Category Archives: Dr Emma Hanna

An Easter Truce, 1916

Gateways’ Dr Emma Hanna discusses Easter in the trenches in her latest blogpost.

As we approach Easter I’m sure I’m not the only person wondering how the festival was celebrated by the troops during the First World War. A fascinating glimpse into French army life can be provided by one of their many trench newspapers – Le Pépère — Journal Gai du 359ème Régiment d’Infanterie (Merry Newspaper of the 359th Infantry Regiment). The first issue dates from April 21, 1916, two days before Easter. The front-page feature is “Les Oeufs de Pàques” (Easter Eggs) which lists the regiment’s officers next to what each should ideally receive in his oeuf, drawing on a French Easter tradition of exchanging confectionary eggs containing surprise gifts. As with some of the British trench newspapers, such as the Wipers Times, missing letters have been replaced with punctuation marks, perhaps due to a shortage of letters in the print.

Le Pépère — Journal Gai du 359ème Régiment d'Infanterie, 21 April 1916

Le Pépère — Journal Gai du 359ème Régiment d’Infanterie, 21 April 1916

The Imperial War Museum has a photograph of German troops celebrating Easter in their dugout in the Champagne, 8 April 1917. The phrase “Happy Easter – Frohliche Ostern” can be seen written on the door.

©German troops celebrating Easter in their dugout in the Champagne, 8 April 1917

© IWM (Q 61040). German troops celebrating Easter in their dugout in the Champagne, 8 April 1917

For Russian troops the Easter festival was of greater importance than Christmas. Therefore this is a particularly fitting time to dig out the testimony of someone who witnessed an Easter truce on the Eastern Front in 1916. Friedrich Kohn was serving as a medical officer with a Hungarian regiment in Galicia, where Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces were facing each other in entrenched conditions entirely similar to those on the Western Front. In 1981, in a letter to Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton as they were working on material for their book and television programme Peace in No Man’s Land, Kohn recalled the events of Easter Day 1916:

The winter of 1915-16 was very severe and when I joined my regiment at the end of February the country was covered deep in snow. No military action was possible […] The thaw set in and the peace stopped artillery duels between the Austrian and Russian armies started, sometimes by day, but more frequently during darkness.

Then suddenly on Easter Sunday, about 5 o’clock in the morning, about twenty Russians came out of their trenches, waving white flags, carrying no weapons, but baskets and bottles. One of them came quite near and one of our soldiers went out to meet him and asked what he wanted. He asked whether we would not agree to stop the war for a day or two and, in view of Easter, meet between the lines and have a meal together. We told him that first we would have to ask the military authorities whether such a meeting would be possible. The Divisional Commander refused permission. Nevertheless at 12 noon the Russians came out of their trenches and brought with them their military band, who came playing at full strength, and they brought baskets of food and bottle of wine and vodka, and we came out too and had a meal with them. We also had food and wine to offer.

During the meeting both sides seemed to be embarrassed, but both sides were polite to each other and consumed the food and drinks we offered to each other. After a few hours we all went quietly back to our trenches.

I talked with a Colonel who spoke perfect German and he told me that he had lived for several years in Vienna. When I asked him why he was always firing shrapnel at my first aid post- he told me he knew exactly where it was – he promised to leave me alone and he would send a rocket if he had to leave. For the next fourteen days I was left unmolested. Then he sent me a rocket, telling me that his unit were leaving.

Kohn survived the ensuing Brusilov offensive of May that year. He survived the First World War as he later survived imprisonment by the Nazis before the Second World War. His letter to Brown and Seaton concluded that

I have seen demonstrated in front of my own eyes that suddenly people who are trying to kill each other, and will try to kill again when the day is over, are still able to sit together and talk to each other.

Friedrich Kohn’s words taken from Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton, Peace in No Man’s Land (Pan, 1984)

Reflections on the Centenary So Far

Gateways’ Dr Emma Hanna looks back on the first months of the First World War centenary.

The Christmas break has given me time and space to reflect on the centenary so far. The run-up to Christmas is always a frenetic time but this year, with a lot of commemorations of the ‘Christmas Truce’ and my annual 3-day student field trip to Belgium and France, it was particularly busy. Saying that, for me the year 2014 will go down as one of the most productive years of my professional life. Never before have so many conferences, symposia and public events taken place. Edited collections, exhibitions, you name it, we’re doing it. The centenary so far has been a whirlwind of activity.

With students at Lochnagar Crater, La Boiselle

With students at Lochnagar Crater, La Boiselle

The year started on a high with the news that our bid at Gateways had been successful, and as many of us were already working on FWW-related projects we all hit the ground running. In addition to my own research and teaching, this time last year I was working with the British Council on their ‘Football Remembers’ resource and that was a very intense experience: not only did I get to research one of the best myths of 1914-1918 but that project also taught me all there is to know about copyright law. As part of the resource the British Council set up a competition for 8-14 year old pupils to design a memorial to the Christmas Truce. To see the finished design by a ten year old boy from Newcastle unveiled by the Duke of Cambridge at the National Memorial Arboretum on 12th December was really quite something. While I didn’t have anything to do with that memorial I still feel a sense of satisfaction of a project completed and that the resource was doing its job well. I couldn’t be at the unveiling of the memorial in Staffordshire because I was at the Gateways Christmas Truce Symposium at the University of Kent – a really enjoyable event attended by over 50 members of the public. Other memorials have been unveiled. On 8th December I was at Ploegsteert with 25 undergraduate students and our coach got stuck down a small road at Prowse Point cemetery because the lane was full of construction equipment as they were installing a Belgian memorial to the Christmas Truce – featuring, of course, a football. However, the spirit of peace and goodwill did not quite extend to the beleaguered Belgian police officer who helped our coach reverse up 1km of narrow muddy track.

Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Thiepval.

Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Thiepval.

It is always a moving experience going back to the old front line. Even now, as my own tally of visits to the former battlefields is well into double figures, there is always something you missed or didn’t do before. Taking groups of students, and for many it can be their first visit, it’s a cliché but it does help me see the war and the landscape through fresh pairs of eyes. Arranged via the new visitors’ centre at Ploegsteert, a new experience this year was a two hour tour of the area with Claude, a local guide who boarded our coach and showed us the various sites – including of course lots of references to Churchill and Hitler who fought in that area at various times, and the location of two as yet unexploded mines near Messines. We also had two students who recently discovered they each had a great-grandfather buried on the Western Front. Both paid their respects to their predecessors, and both were the first members of their families to visit the graves. I find that particularly moving: how many of those men have gone unvisited for nearly 100 years? During the centenary there will be more visitors to the battlefields than ever before, and in Peronne I did detect centenary fatigue. While the staff at the Historial could not have been more helpful (as always), the locals at various establishments in Peronne appeared weary of foreign (English) visitors. Perhaps they are tired of battlefield tourists, and even the value of 27 croque-monsieurs and a round of Leffe will not alleviate the burden of inhabiting the former battlefields. Even Paul Fussell identified a certain mood around the battlefields in 1975.

Nick Hudson at the graveside of his Great-Grandfather, Private Sidney James Best,20th Battalion London Regiment; died 1st October 1916, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery, France.

Nick Hudson at the graveside of his Great-Grandfather, Private Sidney James Best,20th Battalion London Regiment; died 1st October 1916, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery, France.

Megan Kelleher at the graveside of her Great-Grandfather, Private C. Bonnard, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, died 30th May 1915, buried at La Plus Douve Cemetery, Belgium.

Megan Kelleher at the graveside of her Great-Grandfather, Private C. Bonnard, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, died 30th May 1915, buried at La Plus Douve Cemetery, Belgium.

The war has become very local to me this year. I will always remember the evening of 4th August 2014; after an academic conference in London during the day, I was invited to give a short talk at the start of a ‘Lights Out’ event in Harrietsham parish church in Kent, near to where I live. The organisers had done a great deal of research into the parish during the war, and a cast of 12 villagers ‘performed’ the characters and words of local people from August 1914. It was tasteful and respectful, and it gave me goosebumps to sit in the church where so many of these men worshipped, were baptised and/or married. I have never seen a church so full of people, it was packed. I was only there to give a 10 minute explanation of how the war started and to give a general overview, something I do all the time for students, but it was one of the most moving experiences of my professional life. It felt incredibly emotional as the church bell rang for every man lost, a bell they themselves would have heard and remembered.  I also did some work and a talk on the Great Chart Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Fund, again a village very close to where I live, and reading through so many servicemen’s letters I feel I got to know many of them rather well. When I gave a talk on the collection at the Kent History Centre in Maidstone two of the audience were direct descendants of some of the men, and I was very relieved that they enjoyed the talk and thought that I had done their relatives justice. At times like that this feels very much more than just a job.

Overall the FWW has become very present in our everyday lives. The BBC’s centenary coverage on TV and radio is going to be longer than the war itself, and my Sky+ box at home is groaning under the weight of so many recorded programmes about 1914-1918. The war has also come to the forefront of political debates. John Major invoked the memory of both World Wars just before the Scottish Referendum in September, and the poppies at the Tower ignited a debate about national identity and the ways in which Britain should remember 1914-1918. A left-wing art critic writing in The Guardian slated the memorial as ‘a fake, inward-looking Ukip-type memorial’ [sic.]. He criticized the poppies’ ‘fake nobility’ and asked why were only commemorating British dead and not mourning German, French or Russian casualties. He suggested that a far more fitting memorial would be for the moat of the Tower ‘be filled with barbed wire and bones.’ A Daily Mail journalist was astonished that ‘anyone could politicize this magnificent project, any more than someone might quibble with the Cenotaph.’

Speaking of UKIP, on 9th December at the Menin Gate in Ypres, my students and I saw Nigel Farage at the Last Post ceremony. He didn’t appear to be there in any official capacity – he and his entourage were doing the same as us, paying their respects. However, I was greatly upset by a speaker who gave a short biography of a British officer who ended by saying his death during the conflict was part of the ‘routine wastage’ of the war. I looked at the endless names inscribed on the memorial and I felt both angry and sad that the death of a human being could be described like that. But that is the task ahead for FWW historians during the centenary – not to condone, excuse, or glorify the war and its horrific number of casualties – but to help others as best we can to understand a difficult war fought in difficult circumstances, and above all to ensure that the memory of 1914-1918 is worthy and respectful of those who still lie on the old front line.

All photos courtesy of Dr Emma Hanna, Gateways to the First World War

The Christmas Truce

In our latest blogpost Gateways’ Dr Emma Hanna reflects on the myths and realities of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

© Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). British and German troops meeting in No-Man's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

© Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce, there has been a lot of interest in the story of that particular wartime event. But for me, planning for the commemoration of the Truce started a year ago. I was approached by the British Council to advise on their education pack ‘Football Remembers’, a resource for schools that was sponsored by the Premier League and the Football Association, which also ran a competition for children aged 8-14 to design a memorial to the Truce at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire. Clearly the idea of a football match being played in no-man’s land remains strong in our collective memory of the Christmas Truce, and it was a key feature in an event run by the National Children’s Football Alliance in April when British school children from schools in Kent played sport with students from a school in Germany at Maidstone Football Club. The students had a lot of questions about the Truce and the football match, and I felt rather like a party-pooper in telling them that the Christmas Truce is really a myth – there was no one all-encompassing Truce and neither was there one single England v. Germany fixture in Plugstreet Wood. It is something I have to explain many times over – that there was no one wholesale truce but a series of lots of little events of fraternisation at Christmas 1914, some of which we know included football matches and other rather unexpected events. In Britain the ‘two world wars and one world cup’ mentality remains strong, and Andrew Murrison, a member of the government’s centenary committee, has underlined that perhaps football is the best way to get people interested in not only the Truce but the history of the war more generally. This has upset quite a few military historians, but I see this as the best time to get in there and explain the real history behind the Christmas Truce myth.

Last week I gave a talk about it to the British Legion, and yesterday I was interviewed for a BBC radio programme on the subject where I was asked many questions about ‘what really happened’.  Yes, the beleaguered Pope, Benedict XV, called for a Truce of God in the first week of December 1914, but Britain was incredulous about it, even before two German battleships had shelled the coastal towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough causing the deaths of 122 and injuring over 450 residents. What I find really fascinating is that General Sir Horace Smith Dorrien, commander of II Corps of the BEF in the Ypres Salient, issued orders in the first week of December that he was concerned about the lack of ‘offensive spirit’. He was an experienced soldier and he realised that as weather conditions worsened the men might  be tempted to permit unofficial ceasefires in the run up to Christmas. He was adamant that under no circumstances any ‘intercourse with the enemy’ should be allowed. However, the day after a particularly costly offensive at Ploegsteert Wood on 18th December 1914 British and German troops agreed to permit one another to rise out of their trenches in order to bury their respective dead and collect the wounded. This was not particularly unusual, it had happened before, but further events would follow during that first Christmas of the war – a war that was supposed to be over by then, as the British newspapers claimed in the heady days of August 1914. Neither side was going anywhere. And as it happens, a number of British soldiers and their German counterparts did not follow their orders, much to Smith Dorrien’s frustration. Many of the German High Command found out about the truce after seeing some of the photos in The Times! However, no disciplinary action was ever taken on either side; they probably knew that any reprisals would have been extremely unpopular and that it was best to let the matter lie, which it did pretty much for over 60 years.

While some historians have tried to play down the Christmas Truce, or even deny that anything like it really happened, there is an enormous amount of evidence from soldier’s letters and diaries – including Belgian, French, German and Indian soldiers – that truces of various durations occurred, that they met to bury their dead, had joint burial and carol services, exchanged gifts including food and tobacco, played football, and chatted about their pre-war lives and the war in which they were currently fighting. Incredibly there is even evidence – as shown in the Sainsbury’s advert – that soldiers who had been barbers before the war even offered their services to other side. Even I didn’t believe that until I found the evidence. It is rather bizarre, until you remember that there were hundreds of thousands of German businessmen in London when war broke out, many of whom were barbers, and that their skills would have been put to good use in their wartime lives, too. I also thought the old story about British officers bumping into the German chef of the Trocadero, a high society London nightclub, was a fallacy until I saw the evidence. But not all soldiers approved or took part. The Belgians and the French thought that the British soldiers who did fraternise were at best mad and at worst traitors, and there were many British soldiers, particularly those who had been at the Battle of the Aisne, who refused to fraternise because they did not trust the Germans.

This shows that historians shouldn’t be afraid of the sometimes yawning gap between history and myth. Sometimes, bizarrely, the gap isn’t as wide as we might think, and as the Sainsbury’s advert is just short of 14 million views since it was launched 3 weeks ago, we as historians should engage with the conversation about what the history and memory of the truce means to us in the history of 1914-1918. As is often the case, history can tell us more about the times in which it is being written than the period it purports to recount. The Christmas Truce was an anomaly,  an event which received only a little attention in Britain in January 1915, and I certainly think it is no coincidence that the main representations of the truce – eg Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ and the first history Peace in No Man’s Land by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton – date back to the early 1980s, a time when Britain was at war in the Falklands. We need to remember the more humane parts of the First World War because the conflict itself was so horrific, and that’s the appeal of the Truce – it makes the history of the war more palatable in some ways to see that at one point long-term foes became temporary friends. As with the sea of Poppies at the Tower of London, the Sainsbury’s advert has caught the popular imagination, and anything that increases the interest in the First World War gives us an ideal opportunity to engage in the conversation. Reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, and that is what makes History so interesting.

Emma Hanna is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Greenwich. She is one of the expert speakers at ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a symposium organized by Gateways to the First World War on Friday 12 December 2014. For more information please visit our website.