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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