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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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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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Life in the Trenches

Due to the attrition tactics of both armies during World War I, life in the trenches was usually a boring but dangerous existence punctuated by small attacks and only the occasional full scale battle.

What was a typical day like in the trenches on the Western Front?

Note: You may also want to read my post on trench construction, to better understand terms used in this post.

Men taking a break from trench repair.

The Daily Routine

An hour before sunrise companies were ordered to “stand to,” as this was the time an attack would most likely occur.  Soldiers in the front-line trenches would stand on the fire-step with their rifles at the ready, bayonets fixed. An hour after sun-up, when it was clear an attack was not likely to happen, “stand down” orders were given, and only the sentries remained at their posts.

The rest of the soldiers would receive their breakfast and daily rum ration (more on that later), as well as their chores for the day.  These could range from repairing duckboards, filling sandbags, and any other trench repair that could be done below ground level so that men were not at risk of being picked off by snipers.

British soldier George Coppard described these chores:

Breakfast over, there was not long to wait before an officer appeared with details of the duties and fatigues to be performed. Weapon cleaning and inspection, always a prime task, would soon be followed by pick and shovel work. Trench maintenance was constant, a job without end. Owing to the weather or enemy action, trenches required repairing, deepening, widening and strengthening, while new support trenches always seemed to be wanted.

When chores were completed, men had some leisure time to write letters, play cards, or perhaps read one of the trench newspapers that were printed.

An hour before nightfall another “stand to” would be ordered, which lasted until an hour after the sun went down.  Then the more dangerous work began.

As a side note: even though the Germans were well aware of the “stand to” orders at dawn and dusk, they still planned most of their attacks to take place during those times of day.  It was even more likely if German intelligence learned that an inexperienced company was in charge of a particular part of the front-line.

Night-time Routine

When darkness fell, soldiers crawled out of the trenches in order to make outside repairs to barbed wire, replace sandbags on the parapet, or perhaps dig a new trench.

Small patrols would sometimes be sent out into No Man’s Land in order to gather information from the enemy.  Soldiers would crawl until they were within earshot of the enemy lines (sometimes this was not very far at all, as the stretch of land between the front-line trenches could range from 50 yards to 500).  Raiding parties would also be organized in which men would cross No Man’s Land in hopes of infiltrating the enemy trench to capture German soldiers to interrogate.

To try to stop night patrols, Germans sent up light-shell rockets, which would burst into flame in the air, giving approximately one minute of light in which the Germans could spot and shoot British soldiers caught out in No Man’s Land.

Adrenaline ran high during these nighttime excursions.  British soldier Anthony Eden wrote about his first night patrol, in which he and two other soldiers made it to the German trenches and were cutting through the enemy barbed wire when they were spotted.

The job was just about done when all hell seemed to break loose right in our faces. The German trench leapt into life, rifles and machine-guns blazed. Incredibly none of the bombardment touched us, presumably because we were much closer to the German trench, within their wire and only a foot or two from the parapet, than the enemy imagined possible. As a result the firing was all aimed above and beyond us, into no-man’s-land or at our own front line.

Rum Rations

Several things helped soldiers maintain their morale while in the trenches.  Letters and care packages arrived almost daily from home, providing a crucial link to life before the war.  Camaraderie developed among fellow soldiers, strengthened through shared experiences on the front.

Rum was another important morale booster.   As mentioned earlier, rum was typically given to each soldier after the morning “stand to”.  They also received another “dose” at night.  According to the Canadian War Museum rum served as “a reward, a medicine, and a combat motivator. Soldiers who had committed offences received no rum; those who had volunteered for trench raids or other dangerous missions received an extra share.”  Rum was brought to the trenches in clay or ceramic jugs marked S.R.D. (Supply Reserve Depot, though some soldiers joked that the initials stood for “Soon Run Dry”).

Stockpile of French shells

“Wastage”

Even if the men were not actively engaged in battle, there was still a risk of being killed while in the trenches.  Enemy snipers were constantly on the lookout to pick off any unsuspecting soldier who happened to be seen.  Enemy shells were also a daily occurrence, shrapnel from which could do deadly damage (helmets were eventually made part of a soldier’s attire to help protect against shell explosions).

Casualties that were not a result of battle but of the day-to-day sniping and shelling was known as “wastage.”  According to the Canadian War Museum: “In the 800-strong infantry units, ‘wastage’ rates were as high as ten per cent per month, or 80 soldiers killed or incapacitated.”  This led to the constant need of reinforcements to the front.

US Pvt. Leo R. Hahn, sniper, 32nd division

The screaming of shells and the random shots of snipers could quickly wear on one’s nerves.  Some men broke down, suffering from what was was known as “shell shock” (a condition not very well understood at the time, it is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  In order to reduce the stress associated with life in the trenches and to prevent “shell shock,” companies were rotated in and out of the trenches.  A company would spend approximately 4 to 6 days in the front-line trench, then another 4 to 6 in the support trench, and lastly, 4 to 6 days in the reserve trench.

Soldiers had more free time in the rear areas, where they could perhaps visit the YMCA huts for leisure activities.  Men would also be given occasional leave that allowed them to get away from the front all together for periods of time.  They would return rested, and would be called on to relieve other companies in the trenches once more.

Sources: Spartacus Educational, Canadian War Museum

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Why World War I?

I’ve always been very interested in early twentieth century society, with the old ways rapidly giving way to the new.  Somewhere along the line I became particularly interested in World War I.  Like most teenagers, I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school (well, I don’t know if most teenagers actually read the book, but I was one of those students who actually did her homework).  Maybe it started there.  The book  follows Paul Baumer as he experiences the horrors of the western front in France.  Page after page we read about the deplorable conditions of the trenches, the constant presence of lice and rats and the threat of death by a sniper or an errant artillery shell.  Yet there’s one particular image from the book that stands out in my mind all these years later: butterflies.

So why butterflies?  Because that is what Paul sees when he returns home on leave: a glass case of butterflies he had collected when he was a boy, a symbol of his childhood.  The chapter in which Paul is away from the front stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book.  It is a reminder of life before the war, a life which Paul, and all the others who fought, could never return to, at least not easily.  Paul feels this keenly:

I imagined leave would be different from this.  Indeed, it was different a year ago.  It is I of course that have changed in the interval.  There lies a gulf between that time and today.  At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors.  But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it.  I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world…I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me.  For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that; and yet they are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence.  Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here. ~All Quiet on the Western Front, chapter 7

Many middle and upper-class women volunteered to assist trained nurses during the war.

Four years of war wrought extreme changes on society.  It not only left an indelible mark on the men who fought, but had a huge impact on the home front.  It ushered in the roaring ’20s, a time of excess as young men and women tried their best to forget the war.

Granted, changes were already occurring as new technologies developed, but the first world war worked as a catalyst, propelling society into the modern age.  I find the period fascinating, and that is why I chose it as the backdrop for my first novel.

So here’s my question for you history lovers out there–why is it that you love the time period that interests you?  What is it about the period that captivates you in a way that other periods don’t?

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