Voices of the First World War: Christmas at War

Those who lived through the First World War experienced Christmas in a variety of ways. One of the most famous Christmas-time events was the truce that took place along some parts of the line on the Western Front in 1914. British officer John Wedderburn-Maxwell took part in the truce. He described what he did after it was stopped.


After the war had recommenced, I went up to see the Lincoln colonel. And there I found the second in command and the adjutant sitting down to a jolly good Christmas, which they’d sent across and told me to come and join. And we had roast pheasant – it was wonderful the way they could cook in those trenches on charcoal fires – roast pheasant and plum pudding and plenty of rum. Of course, the colonel could always get rather more than the ration! No, we had a real slap-up meal.

In 1914, Britain’s Princess Mary set up a fund to provide a gift for every man serving at the front or at sea that Christmas. James Naylor of the Royal Field Artillery recalled his.

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It was a gilt box containing a message and card. In it, there were two packets: one packet of cigarettes and one packet of tobacco. I’ve still got mine, it’s still in its canvas case, and the cigarettes and tobacco are still there intact. Of course, I didn’t smoke in those days and that’s why, I suppose, I kept it.

Colin Wilson of the Grenadier Guards spent part of that first Christmas at war having dinner with the future King Edward VIII.

We as the Grenadiers were relieved on, I think it was Boxing Day we was relieved. And went to the rear, oh two or three hundred yards behind the line, I suppose, or so-called line. And there we had our Christmas dinner, accompanied by the Prince of Wales who was then serving with my regiment.

Despite the pressures of war, many people still made time for Christmas traditions. Margaret Callender put a special effort into decorating the military hospital in Britain where she was a nurse.

That was my happy time! I did all the decorations for my ward, anyhow. Two Christmases I was there and did that. The other nurses helped me, you know, but I had to devise it all. We had very big mantle pieces and in the winter time I made a cottage with snow on top and light inside, windows and so on. And on the dark blue blinds I made a night sky, I had little polar bears and things in front and snow and little huts, too. And I put stars on the dark window, you see. And I think all the lights were snow drops.

And Louie Johnson ensured that each of the patients at her hospital in Leeds received a Christmas present.

People would kindly come in and give me little presents for the men, or money to buy presents. And I used to go to Leeds and make a little gift parcel for every man. Usually a packet of cigarettes, tobacco pouch, perhaps a scarf if they were going out, or an ounce of tobacco or something like that. And give every man a little present on Christmas morning, every time, every day.

Concert parties were often put on to entertain the men serving at the front. Frederick Goodman of the Royal Army Medical Corps appreciated the hard work that went into those he attended.

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Christmas was a wonderful time. That was very well arranged. You see, all this depended – to make it a success – it would be left of course primarily to the sergeant major because he was the key of the whole thing, for that sort of thing. In other words, we had to have people on special duty or to go get this that and the other, whatever. And it meant a certain amount of time available to these chaps, they couldn’t be put on some other work. So he would agree to prepare for this sort of thing in a proper way. These chaps would be given quite a degree of latitude in doing whatever was necessary. Go and collect this that and the other, out of the line we had to be for a Christmas festivity, of course, and that sort of thing. And then, of course, always the party. We’d have this Christmas party going on. We played Aladdin or something, whatever it was, and so on. Cinderella, I believe, and that sort of thing. Oh, all sorts of things like that and they were very well done too.

Harcourt Kitchin served with the Royal Marines on convoy duty during the war. He recalled one Christmas concert that took place in rough seas.

One trip out that I remember particular well was Christmas 1917, when we struck very bad seas on the way out and we got green sea right through the wardroom galley. And everything, all the fresh food disappeared and we had a Christmas dinner of salt pork and rice, which wasn’t very appetising. But the sailors of course had to have their fun on Christmas Day. And this ship, which used to have its guns on the main deck where they were quite useless, had had the guns shifted up onto the upper deck. Well that put another five degrees on the roll, which in any case was round about forty degrees! And this is what she was doing. Well they had to have their concert, so they brought a piano down – somehow – on to the aft deck, lashed it to a stanchion and they got cracking. But unfortunately, the lashing gave way in the middle and the piano took charge and the concert really finished up with the sailors chasing a piano all over the deck!