The Way We Were: Xmas on the Western Front

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CITY historian JOHN TAYLOR takes another walk through history.

Viewed from the perspective of the 21st century, the First World War now seems as remote in terms of ‘the way we were’ as it is in time.

A time of Empire and patriotic duty.

And yet until just a few months ago there was still an ex-soldier who could vividly recall that era, and the utter carnage and horrors of the first war to be fought on an individual scale.

He was Harry Patch, and having served in the regiment with which the Bletchley Recruiting Officer was associated, had he been a local lad he might well have made his acquaintance at the Bletchley Recruiting Office, which was initially situated in an outbuilding of the Park Hotel.

The outbreak of the war had witnessed a rush of volunteers for the Forces, for apart from righteous belief there was a feeling that if they delayed they might miss out on the action, which, it was anticipated, would be ‘all over by Christmas.’

Thus in a spirit of optimism they marched off to war, and in the following extracts it seems from the letters written home that there was initially little real enmity between the opposing armies.

Serving with A Company, Queen’s Westminster Rifles, Private A. Meadley, from Stratford Road, Wolverton, wrote of his Christmas experience: ‘The Germans in the trenches facing us sang carols, and lighted candles were placed on the parapet of the trench.

‘We exchanged greeting, and we were asked to send a man from our number to meet one of theirs. The meeting took place under very friendly appearances, and it was arranged that no firing should take place during Christmas Day.

‘As soon as it was dawn on Christmas Day, the Germans and our men left their trenches and had quite a friendly time, conversing one with another. The majority of the German soldiers spoke the English language, having worked in England, mostly as waiters.

‘Food was exchanged for cigars and champagne, and a nice day was spent in this manner.’

In a letter to Mrs T. Holdom, of Bletchley, her grandson writes: “We were in the trenches for Christmas, and had the funniest Christmas I have ever had.

‘On Christmas Eve we had orders not to fire until 12 o’clock midnight Christmas Day unless the Germans did, so we shouted across to the Germans that we would not fire unless they did, and they shouted back the same... on Christmas Day they shouted across and wished us a Happy Christmas and, of course, we did the same, and we both got out of our trenches and walked along the top.

‘During the morning we went half way across to the German trenches and beckoned to them to come over to us, which, after a little hesitation, they did. When they arrived we shook hands and exchanged cigarettes, cigars, buttons, money, and anything we could get hold of.’

With the kind help of Mr Alan Kay, of Bletchley, from the local news archive the letters regarding the First World War have now been transcribed for publication, and with it being a humbling experience to read the stories of courage, and epic endurance, it seems incredible that a repeat devastation could have arisen within twenty years.

But then through whatever means it seems that it’s always a minority who herd the majority into the slaughterhouse of their ambitions. Yet perhaps there’s now hope, for with the advent of the internet ‘nation shall speak unto nation’ not with the propaganda of some preening vainglorious politician, or despot, but with the true feeling of the masses, who unsurprisingly want little more than to spend a peaceful life with their families.

In fact this has become increasingly apparent in the recent past, and now those who would seek to manipulate and deceive for their own ends have good cause to fear the ‘web.’

If only it had been around at the time of Kaiser Bill.