The truth, of course, is rather different: any realistic hopes of an early end to the war had dissipated almost within days of its outbreak. The British Expeditionary Force’s first significant taste of action at the Battle of Mons had seen it inflict heavy casualties on the enemy but fail to hold the line of the Mons-Condé Canal and eventually retreat over two weeks to almost the outskirts of Paris. A straightforward tactical retreat executed in good order, the top brass explained. To the British press, however, yet to be properly reminded that truth is the first casualty of war, it was a humiliating and bitter disaster; a bravely fought disaster, granted, but a disaster for all that.
When our troops again came face to face with the German First Army, at the River Marne east of Paris, it was still only early September. This time, however, the French, whose tactical withdrawal at Mons had unwittingly helped to put the British forces in an impossible position, were everything an ally should be in their fierce defence of their capital, and the Kaiser’s hopes of a swift victory on the Western Front came to nothing. Instead, his army retreated to the north east, the British and French pursued it and both sides then showed they had learned lessons from the way they had been conducting themselves to date by digging deep trenches and settling in for the long, long haul. Any brave talk of victory by Christmas – and in truth, both sides had at first been dreaming that dream – soon foundered in the mud of Flanders.
Trench warfare was not unknown in military history, but it was not what the British public had foreseen; they were far more familiar with the concept of fast-moving, fluid battle lines, and while the retreat from Mons was the last thing they wanted to see in the way of fluidity, at least they understood the scenario. Trench warfare? Idle men peeping over the parapet and eyeballing the equally indolent and inactive enemy? To some armchair generals back at home by their firesides there was almost something comical about it. We can see, then, that it had been determined some months before the event that Christmas 1914 would not be a peacetime celebration; and developments leading immediately up to it, that December, saw such an escalation in hostilities that any hopes of a happier New Year were now equally forlorn.
Already the newspapers were dominated by war news, and tributes to bewildering numbers of young men who were losing their lives on the other side of the English Channel. This was particularly disorienting and distressing in the local weekly press, whose pages hitherto had rarely been sullied by troubles any more disturbing than the police court sequels to fights outside the Dog and Duck on Saturday nights.
December, however, was the month when ‘Over There’ became ‘Over Here’, and that was a backward step by no means everybody had reckoned with. It started in the middle of the month and swiftly escalated; a bag of what looked to be rusty rivets was dropped on Southend; on the 15th the first Zeppelin was sighted off the east coast – and as these had long been supposed to pose Germany’s main threat from the air, were such an outlandish proposition possible at all, that seemed an ominous sign; not nearly so ominous, however, as the events of the following morning, when German battleships were left free to bombard the north-east coastal towns of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby, killing well over 100 defenceless men, women and children. At the same time, one of their flotillas was sowing mines off Filey which accounted for hundreds more lives before they were cleared. There were clearly questions to be faced by the British Grand Fleet, questions rarely if ever asked in living memory as our ships ‘Ruled the Waves’.
The action quickened considerably in the last days leading up to Christmas. On 21 December a German seaplane, as distinct from an airship, dropped two bombs just off Dover Harbour, and three days later one landed on the town itself, breaking a lot of windows and blowing a gardener out of a holly tree. It was the first airborne bomb to land on British soil, and although its end result was almost comical, like something out of the latest Keystone Cops film, its implications were not, with the engineering might of the Ruhr gearing up for the battle ahead.
On both sides of the Channel, hostility was the very fertile mother of invention. And then came Christmas Day, that time of sharing pictures of wives and girlfriends with the foe and exchanging verses of ‘Silent Night’ one with another – up to a point. It was also the day of Britain’s first air raid on Germany, where seaplanes did what they were able in stormy skies over Cuxhaven. The enemy were doing likewise over London Docks and the Medway towns, while those mines planted in the North Sea nine days earlier were blowing ships out of the water with distressing loss of life.
Even on the Western Front, all was far from quiet in most areas: men were still fighting and dying; in some trenches, the enemy was passive, so the other side stayed passive, too; there was ‘gardening’ to be done on no-man’s-land, burying bodies, clearing weapons and debris, and spasmodic local arrangements were made for this to be carried out by both sides without fear of aggression. Anything over and above this was the exception; so exceptional, in fact, that it is still recalled with awe to this day. The other fact everyone knows about it is that it never happened again.
Christmas 1914 was by far the strangest Christmas everyone who lived through it had ever known. Apart from the conflict, and the toll it was taking on families’ menfolk and morale, there were so many other life-changing developments to take in and digest: the sudden need for women in the workplace, quiet towns that had been transformed into part of the war machine by creating arms and weapons, young men who had not enlisted for whatever reason being constantly harried to do so, the patriotic need for a recently volatile workforce to buckle down, the wounded soldiers in the streets and parks, the refugees from Belgium and elsewhere who were now a part of our local communities, with all the civic responsibilities that implied.
On New Year’s Day the editor of a small West Country weekly newspaper wrote:
‘A stranger and duller sort of Christmas could hardly be imagined ... The awful anxieties and grief of war touched the whole country very closely, and in our district there was little of the usual festivities and jollity. There were no attractions beyond the local variety theatres, and whatever Christmas parties there were quiet, while the town was in the evenings completely deserted. The weather was, on the whole, wet and dreary ... There were few visitors this year, and no engagements to interest them, while the customary list of football matches dwindled down to one or two games ...’
Yet in other ways, life went on. As the above report hints, the music halls were still churning out their songs and their jokes, although at first the singers were wrapping themselves in the red, white and blue and the humour was taking on a spiky, we shall overcome feel. Soon enough, it would be back to normal with the cheek and the chutzpah. There were still personalities to read about in the papers, even if it was only footballers taking up arms or leading ladies knitting socks for sailors. America was sending over, if not its men, then engaging songs as diverse as ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now’ and ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’. And yes, outside the Dog and Duck, Saturday night drunks were still punching one another on the nose.
We cannot begin to recognise a good deal of what our countrymen were going through then: the dread of the telegraph boy clicking the gate latch and knocking on the door, the previously unheard-of fear of destruction from the air, the stark fact that nobody had a new 1915 calendar saying ‘This is the second year of the First World War, 1914-18, which Britain won at great cost’. Uncertainty can be a devastating enemy. Yet what we can see is a sense of commitment and community which we now regard as essentially British, even if, to some of us, it does not seem quite so much a part of our national character over 100 years on. It was this, as much as the bombs and heavy artillery, maybe even as much as the Americans and Russians, that saw us through both this world war and the next one.
In 1918, while German society fell apart in hunger, discontent and near-revolution, our ancestors not only held firm but redoubled their efforts on the Home Front. Men turned their backs on safe jobs to enlist, often well above (and in some cases, below) conventional military age, and the community as a whole set aside conflicts over industrial relations, universal suffrage or the rights and wrongs of the war to put their shoulders together to the wheel.
That, however, was nearly four years down the line. Christmas 1914 had challenges of its own, and some small compensations and comforts, too. Glimpsing it now we visit another world; but one in which, because of the Great War’s continuing influence on all that came after it, we can still trace far-off foreshadowings of our lives today.
By John Hudson