Interviews online offer insight into Great War

Most people are by now familiar with the enduring story of the Christmas truce on the Western Front in 1914, the first year of the Great War.

Soldiers from both sides emerged from their troglodyte worlds in the trenches, met in no-man’s-land, exchanged gifts, posed for photographs and even played football against each other.

The impromptu kickabout in particular, although greatly exaggerated, captured the public imagination.

The military authorities on both sides, however, did not see this episode in the same light. After all, their job was to win the war.

They quickly put an end to these high jinks, threatening courts martial to anyone fraternising with the enemy.

By the Christmas of 1915, the military top brass had clamped down on such behaviour, and although a number of similar incidents occurred, these were sporadic and quickly ended.

There was to be no repeat of the previous year’s festivities, although occasionally throughout the war, hostilities stopped briefly so that both sides could bury their dead.

The Christmas truce gets a mention in an excellent series of interviews with First World War veterans conducted by the BBC in the early 1960s and available on the BBC iPlayer.

They are remarkable accounts of the war and vividly bring to life the conditions endured by those involved.

Mainly given by soldiers who fought at the front, they also include an interview with Mabel Lethbridge, a munitions worker from London, who describes the danger of her work filling shells. She gives a vivid account of conditions in the factories, and how hairclips, rings, in fact anything metallic was forbidden in case it sparked an accident.

In her case, this was to be so as an explosion cost her a leg.

The interviews are interesting first-hand accounts of the first real industrial and technological war.

Both sides had the capability to bomb each other out of existence and often nearly succeeded.

The vast majority of injuries and deaths came as a result of shelling.

The Germans possessed the heavy cannon Big Bertha, named after the matriarch of the family commissioned to build it.

Big Bertha could fire its shells from the safety of 50 miles away and land them in the heart of Paris.

At the start of the war, the flimsy aeroplanes of the day were used mainly for reconnaissance.

Gradually they became more offensive, carrying bombs and machine-guns, and they were sturdier and faster, more sophisticated structures at the war’s end.

Tanks first appeared in 1916. Although big, heavy and slow moving, they were a formidable asset in crossing the hell of no-man’s-land.

The interview with the tank veteran is particularly illuminating in describing the uncomfortable conditions inside a tank going into battle.

The Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project is researching casualties of the war from North Tyneside.

As part of this project, the play Death at Dawn by borough playwright Peter Mortimer is doing the rounds in February at Wallsend Memorial Hall and the Discovery Museum in Newcastle. Tickets are now on sale. Call (0191) 259 2743 for prices and details.

You can visit the project website if you are interested in helping with research or if you have information about anyone killed in the war.

You can contact the project through the website or send me an email at tommy@

The main project workroom at Linskill Community Centre, in Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for relatives with Great War artefacts, for visitors and for anyone wanting to learn more about the project or how to get involved.

The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.

Tommy McClements

(Project Research Co-Ordinator)