First World War Christmas Photographs
For the final object in this year’s blog we have a set of photographs belonging to Captain William Harding Colvin Edwards of the 1st Battalion Black Watch. These images were taken on Christmas Day 1914, and show the men of the 1st Battalion in the reserve trenches behind the line, hence the reason they are standing up.
Christmas Day 1914 has become synonymous with the idea of the Christmas Truce, and the idea that all across the lines enemy combatants suddenly left their trenches in a spirit of mutual peace and fraternised, much to the anger of senior commanders, in No Man’s Land. Sadly though this event did happen, it was by no means universal, in fact it appears to have only happened in a few areas, for most of the men of the British Expeditionary Force it was business as usual, which meant trying to kill your enemy without being killed yourself.
In fact the Christmas Truce was restricted to the following British Divisions the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and parts of the Meerut Division, and did not in fact begin on Christmas Day, but rather a few days beforehand. The first mention we have of a form of truce, aside from the temporary ones that allowed for the burial of the dead of both sides following a battle, is on the 23rd December. On that day it is recorded in the diary of Karl Aldag, a German soldier, that hymns could be heard being sung by both sides, and that some German soldiers had begun carrying small Christmas trees into the trenches which were decorated, and occasionally set up on the parapet. The British 23rd Brigade appear to have organised a very local truce with the enemy in front of their lines, as yet though there is no fraternisation.
Christmas Eve brought an end to the sleet and rain that had made so many soldiers’ lives miserable, and instead the ground hardened into a solid frost. British soldiers begin to report back in astonishment at the appearance of paper lanterns and decorated Christmas trees being seen on the enemy parapets. Carols are sung, which are joined in by soldiers from the other side, and slowly, oh so slowly, tentative meetings occur. At first these are to bury the dead, again with soldiers on both sides joining in with. Then these informal meetings begin to gather apace and soon in some areas there is open fraternisation, with gift giving, and occasional photographs taken. Battalion commanders are, on the whole, uncertain how to react to this spontaneous act, and most simply allow it to happen.
Christmas Day saw much of the same, there was fraternisation in No Man’s Land, spread out, intermittently, across roughly half of the total length of the British line, but, as I said earlier, this is by no means a universal act, and in fact 81 British soldiers are going to be killed, some of them the victims of German snipers. As the day draws to a close the soldiers gradually return to their trenches, where they eat their Christmas meal, if they had not done so earlier in the day. For some units, such as the 2nd Grenadier Guards the day is very different as they lose a number of men in bitter fighting.
The Christmas Truce, where it did appear on the line gradually died out in the next few days until by the 2nd of January it was back to business. By this time you might be asking what, if anything, did the Black Watch do during the time of the truce, well the simple fact is there wasn’t a truce where the Watch were. The Official War Diary for that period records, very starkly:
“Colonel distributes Their Majesties Christmas Cards at day break. Relieved by 1st Coldstream Guards, 1st Scots Guards, 1st Camerons about 8.30pm and march back to Cuinchy. Draft 40 arrive from base. Casualties Men 1 killed, 5 wounded.