1915 and The Midnight of the Nations

Xmas 1915

In this cartoon, Tommy from the 23rd London Regiment is loaded with gifts from home.

On Christmas Day 1915 David Lloyd George the former radical liberal,then Minister of Munitions and soon to be Prime Minister addressed a crowd of restless shop stewards
and trade unionists in St. Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow. He was there to try and forestall strikes in an area where labor relations were contentious and complicated.

He also needed to make the case for an all out war effort. He was greeted with loud booing and hissing and two verses of “The Red Flag” were sung before he could utter a word.

English was his second language but Lloyd George was known for his oratory. He had a hard time being heard above the heckling but he seems to have he pulled out all the stops declaring that the world crisis had become a convulsion of nature, unleashing forces that statesmen were powerless to control, let alone bring to an end.

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He clearly thought that labor disputes were a matter of quibbling and that opportunities for a better future were on the horizon once the war was won.
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About that re-ordering of the world he was, of course, correct. He went on to appeal for their support of the war effort and to give up on their protests about the provisions of the Munitions Act.

The meeting broke up in disorder.And a happy Christmas was had by all. (Christmas did not become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.)

Meanwhile, on the Western Front

xmas 1915 War Illustrated Christmas - 001

Indian officers

Indian Officers from the Front visit the Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace, December 1915

War Illustrated in December 1915 showed a cheerful trench scene of Imperial comradeship:  ‘Trusty

Friends  “White Men” All of Them!’

I can’t quite make out all the words on the bottom but it does include “from all parts of the Empire” and the illustration clearly shows Indian and Scottish soldiers.

Over one million Indian troops served overseas in WW1. And if you are wondering about what they ate here are the rations and iron rations for Indian soldiers.

Not So All Quiet

Word had come down from high command that there were to be no repeat of the previous year’s fraternization. Nevertheless, minor moments of peace and good will did break out along the front line.

Xmas Mametz wood
mametz 2
mametz 3

 George Coppard of the Machine Gun Corps was feeling less benevolent toward the enemy.

It was Christmas Eve and just after dark a second lieutenant came to visit us. Among other things, he came to remind us that by standing order of the commander-in-chief there was not to any fraternizing with the enemy on Christmas day. The whole world knew that on Christmas day 1914, there was some fraternizing at one part of the line, and even an attempt at a game of football. Troops in the front line a year later were naturally speculating on whether a repeat performance would develop and, if so, where. Speaking for my companions and myself, I can categorically state that we were in no mood for any joviality with Jerry. In fact, after what we had been through at Loos, we hated his bloody guts.

In another incident at Laventie, units of the Guards Division fraternized with the 13th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. Company commander, Capt Sir Iain Colquhoun described what happened in his diary:

Stand to at 6.30. Germans very quite. Remained in Firing Trenches until 8.30. no sign of anything unusual. When having breakfast about 9am a sentry reported to me that the Germans were standing up on their parapets and walking towards our barbed wire. I ran out to our firing trenches and saw our men looking over the parapet and the Germans outside our barbed wire.

A German officer came forward and asked me for a truce for Christmas. I replied that this was impossible. He then asked for three quarters of an hour to bury his dead. I agreed.

Our men and the Germans then talked and exchanged cigars, cigarettes etc. for quarter of an hour and when the time was up I blew a whistle and both sides returned to their trenches.

For the rest of the day … not a shot was fired. At night, the Germans put up fairy lights … and their trenches were outlined for miles … It was a mild looking night with clouds and a full moon and the prettiest sight I have ever seen. Our machine guns played on them and the lights were removed.

Court Martialgrenadier xmas card

Ten days later Colquhoun and the commanding officer Captain Miles Barne were arrested and charged with conduct to the prejudice of good order and of military discipline for “approving of a truce with the enemy”.

In the ensuing court martial they were represented by fellow officer and barrister Raymond Asquith, the son of the prime minister Herbert Asquith. Barne was acquitted and Colquhoun recommended for a reprimand – a punishment later remitted by Sir Douglas Haig.

Of the three, Colquhoun was the only one to survive the war.

While leading an attack near Ginchy on 15 September 1916, at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Asquith was shot in the chest and died while being carried back to British lines. He was buried in Guillemont Road Cemetery, where his headstone is inscribed

‘Small time but in that small most greatly lived this star of England’,

 – a quotation from the concluding Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, about a soldier king who had died in his thirties after campaigns in France.

Major Miles Barne was inspecting the battalion transport at Langemark in September 1917 when both he and his men noticed a British plane in difficulties above them. As they watched they did not see an item dropped by the pilot as he struggled to control the plane. It was a bomb.

They dived for cover but caught the force of the explosion. One died instantly and five including Miles Barne were wounded. He died of his injuries in the Casualty Clearing Station at Mendinghem.

Xmas truth bugger

Make the Best of a Bad Job

The postal service was busy in December 1915

Parcels

And the troops were appreciative as in this letter home from the Western Front

Xmas letter william fall

And it an example of the true Christmas spirit one gunner wrote home with a request:

asking a favor

By 1914 the period of war fever and jubilation had worn thin everywhere.

In Cheshire:

Chesire

Chesire Chanukah

In Germany too, the mood had also changed to one of somber reality.

Gertrud Baumer

Blucher

In harmony with all creation

In Brighton, Vera Brittain was excitedly preparing for the arrival of her fiancé Roland Leighton due home on leave. He had written:

Roland

Brittain finished her work at the hospital preparing Christmas treats for the wounded.

As Christmas eve slipped into Christmas day, I finished tying up the paper bags and with the Sister filled the men’s stockings by the exiguous light of an electric torch. Already I could count, perhaps even on my fingers, the hours that must pass before I should see him again…. When the men awoke and reached for their stockings, my whole being glowed with exultant benevolence; I delighted in their pleasure over their childish home-made presents because my own mounting joy made me feel in harmony with all creation.

Brittain hears the news

1915 had been a year of mounting hardship, losses and disillusionment on the Western Front as elsewhere

Arthur Wagstaff, of the London Regiment, spent Christmas 1915 at Gallipoli.

Christmas day in the front lines was no joke, of course. Some of our boys who were off duty were in a shelter at the back of the trench, they were singing carols. That was on Christmas Day. I was on the firing step, looking over the no man’s land. And two officers came along and they heard these carols and one said to the other, ‘Could you believe it: conditions such as these, and the boys were singing carols…’

Stanley Parker Bird was serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps at Gallipoli in 1915.

There was a case of a carol service held on Christmas Day in the casualty clearing station, where a stray shell from the Turks disrupted the service. Killed the chaplain and injured a number of the personnel who were engaged in the carol service.

The literary scholar Vivian de Sola Pinto was in a hospital bed in Sidi Bishr, Egypt recovering from frostbite and dysentery after being evacuated from Gallipoli.

I spent my twentieth birthday and my first Christmas away from home in a ward with half a dozen other officers under the care of the amiable and highly efficient Sister Edith Forest from Edinburgh. To all troops that were in hospital that year Queen Alexandra sent a very sensible present in the form of a little canvas bag with a Red Cross on it containing a toothbrush, a comb, a tube of toothpaste, a piece of soap and a face flannel. Another welcome present was the India paper Oxford edition of Shelley’s poems sent to me at my request by my father.

In the disaster that was Gallipoli, de Sola Pinta was one of the lucky ones.

120 Miles South of Bagdad

British and Indian troops, sent to the Persian Gulf in 1914 to protect British oil interests in Mesopotamia had made rapid progress inland against Turkish resistance. They occupied the towns of Basra and Kuma capturing more than 1,000 Turkish prisoners with very few casualties.

In an unforgiving climate, they made steady progress moving up the River Tigris.  In September 1915 they took the town of Kut-al-Amara 120 miles south of Baghdad. They did not anticipate the fierce Turkish resistance at  Battle of Ctesiphon in November when over half of the 8,500 British and Indian troops were killed or wounded. Those who survived then had to endure a difficult retreat to Kut-al-Amara without adequate medical or transport facilities.

Turkish troops laid siege to the town. 147 days later the 11,800 British and Indian troops finally surrendered.

Christmas at Kut 1915 was not a joyful occasion. Conditions were appalling, supplies were limited, the weather was bitter. Many did not survive. Of the 203 recorded British and Commonwealth deaths on Christmas Day 1915, 28 are buried at Basra and Kut.

The besieged force at Kut-el-Amara vainly waited for help there were 21,000 British and Indian casualties in a series of unsuccessful rescue attempts,. With starvation near, General Townshend was forced to surrender in April. It was another  military disaster of great magnitude and many of those who died were never traced..

On another front Flora Sandes serving with the Second Serbian Regiment wrote:

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The Serbian Christmas is not till thirteen days later than ours, but we celebrated my Christmas Eve over the camp fire that night. A plate of beans and dry bread had to take the place of roast beef and plum pudding, but we drank Christmas healths in small flask of cognac, after which I played “God save the King” on the violin and we all stood up and sang it. This violin went into a long, narrow kit bag, which was carried in a packhorse and had managed to survive its travels, though the damp had not improved its tone.

The swash-buckling daughter of a clergyman from Suffolk, Flora Sandes had gone to Serbia as a nurse in August 1914 with a party of nurses to help with the humanitarian crisis.

Her story is quite remarkable. Recruited into the Serbian army, she fought in the front line. In 1916, during the Serbian advance on Bitola(Monastir), she was seriously wounded by a grenade in hand to hand combat.

She was awarded the highest decoration of the Serbian Military, the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star. She was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major and after the war was commissioned as a captain.

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Home Fires

The sentimental song that year was wistful:

Keep the home fires

The regimental postcards upbeat, cheerful and nostalgic and the illustrated papers showed sentimental war-themed Christmas scenes..

John Beadle 7th div _xmas1915001

At the End of the Earth

In August 1914 Ernest Shackleton and a crew of twenty seven set sail for the Antarctic in an attempt to cross the continent on foot. Disaster struck when Endurance was trapped fast in the pack ice, just eighty five miles from their destination.

The ship was crushed like matchwood by the pressure, leaving the crew stranded on an ice floe. With three life boats and provisions salvaged from the sinking ship, Shackleton led the men to safety. The ordeal lasted 20 months. Shackleton kept this diary during the months spent marooned on the ice.

He had  tasked the steam yacht Aurora to help set up supply depots along the route for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After delays caused by sea-ice she made her way to Discovery Bay in March 1915, where she anchored and continued to offload supplies.

In May, Aurora was trapped in the ice, and was carried out to the sea, stranding the men that were setting up the depots. She remained trapped in the ice for the better part of a year, drifting some 1600 nautical miles. It was not until 12 February 1916 that the ship escaped from the ice, making it back to DunedinNew Zealand on 3 April.

And this is how they celebrated Christmas:

Aurora

Meanwhile Shackleton celebrated Christmas early in 1915. He wrote:

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December 22 was therefore kept as Christmas Day, and most of our small remaining stock of luxuries was consumed at the Christmas feast. We could not carry it all with us, so for the last time for eight months we had a really good meal—as much as we could eat. Anchovies in oil, baked beans, and jugged hare made a glorious mixture such as we have not dreamed of since our school-days.

Everybody was working at high pressure, packing and repacking sledges and stowing what provisions we were going to take with us in the various sacks and boxes. As I looked round at the eager faces of the men I could not but hope that this time the fates would be kinder to us than in our last attempt to march across the ice to safety.
We turned in at 7 p.m. that night, and at 1 a.m. next day, the 25th, and the third day of our march, a breakfast of sledging ration was served. By 2 a.m. we were on the march again.

We wished one another a merry Christmas, and our thoughts went back to those at home. We wondered, too, that day, as we sat down to our “lunch” of stale, thin bannock and a mug of thin cocoa, what they were having at home.

All hands were very cheerful. The prospect of a relief from the monotony of life on the floe raised all our spirits. One man wrote in his diary: “It’s a hard, rough, jolly life, this marching and camping; no washing of self or dishes, no undressing, no changing of clothes. We have our food anyhow, and always impregnated with blubber-smoke; sleeping almost on the bare snow and working as hard as the human physique is capable of doing on a minimum of food.”

The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition

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Department stores in Europe were full of war themed goods and toys.

The newspaper Lord Northcliffe advised that soldiers long most

… for letters from Home and for the Home town newspaper. World news they get in English or French journals: it is local news they hunger for. Write to them and send them such newspapers at least once a week. I have sometimes had to turn away from groups of soldiers at the front because I could not bear to see the anguish on the faces of men who saw their comrades reading letters and who had received none themselves. Do not let your soldier have to feel the sharp and painful sting og neglect. Keep him well supplied with news and loving words.

Northcliffe was a pioneer of tabloid journalism who owned – among other papers – The Daily Mail dubbed by The Wipers Times trench newspaper as The Daily Liar.

Somethings don’t change!

And in Poughkeepsie there was a brisk business in the flower trade.

Pok flowers

The American poet and dramatist Percy Mackaye wrote – echoing W.B. Yeats and Thomas Hardy:

Christmas 1915

NOW is the midnight of the nations: dark
Even as death, beside her blood-dark seas,
Earth, like a mother in birth agonies,
Screams in her travail, and the planets hark
Her million-throated terror. Naked, stark, 5
Her torso writhes enormous, and her knees
Shudder against the shadowed Pleiades
Wrenching the night’s imponderable arc.

Christ! What shall be delivered to the morn
Out of these pangs, if ever indeed another 10
Morn shall succeed this night, or this vast mother
Survive to know the blood-spent offspring, torn
From her racked flesh?—What splendour from the smother?
What new-wing’d world, or mangled god still-born?

 Happy Christmas 1915

For those in Britain that year there had been, among other events, the start of the German U-boat blockade (with the resultant anxiety about food supplies); the execution of Edith Cavell; the first Zeppelin raids on London (authorized by the Kaiser); the death of Rupert Brooke, the sinking of the Lusitania, the first use of poison gas on the battlefield, the fiasco at Loos and the unfolding disaster in Mesopotamia. Stalemate on the Western Front contributed to the undertaking of the Gallipoli campaign and a few days before Christmas the public were told of the 113,000 Allied casualties there.

1915 was-  in Lyn Macdonald’s title- The Death of Innocence 

Bad as 1915 had been, 1916 was to be even worse.

2 Comments

  1. Bill Needler:

    Thank you for the article. And especially for the info on the truces of 1915. You read in some places that 1914 was the only year of truces. Obviously that is not true. Are you aware of any that took place in later years?

    • I am not aware of any “truce” in 1916 0r 1917 although you could say that the “live and let live” of don’t activate the enemy was a kind of truce of sorts. Hard to tell whether it was the hard line from high command forbidding fraternization that ended the outbreaks of seasonal good will . Perhaps it was also a general hardening of attitudes as the mechanical horror of the war ground relentlessly forward.

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