Tag Archives: history

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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Veteran’s Day: A History

World War I veteran Joseph Ambrose attending the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982, holding the flag that covered his son’s casket, who was killed in the Korean War.

Today we honor those who have served (and are serving) in our armed forces.  Veteran’s Day was first called Armistice Day both in the US and Britain, as it commemorated the signing of the Armistice that brought World War I to an end (on the 11th hour of November 11, 1918).  In declaring the day a federal holiday, President Woodrow Wilson said:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

At the close of World War II, a veteran from Alabama named Raymond Weeks wanted to expand Armistice Day to include everyone who had served their country, not just World War I veterans.  He took his proposal to Washington, receiving full support from President Dwight Eisenhower.  The bill was presented to Congress by US Representative Ed Rees, and signed by President Eisenhower in 1954.  An amendment was soon added to rename the holiday, from “Armistice Day” to “Veteran’s Day,” as it’s been known ever since.

President Eisenhower signing the amendment changing the name of Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day.

Thank you to all of the veterans who have served our country and dedicated their lives to keeping us safe.  On this day (and on many other days), I think about my father, who served in our Air Force, and my two grandfathers, both gone now, who fought in World War II.  I think about the courage they showed in their willingness to sacrifice everything for the love of our country.  And I admire them greatly for it.

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Writing Advice from Fitzgerald

As writers, we have a lot of advice thrown our way.  Some of it’s helpful, some not so much–writing fiction is, after all, a very subjective business.

What if you had the opportunity to have one of the great American authors read your writing and offer feedback?  That’s what Radcliffe sophomore Frances Turnbull hoped for when she sent F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was a friend of the family) her latest literary effort.  What she received in return was some rather blunt but very honest advice, which I think all aspiring novelists can learn from.

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories “In Our Time” went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In “This Side of Paradise” I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is “nice” is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

I would love to know what Ms. Turnbull’s reaction was to this letter.  At least, if nothing else, he gave her a little bit of hope in the postscript.
Great advice from one of the greats.  Mr. Fitzgerald, you inspire me yet again.

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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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If Walls Could Talk

Lucy Worsley, author of If Walls Could Talk

I am a social history enthusiast.  I have always enjoyed learning about societal customs; why things were done the way they were, and how they reflected what was happening in the world at that time.  So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by British historian Lucy Worsley.  Worsley’s book and accompanying BBC documentary on the subject is a fascinating look at how four rooms of the house (the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the living room) changed over time, both in form and function.  Beginning with the medieval period and moving forward to the 20th century, Worsley charts how advances in material goods for the home transformed these rooms into what we know today.  And she does it in an extremely entertaining way.  Worsley tests out things like Tudor-era toothpaste, baking hedgehog in a medieval kitchen (which consisted of a fire built in the middle of the room), and demonstrating how a woman in a Georgian era gown would have, um,  taken care of business.

No easy task, given the amount of fabric with which to wrestle.

So far I’ve only seen the documentary, which Edwardian Promenade was kind enough to put up on their YouTube site.  You can view it here.  It’s tempted me to purchase Worsley’s book as well.

Lighting a gas lamp in a Victorian living room.  Gas lighting was called “illuminated air” when it first became available.

You can get a taste of what Lucy Worsley learns in each room by reading the BBC article about the show.  And if you want even more information, Worsley has a blog in which she goes into further detail about her experiences.

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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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Titanic tragedy: 100 years later

Today we mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.  I could take this time to discuss why the sinking has continued to captivate us, even a hundred years later, or talk about the cultural ramifications of the sinking, or the much-needed changes made to outdated safety regulations.  But I think that the best way to remember this tragedy is to hear from those who lived through it.

Stewardess Violet Jessop

Stewardess Violet Jessop on the impact with the iceberg:

Crash!  Then a low rending, crunching sound, as Titanic shivered a trifle and the sound of her engines gently ceased.

Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley

Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley:

As I dressed, I heard the order shouted, “All the passengers on deck with life belts on.”  We all walked up slowly with the life belts tied on over our clothing, but even then we presumed that this was merely a wise precaution the captain was taking.  The ship was absolutely still, and except for the gentle, almost unnoticeable, tilt downwards, there were no visible signs of the approaching disaster.

Alfred White, a greaser in the engine room:

I was on the whale deck in the bow calling the watch that was to relieve me when the ice first came aboard.  The collision opened the seams below the water-line but did not even scratch the paint above the line.  I know that because I was one of those who helped to make an examination over the side with a lantern. I went down into the engine-room at 12:40 AM.  We even made coffee, so there was not much thought of danger.  An hour later I was still working at the light engines.  I heard the chief engineer tell one of his subordinates that number six bulkhead had given way.  At that time things began to look bad…I was told to go up and see how things were, and made my way up a dummy funnel to the bridge deck.  By that time all the boats had left the ship, yet everyone in the engine-room was at his post.  I was near the captain and heard him say, “Well boys, it’s every man for himself now.”

Wireless operator Harold Bride

Harold Bride, wireless operator:

I went out on deck and looked around.  The water was pretty close up to the boat deck.  There was a great scramble aft, and how poor [Jack] Phillips worked through it I don’t know know.  He was a brave man.  I learned to love him that night, and I suddenly felt for him a great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about.  I will never live to forget the work of Phillips for the last awful fifteen minutes.  I thought it was about time to look about and see if there was anything detached that would float.  I remembered that every member of the crew had a special lifebelt and ought to know where it was. I remembered mine under my bunk.  I went and got it.  Then I thought how cold the water was.

Eighteen year old first class passenger Mary Marvin, who was on her honeymoon:

As I was put into the boat, [my husband] cried to me, “It’s all right, little girl.  You go.  I will stay.”  As our boat shoved off he threw me a kiss, and that was the last I saw of him.

First class passenger Robert W. Daniel, a banker from Philadelphia:

Not until the last five minutes did the awful realization come that the end was at hand.  The lights became dim and went out, but we could see.  Slowly, ever so slowly, the surface of the water seemed to come up towards us.  So gradual was it that even after I had adjusted the life jacket about my body it seemed a dream.  Deck after deck was submerged.  There was no lurching or grinding or crunching.  The Titanic simply settled.  I was far up  on one of the top decks when I jumped.  About me were many others in the water.  My bathrobe floated away, and it was icily cold.  I struck out at once.  I turned my head, and my first glance took in the people swarming on the Titanic’s deck.  Hundreds were stranded there helpless to ward off approaching death.  I saw Captain Smith on the bridge.  My eyes seemingly clung to him.  The deck from which I had leapt was immersed.  The water had risen slowly, and now tho the floor of the bridge.  Then it was to Captain Smith’s waist.  I saw him no more.

Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley, from his viewpoint on board Boat 13:

And then, as we gazed awe-struck, she tilted slowly up, revolving apparently about a center of gravity just astern of amidships, until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained–motionless!  As she swung up, her lights, which had shone without a flicker all night, went out suddenly, came on again for a single flash, then went out altogether.  And as they did so, there came a noise…it was as if all the heavy things one could think of had been thrown downstairs from the top of a house, smashing each other and the stairs and everything in the way…When the noise was over the Titanic was still upright like a column: we could see her now only as the stern and some 150 feet of her stood outlined against the star-specked sky, looming black in the darkness, and in this position she continued for some minutes [before she sank]…the sea closed over her and we had seen the last of the beautiful ship on which we had embarked four days before at Southampton.  And in place of the ship on which all our interest had been concentrated for so long and towards which we looked most of the time because it was still the only object on the sea which was a fixed point to us–in place of the Titanic, we had the level sea now stretching in an unbroken expanse to the horizon: heaving gently just as before, with no indication on the surface that the waves had just closed over the most wonderful vessel ever built by man’s hand; the stars looked down just the same and the air was just as bitterly cold.

The cries of the drowning floating across the quiet sea filled us with stupefaction: we longed to return and rescue at least some of the drowning, but we knew it was impossible.  The boat was filled to standing-room, and to return would mean the swamping of us all, and so the captain-stoker told his crew to row away from the cries.  We tried to sing to keep all from thinking of them; but there was no heart for singing in the boat at that time.  The cries, which were loud and numerous at first, died away gradually one by one, but the night was clear, frosty and still, the water smooth, and the sounds must have carried on its level surface free from any obstruction for miles, certainly much farther from the ship than we were situated.  I think the last of them must have been heard nearly forty minutes after the Titanic sank.  Lifebelts would keep the survivors afloat for hours; but the cold water was what stopped the cries.

Sources: The Loss of the S.S. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons by Lawrence Beesley, Thrilling Tale by Titanic’s Surviving Wireless Man as told in New York Times, April 28, 1912 by Harold Bride, The Titanic: The Extraordinary Story of the “Unsinkable” Ship by Geoff Tibballs,  Titanic: Fortune & Fate by Beverly McMillan and Stanley Lehrer

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