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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Christmas on the Western Front...

Posted 12/19/17 (Tue)

Having been involved in writing a continuing series about World War I from July to November, I feel compelled to extend it one more time and ask the question, what was Christmas like in 1917?

With more than 900,000 men and approximately 33,000 women away from home because of the war, it took its toll on families as we find out in media reports. But then, as a retired Soldier myself, being away from the family on Christmas is especially difficult.

But there they were, in France, in Belgium, fighting in cold and wet trenches and by Christmas 1917, the threat of the war destroying the world was real for a lot of people.

It’s Christmas Eve and all these Americans, even the tough and fearless commanders, are cold, wet, lonely and getting shot at, yet they are singing songs about peace and goodwill. There is no need for noise discipline since the Germans know exactly where the Americans are, so why not sing Christmas carols?

In researching World War I, I found a Christmas card that circulated in 1917. It depicted Soldiers on the Western Front, but instead of the carnage or satire of the war, the Star of Bethlehem was in the night sky above no man’s land, a gesture of peace that would have been a far better alternative.

Stepping back to Christmas 1914, something odd happened that to this day baffles military leaders and scholars.

A British officer reported that “the trees were being illuminated and the opponents began singing, ‘Silent Nacht, Heilig Nacht.’”

They finished singing their carol and the British felt compelled to “retaliate” so they sang ‘The First Noel.’ And so it went until ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ was sung and the Germans immediately joined in with ‘Adeste Fidelis,’ the Latin version of the song.

It actually began an unofficial Christmas truce of several hours in which the Germans and British laid down their weapons, exchanged cigarettes and drank toasts to Christmas.

World War I had been, in effect, a “gentlemen’s war” until May 1915 when the Germans sank the Lusitania, not only with American goods bound for England, but with 128 Americans on board.

That changed everything and that soldier-to-soldier trust was no longer there.

Back home families exchanged gifts 100 years ago just as we do today. Nobody asked for a cell phone or a big-screen TV back then since wireless communication wasn’t even an idea.

Instead, military-themed gifts for children were all the rage; soldiers, rifles, military uniforms.

For those who had a family member working on the war effort, gifts were gloves and other warm clothing, treats like cookies, candy and other homemade items that were allowed to be shipped.

If a Soldier hit a lucky streak and was allowed to take leave during Christmas and get away from the Western Front, he may have made his way back to the United States and that wonderful North Dakota farm.

But it wasn’t enough time. Even if it was a full month of leave, it wasn’t enough time. Nobody wanted to go back, but it was duty for country above emotion.

For those Soldiers who were home at Christmas, they were the ones who got all the attention and rightfully so as they had essentially escaped with their lives and were praying they’d be spared to see another Christmas.

1917 was a difficult year in the United States for no other reason  than the war. Nobody was gaining ground, no man’s land was essentially unchanged three years after the war started, but lives continued to be lost and clergy everywhere kept asking why this suffering could continue to go on, especially during a holiday of peace.

Back then newspapers were the only medium of communication and everyone relied on their local gazette so all eyes in a community were on that periodical.

That’s most likely why a lot of newspapers ran special sections, printed in-house ads and some even went so far as to put the banner headline “Welcome Home” across the top of the front page when a Soldier got back in time for Christmas.

But there’s that part of being a Soldier that just can’t be quantified to let the public know just how significant it is to be home.

For those who were home, it often meant a midnight Mass or a Christmas Day church service with the whole family.

It was such an incredible departure from the war that it can’t be described in any way, shape or form. It was safety and it was sanctuary and it answered a lot of prayers.