Commemorating the 1914 Christmas truce

Northumberland Hussars and some German officers in the Christmas truce.
Northumberland Hussars and some German officers in the Christmas truce.

The Great War had not acquired that shortened title when the fighting that began in August, 1914 ground to a halt and winter set in for the horse- drawn armies on both sides, who settled down to sit out the next few months and plan their spring offensives for 1915.

As both sides dug in, the breastworks and crudely fashioned trench works hurriedly thrown up needed to be made more permanent and ‘habitable’ (insofar as that term could ever be applied to the warrens of excavations that would become home for the next four years for millions of allied and enemy soldiers alike).

The war clearly would not be over by Christmas and as the celebration of the nativity approached many men would be thinking of their families at home.

Likewise their families would be sending comforts and little extras to make their time more bearable. Queen Mary would send a gift box of cigarettes or chocolate to all the British and Dominion troops serving on the Western Front and elsewhere. These little Royal gift tins are frequently to be seen today at antique markets; and a box with its contents intact – not everyone was a smoker even then – can fetch more than £100.

The next few weeks will see the story of the Christmas truces played out in many formats, even being ‘recruited’ for the purposes of marketing the retail markets of major supermarkets and manufacturers. A flurry of commemorative football matches will try to re-enact the widespread stories of men on both sides coming out of their trenches and exchanging gifts in an example of the still surviving feelings of common humanity they shared at this time of year, That fraternisation posed a threat to the offensive spirit of the men in the eyes of their commanders and was not encouraged or permitted in the following years. Regrettably, the coming year of fighting in 1915, with the introduction of such horrors as poison gas, would destroy almost any willingness on either side to engage in such simple acts of kindness or surviving sense of communal endurance in their situation.

The Net, our borough’s newly-opened Heritage Centre in Clifford’s Fort, Fish Quay, is holding a Hands-on History day on Saturday, December 6, from 11am to 3pm. The project will be attending to aid their aim of providing a novel way to spend a day by making our new book The Response, telling the history of the war in the North East available with the newly-bottled ale Tyneside Tommy from local brewer Three Kings Brewery.

Bottles feature a novel form of labelling with a dog tag-style leaflet attached to each bottle telling a cameo story of one of our local Tyneside Tommies.

The book and bottles will be available separately or as an ideal gift together in a special offer pack. The Response authors will be on hand to sign copies of the book along with other local writers who have contributed to the history of the River Tyne and its communities, including Mike Coates, Jack Shotton and Charlie Steel with Dan Turner who will be launching his new book – Fish Quay Folk.

The final in the series of war-themed talks will be given on December 11, at North Shields Customer First Centre (Library). Ian McArdle MA will deliver his final talk in what has been a very popular series of six, entitled Dealing with the battle whose name still resonates with the French today: Verdun – 1916. The talk (6.30pm-7.30pm) is free but prior booking is essential either by phone 643 5270, email northshields.library@northtyneside.gov.uk or in person at North Shields Library.

Our Information Centre on Tynemouth Front Street is open this Sunday only from noon to 4pm, then closed until Spring. The Project Workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields is open from 10am to 4pm weekdays.