BEHIND THE IMAGE: Wartime Christmas

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Christmas at the front was about making do. Here, for instance, British soldiers have gathered in a shell hole around a makeshift table. Some are sitting on the ground, others on what appears to be rolled-up sheets of wire.

As they enjoy their sparse meal at Beaumont-Hamel on 25 December 1916, the men seem indifferent to a fellow soldier’s grave just inches away.

By this stage in the war, such as sight was commonplace. So too was the destruction that can be glimpsed on the horizon: the fields of northern France that had transformed into a man-made desert of rotting corpses, mangled equipment, and the occasional scorched tree stump.

The macabre image is from a new book, Wartime Christmas, published by London’s Imperial War Museum. Written by Anthony Richards, it explores how the festive season was celebrated during the two world wars.

In both conflicts, improvisation was the watchword. Soldiers had to make the most of often squalid conditions, with many spending Christmas either on the front line or in a prisoner-of-war camp. At home, meagre rations were of little consolation for missing fathers, husbands, and sons.

By the time this picture was taken, there would be no repeat of the Christmas truce, the episode two years earlier in which soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches to socialise, exchange cigarettes, and even play football.

Too much brutality had since taken place for any possible reconciliation. The Battle of the Somme, which reduced the village of Beaumont-Hamel to rubble, had dominated the previous six months.

Yet the conflict was only at its midpoint: there would be another festive season to endure before the November 1918 armistice brought it to an end.

The war would indeed be over by Christmas – but four years later than anyone had anticipated.

Wartime Christmas by Anthony Richards is published by the Imperial War Museum (£12.99)

This is an article from the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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