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Christmas at war: 1916 - Festivities at the front

Updated Wednesday 20th December 2017

Percival Philips scours France for good cheer - but it's hard to ignore the plight of those bombed out of their homes.

Arras in 1916 Creative commons image Icon Collections Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license Ruined buildings in front of Arras station. In 1917, the town would be the site of a major British offensive

Munitions of Christmas

Lorry loads of good cheer for the trenches

Pantomimes, pictures and pierrots

By Percival Phillips, Daily Express special correspondent

With the British Armies in the field, December 24th.

The British armies in the field are determined to make this Christmas a merry one. Despite the unavoidable disadvantages of mud, morose Germans, and al fresco celebrations in front-line trenches, they are looking forward tonight to a day of genuine good cheer, and you will find the true Christmas spirit tomorrow in the dug-outs and billets behind the British front.

I saw many evidence of this holiday atmosphere in Picardy today as I motored for many miles through the area behind the Somme battlefield. Thousands of British soldiers were preparing their temporary homes for tomorrow's feast, and everywhere there was the same cheerful activity wholly unconnected with the business of war.

The lorries crawling along the roads carried puddings by the hundredweight, and their drivers smiled broadly at the ovation accorded these munitions of Christmas in the villages through which they passed.

Cottages, stables, even farmyards, were being decorated with whatever materials the temporary occupants could rake together from the little shops. The mobilisation of gifts from home proceeded smoothly under the direction of experts, who organised the food resources of their respective units with admirable discretion.

No truce

Christmas celebrations will vary considerably according to the situation of the men. I imagine that most of the front-line battalions will have an opportunity to eat their dinner in peace if the prevailing calm of the battle-area can be regarded as indicative of tomorrow's conditions.

At one place some Saxons hoisted the usual placard (the Saxons would rather write than fight), urging their British opponents to "kindly keep quiet Christmas, we do the same". But no Christmas truce has or will be made, whatever the wishes of the homesick Germans, and it is safe to say there will be no fraternising by opposing armies, although, on the other hand, one does not anticipate a really important spurt of activity.

Doubtless the gunners will send over their usual quota of shell, for these gentlemen work in all weathers, Sundays and holidays included, and an exchange of high explosive is considered an inevitable feature of the routine operations.

Battalions in rest have organised a variety of entertainments, and some of the Christmas productions are really excellent. Pantomimes are being produced in several divisional areas. One permanent "pierrot" troupe, which gladdens the hearts of a Scottish division, appears tomorrow night in a new and ambitious programme worthy of any first-class London "hall". Fresh scenery and elaborate costumes have been made prepared specially for this Christmas entertainment, written and produced by professionals. Some of the songs should be known beyond the armies, and one, at least, is to receive the popularity it deserves at a London theatre in the near future.

This Christmas production will be given nightly in a barn seating 500 soldiers. The divisional band furnishes the music, and there are seats at various prices, the highest being ten pence.

Cellar cinemas

There are many cinema shows with interesting pictures dotted over the billeting area, and even quite close to the trenches. Holiday films have been procured by one enterprising manager for his little "picture palace" in a cellar, not three miles from the German wire, where tired soldiers can drop in for an hour's relaxation, and forget the unpleasant enemy who is almost within shot.

One cinema has been showing the Somme battle film, and the men who flock to see it display extraordinary interest in the incidents of the "great push".

Some infantry battalions, hoping for good weather and firm ground, have planned Christmas Day sports. The majority, however, will confine their festivities to a special midday dinner and an entertainment of some kind.

There are enough gramophones now in the field to reach part of the way to the moon, and their determined shrieks can be heard above the clatter of motor traffic in populous villages. Local dealers have experienced an extraordinary "run" on records.

I met a thoroughly disgusted sergeant today, coming out of a draper-and-greengrocer's shop, which also dealt in sewing machines, motor tyres and postcards, complaining bitterly of the dearth of "cheery" new records. He wanted the song "I am a good little girl" and all that was left of the Christmas shipment was the nation hymns of the Allies at five francs.

The Scottish troupes are concentrating their holiday efforts on the New Year, but they will not ignore the festivities of Christmas on that account. "Of course we tak' account of Christmas" said a Perth man, "gi'e us th' chance, we tak' anything; but,mon, ye should be we' us for Hogmanay!"

Children of Arras

Even the poor survivors of the devastating districts will have their Christmas dinner. I know of one underground refuge in Arras where some happy children will be assembled and fed.

There is a pathetic little Christmas tree in one of these cellars of Arras - a tiny, stunted handful of green, decorated with three or four candles - that has been procured with infinite labour in order to make a few children glad tomorrow.

Day after day the German guns send their high explosives into Arras, where some families still live and work and children play and study in the safe retreats underneath the stricken town. No people have less cause to look forward to a merry Christmas than these penniless refugees who are hunted out of the light of day the shells of their enemies.

And yet, if they cannot be merry, they are full of hope and courage. If you would know what the people of France think of Germany's peace cry, talk with the inhabitants of Arras. Not one of them will awaken on Christmas morning with a prayer for peace.

From: Daily Express, Boxing Day 1916

Christmas at war: An OpenLearn Live special

In the run-up to Christmas, each day this week OpenLearn is republishing a short article from contemporary newspapers capturing an officially-approved view of life in wartime during the First World War


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