Christmas 1914 on the Western Front

The Christmas truce of 1914 was a remarkable event. Quite spontaneously, British and German troops started to gather in no-man’s land on several sections of the western front to celebrate Christmas. A Culture volunteer on the Poole First World War project describes some of the experiences and the Princess Mary Christmas gift that many of the armed forces were to receive.

Private P.E. Dyer of the Scots Guards wrote from France to his mother who lived in Market Street, Poole. ‘It’s jolly cold here, and snow is on the ground’. ‘Please send me something tasty, homemade cake, as we get none. We shall get our parcels quite safe at Christmas’. His mother’s parcel did get through as a few weeks later he wrote to her saying that ‘it contained everything I need; the scarf is a beauty…I will save the pudding as we shall be in the trenches on Christmas Day and I will try to boil it. It will be good, I guess’.

The ‘History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919’ recorded that the 1st Battalion experienced ‘nothing unusual’on the Dorset front’ near Wulverghem but there were no shots between the opposing sides. They understood that the sides south of them were ‘friendlier’. Interestingly, in the local newspaper of January 1915 there is correspondence from Private Bray of the Dorsets under the heading ‘Fraternising Foes’. He describes how they sang carols in the trench but it was very cold so several of them got out for a walk to warm themselves. Three Germans, two officers and a private, approached and gave them a couple of bottles of whisky, cigars and a pudding. Bray said that if they had not been in billets on Boxing Day they would have returned the favour.

Private Horace Sartin’s experience was in contrast. He lived at Longfleet, Poole and was serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps at a Field Hospital somewhere in France.  In a letter, he describes that on the morning of Christmas Day there was a widespread frost and he went for a walk through the country lanes. His group of fourteen soldiers then sat down to a Christmas meal where they had plenty of hot food. He went for a walk after the meal but had to abandon it because he was too cold. After tea, they sang songs and played bridge. However, his letter ends on a more sombre note –‘I cannot see that this terrible war can conclude for months, perhaps, years’.

There are many recollections and photographs of the Christmas Truce on the Imperial War Museum website. Captain Chater of the Gordon Highlanders was at Armentieres. At 10am on Christmas Day he saw a couple of Germans approaching their trench. They were about to fire when they realised the Germans were unarmed. Suddenly, crowds of men and officers from both sides were greeting each other. After about half an hour everyone on the British side was ordered to return to their trenches and for the rest of the day no shot was fired. On Boxing Day, cigarettes were exchanged, and autographs and photographs were taken. Chater hoped they would have another truce on New Year’s Day. Other soldiers reported that the two sides played around with a football, exchanged addresses, badges, and sang songs. One British soldier was even seen cutting the hair of a German soldier. A more sombre task was the collection of the bodies of the dead from both sides for burial.

The British senior military staff was unimpressed. Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief, gave orders that no such occurrence should be allowed to happen again while the General Staff of the 7th Division ordered ’that such unwarlike activity should cease’. There was no repeat and it is likely that the horror of the conflict throughout 1915 had hardened attitudes.

Another remarkable, but less well-known event at the end of 1914 was the provision of Princess Mary Christmas Gift tins to the armed forces. Princess Mary, daughter of the King and Queen, sent out an appeal on 15 October 1914 to raise funds to provide a Christmas Gift tin for every man who was either at sea or at the front. Interestingly, she hoped it would be welcome as a gift, be something ‘useful’ and of ‘value’ but also that it would be a ‘means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war’. Notice of the gift, and that the Mayoress of Poole was willing to accept donations for the fund, appeared in the local newspaper on 29 October. By the middle of December 1914 around £133,000 had been raised in the national appeal.

The brass tin was designed by Adshead and Ramsey. It had an embossed image of Princess Mary in the centre of the lid with the names of Britain’s allies ie France, Russia, Belgium, Japan, Servia (Serbia) and Montenegro around the outside.

Princess Mary wanted the scheme expanded to all those in uniform on Christmas Day 1914 and it was decided there would be three classes of recipients:

A – those in the Navy and soldiers in France, nurses, prisoners-of-war, and next-of-kin of those who had died.

B – British, Colonial and Indian soldiers serving outside Britain and not in category A.

C – all soldiers in Britain.

The decision to widen the scope of the gift caused a shortage of brass for their manufacture and, not surprisingly, there were logistical problems in getting the gift to the recipients. Those in Category B received their gifts by August 1915 and those in Category C by June 1916. The fund eventually closed in 1920 having raised nearly £194,000 and having despatched an estimated 2.6 million tins.

It was not just the distribution of the tin that was a challenge but also its contents to consider which could include:

  • A pipe (over 700,000 supplied)
  • An ounce of tobacco (nearly 45,000lbs supplied)
  • Cigarettes (over 13 million in packs of 20)
  • A Christmas card of which there were several designs
  • A tinder lighter, or a shaving brush, or scissors, or a pencil case, or a purse.
  • Acid tablets – for non-smokers
  • A writing case – for non-smokers
  • Sugar candy – for Sikhs
  • Tin of spices – for Indian troops
  • Packet of sweets – for non-smokers
  • Packet of chocolate – for nurses
  • A bullet pencil case

The contents of a tin depended on what was available and who was the recipient. For example, nurses in France usually got a packet of chocolate and a card; an estimated 1500 nurses received a gift. Sikhs could get a tin with sugar candy, a tin of spices and a card; nearly 300,000 Indian soldiers received a gift. Widows or parents (only if their loss had occurred in 1914) received a card in their tin; around 5,000 were sent. Sailors could get a pipe, tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a bullet pencil case, a card and a picture of Princess Mary. Boys serving in the Navy received only a bullet pencil case and a card. An estimated 250,000 were sent to naval personnel. There was also a distinction between smokers and non-smokers.

The manufacture of the gift tins, organising their contents and transporting them during war time is a remarkable achievement. There is also one recorded case of a recipient’s life being saved because the brass tin stopped shrapnel.