It’s hard trying to think about Christmas when you write about war. My characters may be fiction but the war they fought is not, and it feels rather heartless to abandon them up to their knees in trench-mud in order to put tinsel on a Christmas tree.
|'Sentinel of the Zouaves' by William Simpson - Crimea|
And mud, of course, is the least they had to contend with. My current novel follows the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War, where our troops spent the winter of 1854 huddled in rags in freezing trenches, without fire, without rest or proper medical care, and often even without food. I’d planned to blog about it here, but apart from the fact it's been done definitively in this brilliant post by our December guest Helen Rappaport, it just didn’t seem right to regale you with horrors at the height of the festive season. It’s as if war and Christmas simply don’t mix.
If anything, that’s when it’s most important. It’s a beacon of hope at the turn of the year, a time to let go of the tragedy of the past and look forward to brighter times ahead. Midshipman Wood quotes a ‘senior Regimental officer’ on Christmas in the Crimea:
‘Standing that day on Green Hill… caused many reflections – sad and solemn retrospection for the brave men who slept the sleep of death around us; joyful and glorious perspective picturing to myself the ultimate fate of the formidable fortress... Such was Christmas Day 1854; yet to that hour the Division to which I belong had not received an ounce of meat a man for dinner – in fact dinner we had none.’
|Christmas card from unidentified British soldier 1916|
|Soldiers collecting mistletoe on the Flanders front|
Even in the starving Crimea officers struggled to produce something ‘special’ for Christmas. The young Garnet Wolseley actually attempted to make a plum pudding out of figs, biscuit, and some ‘very rancid suet or grease’. He used a Russian round shot and a section of 13” shell as pestle and mortar to pulverise the biscuit into flour, mixed the whole lot into a ‘horrible looking mess’, and wrapped it in his own towel to cook over the fire. Unfortunately he and his friend were unexpectedly called to trench duty and decided to eat the pudding half raw – with the predictable result that by 10pm he imagined ‘I could feel, if not actually hear, each piece I had swallowed of that infernal pudding’ and had to be helped back to his tent bent double with pain.
Wolseley’s memoirs laugh at this recollection, but there’s one casual line in his description that made me sit up straight. He always makes light of the actual fighting, which at this time was pretty constant, but on Christmas Day he records with surprise that there was ‘no firing going on anywhere.’ None.
|German Christmas card 1915|
Perhaps he should have expected it, since Christmas is about the bond of humanity which anyone can share. While the British were sending home loving Christmas cards in WWI, so were the Germans - and the messages are all but identical. If the British wanted a quiet Christmas and a break from killing, then it's only natural that the Germans should too.
|Christmas Truce 1914|
|Christmas Truce 1914|
Here’s another, from a soldier still unidentified: ‘There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as today we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down…. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2way over to us so several of us went out to them… After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.... We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them for the last week or two—it all seems so strange'
'At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [a German] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.'
|'The Khaki Chums' - Cross marking the site of a Christmas Truce 1914|
|British Christmas card 1917|
To the Powers That Be, Christmas has no place in war except to whip up hate against the enemy. Here’s an official British Christmas card for 1917, and if you can see the spirit of Christmas in it that’s more than I can do.
Soldiers at war don’t have to lose their humanity. Some reviewers scoffed at the scene in ‘The War Horse’ when the Germans help the Allies free a terrified horse from the barbed wire, but to me this seems perfectly plausible. Even in the Crimea such things happened. Midshipman Wood describes how a drunken Frenchman reeled crazily about between the lines singing the Marseillaise, but the Russians showed fellow-feeling and never fired. Another time two wounded British lay groaning in the open on the edge of the Left Attack, but the Russian sharpshooters raised a white flag to show they would hold their fire to allow their friends to bring them in. These are events in April and May 1855, but to me they show the spirit of Christmas.
|Watercolour by Captain Clifford|
It’s only one moment of bonding in a whole war of savage stupidity, but it reminds me of Wilfred Owen’s haunting poem ‘Strange Meeting’, where a soldier is greeted in death by a man who tells him, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ It’s moving, uplifting, and utterly excoriating in what it says about the insanity of war.
A.L. Berridge's website.