All quiet on the Western Front—Christmas 1914

Published in Artefacts, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Volume 22

cigarette case

In the rush to arms, many politicians and soldiers believed that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’. With the failure of the German Schlieffen plan to defeat the allies, however, the armies on the Western Front quickly became bogged down, and all sides took to the trenches. When Christmas 1914 actually arrived, the event was marked with gift boxes from the royal family, official Christmas cards and a brief truce in the trenches. This Princess Mary cigarette box (above) was destined for Private Grumley of the 2nd Connaught Rangers. He had been killed at Ypres in November 1914, however, and never received it. Over 250,000 of these brass boxes were sent to soldiers at the front or at sea; they contained cigarettes or—for the small number of non-smokers—a paper and pencil. Boxes were also sent to those not on the front line, as well as to the Indian Army (these containing spices and sweets). On the box was an embossed image of Princess Mary’s head in profile and the names of Britain’s allies—Serbia, Montenegro, France, Russia, Japan and Belgium.

On Christmas Day a brief truce was declared on some sections of the front. It was a particularly cold day and the hard frost meant that soldiers could walk in a mud-free no-man’s-land. Against orders given by their respective high commands, German and Allied soldiers got together between the trench lines to exchange gifts and enjoy a few hours of peace. Members of the Royal Irish Rifles sent home this official Christmas card (below) and were involved in the truce. Their War Diary reported on Christmas Eve: ‘Nothing of importance happened until 8pm when heralded by various jovialities from their trenches the Germans placed lamps on their parapets and commenced singing’.

Chirstmas card

The truce came about on account of the season, the cold weather and a desire to honour those who had died—and, more importantly, to bury them. One such case was that of Lt Richard Nugent, who went missing in action in December 1914. He was born in Dublin and his grandfather was the earl of Westmeath. His fellow officers of the Scots Guards used the Christmas truce to find out what had happened to him in a battle on 18 December. The German officers were able to confirm that he had been killed and buried, but his body was never recovered when the war ended in 1918.

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