Christmas Day on the frontline of the First World War

Roland Shawcross worked as a reporter for the Lancashire Daily Post before signing up to serve in the First World War aged 19. Here is a letter written on New Year's Eve in 1915 describing how the Preston Pals spent Christmas Day on the front in France

Wednesday, 21st December 2016, 2:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th December 2016, 2:58 pm
First World War soldiers in a trench on the Western Front in France wearing paper hats from Christmas crackers

On the part of the front line we are occupying there was no truce.

The message of peace and goodwill was not exchanged between the British and German troops this Christmastime.

Amongst the men the opinion was frequently expressed that we had not come out in order to shake hands with the Huns.

Neither was there any desire to exchange friendly greetings with a foe who as individuals stoop to such fiendish devices as the use of the explosive bullet.

If those at home could see our men not merely put out of action but unnecessarily shattered and maimed as a result of these bullets they would realise that a truce even at Christmas was scarcely appropriate.

And so our Christmas was spent.

Along the British front our troops gathered as equals, celebrating the birth of the Saviour of the World.

Men united together, who have made sacrifices in the past, and are still prepared to make them in the future, with the knowledge that through those sacrifices a nation’s glorious and stainless heritage will be handed down to future generations.

Thoughts of our island home filled many a Briton’s heart in the trenches of France this Christmastime.

Many a happy vision of the past was crowded on our memories, and there was many a yearning to be round the Yuletide fire, to hear once again the merry laughter of the children, to occupy that vacant seat at the old home gatherings.

Yet duty held thousands away in foreign lands amidst the horrors of a world war.

The gathering at which I was present was held in an old barn behind the front line. Festoons hung from the rafters and Chinese lanterns added a touch of Christmas to the scene.

A charcoal fire burned brightly in the centre of the floor, despite the protestations of an old French woman, who feared that her barn might be burnt to the ground.

Fruit, plum pudding, cakes, and all the delicacies associated with Christmas were arranged on a table, whilst candles twinkled on every hand.

The men bronzed with months of campaigning, sat around the fire truly enjoying the brief respite from duty.

It was a scene which can never be forgotten. Choruses we had in plenty.

How strangely appropriate that popular song ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ seemed that night, sung by men who for six months had never seen the home fires they love so well!

Never was there a more varied programme, impromptu, yet possessed with a strange grandeur and pathos.

It was close on midnight when that merry party broke up.

All agreed it had been a success but could not be compared to a Christmas on English soil.

Duties had to be carried out the next day, and on the 27th we were once more on our way to the trenches, traversing roads in many places completely under water, due to the heavy rains.

It was a hazardous journey to the front line exposed not only to enemy artillery, but to machine guns and rifle fire.

Bullets whistled all around, ploughing up the mud in many instances practically at our feet.

Over ponds, deep dikes, and ditches we wended our way on narrow planks until our destination was reached.

The following day our front line was rather heavily shelled but we were let off with two casualties.

Owing to the winter conditions it is seldom that troops are stationed in the front line more than 48 hours.

In the day time owing to the keen vigilance of the German sniper we are unable to move about, and only yesterday morning a captain in the battalion was killed.

Although we have suffered many casualties, our men have had the best of luck, especially when one considers the risk from day to day.

Take for instance our last relief, when we were openly exposed to the German line. A machine gun suddenly opened fire, and bullets flew fast and furious all around, yet there was not a single casualty.

Then, again, there is a marked change in the men, who are now very cool and collected.

Only last night we were called on to work in the front line.

With great planks on their shoulders the men went over open country, laughing and jesting as they foundered in the deepest of mud and water, heedless of the danger they were facing.

They work on the top of the parapet in a manner which would suggest that shells, bombs, and bullets were unknown.

On another occasion a shell burst practically on one of our men.

When the smoke had cleared he was still standing unscathed, calmly inquiring if anyone was hit.

In contrast to such miraculous escapes men have been killed away down in the reserve by stray shots, a fact which naturally originates the idea of fatalism.

The spirit of the men is magnificent.

Like all Tommies, they may grouse on occasion, but for cheerfulness and fortitude they are incomparable.

There is a natural longing after six months’ warfare to have a glimpse of Old England once again, but they wait patiently for their turn to come.