By December 1914 the war was four months old. In Flanders, the weather had turned cold and wet, changing the ground to mud and making conditions very difficult in the newly-dug rudimentary trenches. Behind the lines, soldiers were living in tents or bomb-damaged houses and farm buildings; hardly suitable shelter against winter weather. Coping with these circumstances must have been an extraordinary change for men who had been ordinary civilians only months earlier. Among them were hundreds of our bank clerks.
Thoughts of absent friends loomed large at Christmas, leading to a surge in the number of letters received in our banks from colleagues on military service. From them, we gain a glimpse of what the first Christmas of the war was like for some of our men.
I must wish you all a Happy Christmas, though it does not sound very convincing.
HE Rae, letter to Parr's Bank colleagues, December 1914
No doubt the most famous events associated with that Christmas were the series of impromptu truces that broke out along the front line on Christmas Eve. Two men’s letters in our archives include eyewitness accounts.
We have had a happy, but most remarkable Christmas
RJH Welland, letter to Parr's Bank colleagues, December 1914
RJH Welland of the 13th County of London Battalion of the London Regiment, formerly of Parr’s Bank’s London Bartholomew Lane branch, wrote: ‘The truce began by a hail from the German trenches – ‘English soldiers, the German soldiers wish the English soldiers a happy Christmas’, and then a few minutes later, ‘English soldiers, you no shot me if I come half-way?’ In response two of our boys went out and came back with a bottle of whiskey and a box of cigars, and their trenches were decorated by about ten Christmas trees lighted with candles. Of course, we did not shoot, and greetings were being exchanged all Christmas Eve.’
Welland goes on to describe how the truce enabled men on both sides to go over the edge of their trenches in daylight on Christmas Day to fetch firewood and water.
The second account, from Private Shinnick of the London Rifle Brigade, formerly of London County & Westminster Bank’s Foreign branch, describes similar scenes. In his area, the truce started with a familiar song: ‘One fellow of theirs played Home Sweet Home’, he writes, ‘and since then not a shot has been fired.’ He describes men playing football with mangels (a type of beet) as balls, and exchanging cigars. ‘One party exchanged hats, and had a photo taken.’
The one specific detail on which both Welland’s and Shinnick’s accounts match precisely relates to the conversations between men on opposing sides. Both remark that many topics were covered; ‘everything except war.’
The truces were not universal. Even during the festivities, Welland could hear gunfire further along the line in both directions, and another Parr’s man, Private Millar Douglas of the Seaforth Highlanders, reported that he had seen no fraternisation at all. In fact, he said that in his part of the line the fighting on 25-26 December was particularly fierce.
Even for men who were not in the front line, Christmas 1914 was a poignant time. About a dozen of our men were among 1,500 members of the Royal Navy who had been stranded in neutral Holland after the fall of Antwerp, and spent the rest of the war interned at Groeningen. One of them, ME Goodfellow, wrote a few days after Christmas 1914 to his Parr’s Bank colleagues.
We can only hope that by the time Christmas rolls round again peace will have long been proclaimed.
ME Goodfellow, letter to Parr's Bank colleagues, December 1914
His letter describes a cheerful Christmas with plenty of traditional fare and much-appreciated kindnesses from the local Dutch people. Despite such comforts, however, Goodfellow’s thoughts are dominated by the hardships being faced by soldiers and sailors still in danger on active service.
He mentions a forthcoming fancy dress dance, but adds wistfully, ‘the absence of the opposite sex is rather a drawback to functions of that sort.’
Far from home, men made the best of what they had. BL Humphrys from London County & Westminster Bank’s Newington branch was one of a group of soldiers billeted in a damaged chateau a couple of miles behind the line at Christmas 1914. He and his fellow soldiers decided to prepare their own Christmas banquet.
You ought to have seen the place, it looked quite comfortable and cheery
BL Humphrys, letter to London County & Westminster Bank colleagues, December 1914
They pulled together several tables and covered them with Belgian flags. They lit the tables with candles that Humphrys had received in a parcel from his bank colleagues, and prepared hand-written menu cards for the forthcoming feast: consommé a la M and V (meat and vegetable rations); boeuf bulle (bully beef); dessert (tinned peaches and pineapples with cream); and liqueurs (army rum).
The party, Humphrys wrote, was a great success: ‘we spent the rest of the day in a singsong, and had a topping time. We absolutely forgot the fact that we were so near the firing line.’ Nevertheless, the war was never far away. By 3.30 on Boxing Day morning they had fallen in and were beginning the march to the front line.