100 years ago, the approach to Christmas brought a mix of emotions as the preparation for celebrations was overshadowed by the largest war the world had seen. Those at home and at the front prayed to have the war over in time to be reunited with their loved ones for the festive season but it looked dim. Instead, a lot of people went about their preparations wondering if their loved ones were safe, and in some cases knowing they weren’t.
Families sent festive care packages to their soldiers; the standard socks, photographs, and letters containing news and gossip were accompanied by cakes, chocolate, and other small mementos that were easily sent across the world. These small tokens helped to boost the morale of the soldiers, as well as include them in the festive season. The soldiers themselves were not able to return the gifts at the time but many sent Christmas Cards to their families with much anticipated news of their health and wellbeing at the front.
To help with boosting morale 17-year old Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, organised a public appeal to raise the funds and provide servicemen with a Christmas gift. The appeal was a great success and £162,591 ($23,978,672 today) was raised, resulting in 2,620,019 gifts. The presents comprised of a small brass tin featuring a profile image of the Princess with a wreath and decorative border and ‘Christmas 1914’ stamped underneath. The contents of the tin varied but could include small gifts of tobacco, a pipe, a lighter, cigarettes, sweets or chocolate, bullet pencils, writing paper, spices, and a Christmas Card and picture of the Princess herself. Over 400,000 of the tins were distributed around Christmas Day to those serving at or near the front, with the remainder being given out in early 1915 with a ‘Victorious New Year’ card. The tins were held for soldiers in hospital or prisoners of war and for the parents or widows of killed servicemen, although these took a lot longer to be delivered.
On the western front the traditional Christmas message of peace, even if formally a few years away yet, was spontaneously observed with informal ceasefires and comradery among adversaries. During December 1914, British and German troops exchanged seasonal greetings and sang carols across the trenches to each other, and some even put up conifer trees on the edges of the trenches to simulate Christmas trees. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the soldiers from both sides walked across no-mans-land to greet the enemy and exchange tokens from their Christmas packages, followed by a friendly game of football or two. The officers, knowing such fraternisation was against military law, turned a blind eye and let the soldiers have their fun. When the voluntary ceasefire ended at midnight the soldiers went back to being enemies.
This truce was not widespread and some areas continued to fight, but the reports of the truce certainly made the event one of the most memorable scenes of humanity in the war. There were attempts in the following years to recreate the Christmas Truce but the increasing bloodiness and use of poison gases removed the willingness to fraternise with the enemy.
But due to the nature of warfare not all soldiers had the opportunity to play football at Christmas time, although the nurses looking after them did their best to mark the day with as much celebration as could be mustered. The photographs here of the Mount Felix Hospital at Walton-on-Thames show the ward decked with holly and ivy and festive banners on the walls, and even crackers being pulled.