do with Part I.  The stark contrast between a forbidden love affair  in the lush Amiens countryside and the gritty, depressing conditions of the Great War was a very jarring adjustment.  I put the book down again, time passed, and it went back on the shelf.

Jack Firebrace listening for enemy tunnelers

Then last night the first of the two-part miniseries based on the book aired on PBS.  I tuned in because I was curious how Birdsong would adapt to the screen.  After all, it’s taken Working Title 13 years to get it there since buying the film rights to the book.  And I have to say, I was very impressed.  Unlike the novel, which progresses in chronological order, this adaptation chose to intersperse the pre-war love story scenes as flashbacks Stephen Wraysford has during the war.  The film weaves between the light and the dark, contrasting the young Wraysford and the hardened soldier he turns out to be, leaving the viewer wondering what caused such a transformation in his character.  In the book we already know by the end of Part I, but the series lets the two stories play out simultaneously, so the viewer is left guessing what happens both in the past and present.

Stephen and Isabelle steal a moment alone together.

The cinematography is beautiful, the actors’ performances solid (Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Wraysford while Clemence Poesy plays Isabelle Azaire), and the war scenes bring the bitter reality of the First World War home (a much grittier portrayal than what you’ll find on Downton Abbey).  I look forward to seeing how it wraps up next week.  This adaptation inspired me to take the book off the shelf.  Maybe the third try’s the charm.

Wraysford at the Front

Be sure to check out this interesting article about the filming (and why it took 13 years to get it on the screen).

See my thoughts on Part II here.

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Carolina Boys Go To War: Part III

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South is a great resource for history nerds such as myself.  The program has provided numerous images and texts that illustrate the history of the South for anyone to access from the comfort of their home computer.

One collection accessible on DocSouth is “North Carolinians and the Great War.”  Here you’ll find multiple journals and letter collections from UNC students who were part of the First World War.  These papers give us a glimpse into the life of a student-turned-soldier.

Part III: Personal Accounts

While conducting research for The Education of Eve, one of the main letter collections I focused on were those of Robert March Hanes, due to the level of detail he used when writing about his experiences.  A member of the class of 1912, Hanes attended officers’ training at Fort Oglethorpe, GA, before being commissioned a captain in the 113th Field Artillery.  His letter collection contains the original envelopes, with the censor inspection seals still easily legible.  The first of the collection is to his boss at the Crystal Ice Company, where he worked as the secretary-treasurer.  He hoped that his absence would not cause too much difficulty at the office, and asked that he be written “if anything at all turns up that you don’t understand.”  From there the letters chronicle Hanes’s time with the army, from training, to the trip over to France, to the front lines, and then, finally, the armistice.  He wrote his wife on November 11:

The greatest day in history!

        Sweetheart a deathlike stillness covers the whole front now and has since eleven o’clock this morning when the armistice went into effect. It is the most unnatural sound to us that could possibly be. All sorts of artillery has been piling into this sector for the past two weeks and things had livened up considerably. There was firing going on all the time day and night by either the Germans or us. So the stillness now seems all wrong, I keep feeling like it isn’t true.

I fired my last shot at exactly eleven o’clock this morning and am keeping the shell case as a souvenir. It is the last shot fired by my battery. I hope the last it will ever fire.

To read more of Hanes’s letters, you can find them on the DocSouth page here.

Wildcats emblem on overseas cap

The collection also includes the diary of William B. Umstead, who later became governor of North Carolina.  Images of his uniform and the equipment he carried during the war are also available to view.  Umstead was a member of the 81st division.  Known as the Wildcats division, Umstead would have been part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which did not end until the armistice was called at 11:00 on November 11, 1918.  You can read Umstead’s diary here, and also take a look at his military gear.

Also featured within the collection are selected letters from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Eliot Green (who wrote the outdoor drama , The Lost Colony), who began attending UNC in 1916, but left less than a year later to join the army.  Like Hanes, his letters describe his training experience, and then his service in France.  Green was assigned as “a bookkeeper of sorts,” keeping up with all of the fighting orders, ration reports, and casualty lists.

 Reporting the killed and wounded is my job also. And alas! I’ve marked up several friends whose mothers today are speaking to God about the eternal Why? But withal our losses are extremely light, it appears to me, compared to those of Germany. I must not talk tho, for there is the censor; and even the leaves have ears these days.

        Now as to the hours I work–when and how long, I may answer all by saying that I never keep track of time. Scarcely ever can I give the name of the present day. It may be Monday; it may be Sunday, I don’t know. All I’m concerned with is the day of he month, 21, 22 or 23. Foreign service already has taught me one thing–that 8 hours of sleep are not essential to good health. Yes, and I’ve learned another thing, I was forgetting: the poor tired earth has drunk enough blood within the last four years as to be offensive in the sight of God. Not long ago I was on an old battlefield. We were digging trenches. One could hardly push his spade into the ground without striking a bone of somebody’s body. Yes, horrible; but war. And a few days ago I was at another place where 54,000 men “went west” in one day. Awful! Yes, but war.

After the war, Green went back to UNC.  You can take a closer look at his letters here.

To read more accounts of the First World War, please visit DocSouth’s North Carolinians and the Great War page.

Miss the other segments of the series?  Be sure to read Part I: Training,  and Part II: Student to Soldier.

Sources: A Nursery of Patriotism: The University at War, 1861-1945, DocSouth’s North Carolinians and the Great War

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