Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Christmas truce

The iconic image of Christmas in the Great War is the 1914 Christmas truce.  Londoner Cyril Drummond took part in this historic truce on the Western Front while serving as a Royal Artillery officer and took this amazing photo of men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment fraternising with soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment:

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man's Land - (c) IWM

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man’s Land, photo by C.A.F. Drummond – (c) IWM

The Warwickshires were not the only ones, of course. The excellent Long, Long Trail page about the truce lists battalions from six British and Indian Divisions that took part, units that included the London Rifle Brigade (1/5th Londons), the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (1/16th Londons) and Kensingtons (the 1/13th Londons, whom we’ve met in Eric Kennington’s wonderful war art). Rather than try to tell the story, which other websites already do well, here are a few accounts from those London units:

Eighteen-year-old William Henry Francis Ollis of the Queen’s Westminsters wrote to his family in Croydon about the truce (the letter was published in the local paper and reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

What an extraordinary effect Christmas has on the world. Peace and goodwill amongst men during peace time one can quite understand but peace and goodwill amongst men who have been murdering one another for the past five months is incredible and if I had not seen for myself the effects of Christmas on these two lines of trenches I should never have believed them. All day yesterday the German snipers were busy and unfortunately to some effect…(censored)..progressing well. That is by the way. The point is that when darkness fell all firing ceased. The Germans sang and shouted and cheered, and we sang and cheered. We called Merry Christmas across to one another. The German lines were lit up with huge flares and we could see each other plainly. A few hours before we were jolly careful to keep our heads below the parapet and now we were sitting on it, throwing cigarettes and tobacco to our enemies who wandered out into the middle of the lines. In some places we are only about 100 yards from them and we kept up conversation all night. By the way they offered to play us at football. I shall be able to tell you heaps more about the wonderful change that has come over with the dawn of Christmas when I get back. Today not a shot has been fired and the frost is still thick on the ground. Quite a welcome change after the wet. We are quite happy and hope you are the same. Your ever-loving ‘Terrier’ Billy.

Corporal Leon Harris, who had come to London before the war to work in Selfridge’s, wrote home to his parents in Exeter of the experience he and his comrades in the Kensingtons had, beginning on Christmas Eve (also published in the local press and  reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

This has been, the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches. Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing day night and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs – buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – frosty and bright with moon and stars at night.

The account of a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade is reproduced in a Guardian article on the subject:

First of all I must describe in detail what will, I believe, live in history as one of the most remarkable incidents of the war.

On Christmas Eve at about 4pm, we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved, directly it was dark, when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce, and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic. After we were relieved and got back to the breastworks (about 200yds?) behind the firing-lines, we could hear the German band playing Old Folks at Home, God Save the King and Onward, Christian Soldiers.

On Christmas Day, men and officers went in between, and even entered each other’s trenches and exchanged smokes and souvenirs. I am sorry we were relieved; it must have been a marvellous sight. All I could manage was a German cigarette given me by one of our platoon who accompanied our platoon officers to the line. One regiment, I hear, tried to arrange a football match for this afternoon, but I don’t think that came off. We are opposed to Saxon regiments and the whole affair is most striking, when you consider that a week ago today there were some hundreds of casualties through the attack and the dead still lie between the trenches.

By this truce we were able to get the bodies and the Germans were good enough to bring our dead out of some ruined houses by their trenches, so that we could give them burial here. I personally shall be very pleased when we go up tomorrow night, not to have that sight before us again.

One of Coulson’s comrades, David H W Smith, collected and kept the signature of one of the Saxon soldiers he met during the truce, Arthur Bock of Leipzig.

The truce was a refreshing change for those in the front line. But it did not last long and it was not repeated the next year, as the war ground on. For a few days at the end of 1914, though, some of the men on the front line broke the rules and met with their enemies as humans, many of them as Christians, all of them far from their families. A truly remarkable event.

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Posted by on 24 December 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners


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A quick message

December 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the first ever text message. Obviously there was no such way for Great War soldiers to communicate over long distances so quickly, but one thing allowed relatively quick and easy (if not fulsome) communication: the humble field service postcard.

The volume of post sent front the front back to the UK was enormous. In 1916, 7.5 million items of mail per week were received by British soldiers and five million sent home, suggesting that soldiers sent on average 5 items in the post every week!  Not all of these were full letters, though. Many were Field Service Postcards, which allowed soldiers only to delete as appropriate from a pre-printed set of messages – mainly about their health and whether they had received letters or parcels recently.  This was a fairly limited selection of news, but actually represents the core of most soldiers’ letters (which generally related that the Tommy was ‘in the pink’ and had received x number of letters).

Londoner and war artist Len Smith pasted his first ever Field Service Postcard (presumably sent to his family in Walthamstow) into his war memoir – now published as ‘Drawing Fire’.

Private Len Smith's first Field Service Postcard

Private Len Smith’s first Field Service Postcard

Most museums with any personal archival material from 1914-18 have a number of these postcards. The Museum of London’s Twentieth Century London website shows a postcard sent by W.H. Golding to his mother living on the Old Kent Road from the front in Italy in 1917.

In the IWM’s collection is a set of letters sent by Harold Bantin, a clerk from Shepherd’s Bush. Bantin had married Dorothy M Reynolds in June 1916 but was conscripted into the army before their son Ronald was born on 1 July 1917.  While in the army he wrote nearly a hundred letters to his wife and son.  Sadly, Harold Bantin was reported missing on 30 November 1917 at Cambrai. In the two months he served at the front, he sent home 19 letters and 20 Field Service Postcards back to Dorothy and Ronald in Shepherd’s Bush, showing something of the proportion of mail that these simple notes could make up.

It would be easy to dismiss the Field Service Postcard as suppressing soldiers’ expression or exacerbating their distance from home, since they did not allow any details or emotion to be conveyed. To some extent, this is true, but it ignores the ways that they were used. As their core function, they were used just to reassure civilians that the soldier in question was alive and well (or that he was injured rather than dead), or simply that the letters that people had sent out had actually arrived. The postcards also relayed these messages quickly, as they would by-pass the censor (in reality an officer in the man’s company).

In the hands of some more inventive soldiers, they could be used to convey more complex messages. Men might arrange a code, for example writing their full name if they were in the front line but their initials only if they were in reserve lines or at rest, or something similar.  One amusing and rather telling way that a soldier used the pre-printed message (I think this was related in the Billie Nevill letters) was to cross out everything except the words “I am well… and hope to be discharged soon”.

Paul Fussell (who was rather dismissive of the postcards) notes their impact, making their way – in parody form – into letters written by Wilfred Owen and (later) Evelyn Waugh.

Although they were not the same thing, text messages and Field Service Postcards have some similarities: they provide(d) a way or people to send short, simple messages to convey a message quickly (and sometimes inventively) – messages that could be expanded upon in a longer letter (or today an email).

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Posted by on 15 December 2012 in Ordinary Londoners


Air-raid alert 1917

The Great War brought a previously-unknown danger to Londoners – air raids. This brought on challenge unknown in previous wars: how to alert people to the approach (and departure) of raiders.

London policeman warning of an air raid

In 1917, with air raids by Gotha bombers increasing in frequency and deadliness, the authorities had to devise a way to warn the population of the approach of enemy aircraft.

At the start of July, the Commissioner of Police announced the use of warnings carried by police, giving rise to the curious picture above.

Notice published in Flight magazine (19/7/1917)

Notice published in Flight magazine (19/7/1917)

Less than two weeks later, on 21 July 1917, further measures were developed. It was announced that three ‘sound rockets’ would be fired in quick succession to warn of air raids on the capital, alongside the display of ‘Take Cover’ notices. The rockets were to be fired from the tops of all London Fire Stations.

“Sound bombs” to alert to public in a raid (Illustrated London News, 28/7/1917) – showing the rockets (1), inserting the time fuse (2), loading the rocket into the mortar (3), firing the rocket (4) and cleaning out the mortar (5)

The ILN reported the use of this method the next day (alongside the above illustration).

“Our readers will be interested to see from these photographs exactly how the warning by sound-signals was given to London at 8.30 a.m. on Sunday, July 22, when 237 one-pound sound-bombs were fired 300 ft. into the air from 79 London Fire Brigade stations. An official notice that such a warning would be given, in case of an expected raid on London, had been issued by the Home Office only the previous evening. “Take Cover” notices were shown at the same time by the police in the streets, and at 9.45 they displayed the “All Clear” notice. The authorities were satisfied with the results of this system of warning, though the Home Secretary, Sir George Cave, thought that the number of signals might well be reduced, and that the warning might be delayed until enemy aircraft were nearer to London. Later, it was stated that only two, instead of three, rockets would in future be sent up from each station and that signals that could be seen as well as heard were considered.”

As well as the change to two sound rockets, the arrangements were nuanced so that they were automatically to be fired from Fire Stations inside the County of London and but only in other places within 10 miles of Charing Cross if they were felt to be at risk. The police would continue to display ‘Take Cover’ notices – now specified to be in red letters. From October, ‘Specials’ carrying these notices began to be issued with steel helmets.

‘All Clear’ messages were also to be given by the police – in black lettering. Late in 1917, this message was accompanied by bugles sounding.

The all-clear sounded by Boy Scout bugler in a motorcar (Illustrated London News, 27/10/1917)

This picture was accompanied by a description of bugles used to sound the ‘All Clear’ in October 1917:

“On October 18 it was announced that authorities had decided to give the “All Clear” signal in London after air-raids by bugle-calls. It was not long before the new system came into operation, in connection with the raid of October 19-20, wen took place the Zeppelin attack on London which ended so disastrously for the raiders during their return voyage to France. After the enemy had left, the first “All Clear”, blown by men, or in some cases by Boy Scouts, in motor-cars, was given in the London area soon after the official notification had been issued.”

This is not the full history of air-raid warnings during the war, which Neil Hanson tells more thoroughly in his account of the air raids on London – The First Blitz. It does, however, show us something of the ongoing development of the civilian experience of war, to which the urgent need to know about an enemy attack was a new development for Londoners in the Great War.



London Illustrated News

Flight magazine online archive

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Posted by on 6 December 2012 in Air Raid


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