With help from our newspaper archive, we discover fascinating insights into how Christmas was celebrated 100 years ago both for the people at home in Bury and for family members who were serving in France.
Christmas Eve in 1914
Stars were burning, burning bright
And all along the Western Front
Guns were lying still and quiet.
Men lay dozing in the trenches,
In the cold and in the dark,
And far away behind the lines
A village dog began to bark.
By December 1914 both the Allies and their enemies had suffered tremendous casualties. With so many battalions savagely depleted, replacements were desperately needed and in the weeks running up to Christmas the local press advertised the need for more recruits.
There were numerous reports of men killed in action and their pictures and obituaries, even before the close of 1914, became an all too familiar sight in The Bury Times.
Alongside reports of the dead and missing, survivors’ stories – taken from letters sent home – would be printed. Some contained surprisingly jovial accounts of the conditions endured in the trenches. A letter from Bombardier J. T. Collins of the 17th Battery Royal Field Artillery had written to his family in Heywood on 14th November 1914:
We are living fairly well, considering everything. I have not changed linen for over two months, and I am growing a lovely beard. It will just be long enough by Christmas to make me a real Father Christmas.
Other reports, however, were more sombre in tone like this one extracted from a letter sent to a Mr E Minton of Bury in late November, whose son was serving in a cavalry regiment with The Expeditionary Force in France. These extracts describe the cavalryman’s narrow escape after heavy shelling had taken place in front of the trench occupied by his squadron:
I crept around the crater made by the shell, and found the officer and man next to me buried alive. Saw a tuft of the man’s hair sticking out and cleared the dirt away from his mouth so that he could get his breath. Dug him out and half dug the officer out but found he was dead … Shells fell along the trench, burying the whole of the —– troop alive. I went to them with a message, and saw it myself. The squadron still hung on, and we prayed for night to come.
Extracts from soldiers’ letters to their loved ones at home became a regular feature in Bury’s local newspapers and, as a result, readers from the community would learn first-hand of how their serving men were living and dying in the first winter of war. This awareness would certainly have prompted the inhabitants of Bury to contribute to the Princess Mary’s Fund which would go on to provide each troop a Christmas Gift: A brass box containing sweets, pipe tobacco, cigarettes and a greeting card in the King’s script, ‘May God protect you and bring you home safe’.
In addition to appeals for contributions to the Royal fund, Bury locals were encouraged by numerous advertisements throughout November and December to purchase personal Christmas gifts for their fighting men in an attempt to ease the hardships of trench life.
During the run up to Christmas 1914 the local newspapers gave little indication that a cessation in hostilities might occur, despite an appeal for a cease-fire at Christmas made by Pope Benedict XV shortly after war began. The idea of a temporary armistice might have seemed impossible when considering the amount of material printed which demonised the enemy. For example, an ex resident of Bury living overseas – in a passionate plea for volunteer recruits – writes:
…when three and a half million Germans with rifles in their hands and all their death-dealing equipment are out in support of the W.B. my contention is that the best use for these Germans is to prepare them to look pretty – in a coffin.
Elsewhere in the press, letters from soldiers describe chilling accounts of face-to-face combat with their enemy:
At … we were in a rather awkward position, and were improving our trenches, when we found we hadn’t time as they were 20 yards or less away, so there was a rattling scrap … we should all have gone but for another company coming to our help with fixed bayonets. They charged them off, and it was grand to see our fellows digging their bayonets into them.
After reading such expressions of enmity, it must have come as a complete surprise when opening the New Year newspapers to find reports like this one, printed in The Ramsbottom Observer:
Although the officers here seem to have allowed interaction half-way between the trenches, fraternisation with the enemy was a court-martial offence. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that a request for a football match in No Man’s land was not granted.
Other reports reveal how a temporary truce at Christmas allowed troops to deal with the grim practicalities inherent in warfare – the removal of the dead. Private Edward Green of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers writes:
We were in the trenches for Christmas, and will be resting New Year’s Day. We had a good time, though, in the trenches; we were singing all night. I don’t know what the Germans thought, but they kept putting their Maxim gun on us, and then we would give three cheers for the King. Of course, they could not see us as we were well under. I’ll bet they remember Christmas Day. They wanted a few hours’ armistice to bury their dead (there are lots of them in front of us).
Another much more affable report from The Bury Guardian expresses again the need to bury the remains of the fallen. A task, it seems, which was long overdue:
Although there are similarities between soldiers’ accounts of Christmas at the Front, no two appear the same. And understanding that there were differences as evidenced in this newspaper archive helps confirm that the truce wasn’t a unified episode, experienced by all and held in one place. For some it was a time to pay their respects to dead comrades; for others it was a time for small-scale celebrations – even if that happened to be in the confines of a trench. What’s more surprising, however, is that for a number of combatants it was a time for laying down arms, reasserting their humanity, and sharing what comforts they had with their adversaries in a time of war.
And next night in 1914
Flares were burning, burning bright;
The message came along the trenches
Over the top we’re going tonight.
And the men stood waiting in the trenches,
Looking out across our football park,
And all along the Western Front
The Christian guns began to bark.