North East study of First World War Christmas truce

Pack on famous First World War Christmas truce goes to North East schools and churches

Am image from the schools' Christmas truce pack
Am image from the schools' Christmas truce pack

Not long after Christmas in 1914, readers of The Journal would have come across some startling news from the Western front in their paper.

A soldier from Gateshead had written to a friend in Low Fell, describing the now famous Christmas truce in which thousands of British and German front line troops had stopped fighting and gathered together in No Man’s Land.

They exchanged gifts, family photographs and addresses, shared food and drink and even played football.

The Low Fell friend had presumably passed the letter to The Journal, which printed the Tynesider’s account, which starts by explaining what happened on Christmas Eve 100 years ago.

“The Germans lit up their trenches and started calling across ‘Merry Christmas’. We responded in the same way and then we started singing songs and carols to one another.

“All shooting had stopped. We walked about the tops of the trenches and called out to one another. Then some of our chaps walked out and met some of the Germans halfway, wishing each other a merry Christmas, shook hands and said they would not fight today.

“When Christmas Day came along, everything was covered in snow. Then we heard the Germans singing ‘Silent night, Holy night’, and they put up a notice saying ‘Merry Christmas’, and so we put one up too.

“While they were singing our boys said, ‘Let’s join in,’ so we joined in and when we started singing, they stopped. And when we stopped, they started again.

“ Then one German took a chance and jumped up on top of the trench and shouted out, ‘Happy Christmas, Tommy!’ So of course our boys said, ‘If he can do it, we can do it,’ and we all jumped up.

“A sergeant-major shouted ‘Get down!’ But we said, ‘Shut up Sergeant, it’s Christmas time.’ And we all went forward to the barbed wire.

“One German soldier has given me his address to write to him after the war. They were quite a decent lot of fellows I can tell you. I know this seems an unbelievable story but it is fact. I am sure if it was left to the men there would be no war.”

The extract is included in a pack for teachers on the Christmas truce which has been created by the Martin Luther King peace committee, a joint venture between Newcastle and Northumbria universities.

It promotes peace initiatives in memory of the visit of the civil rights leader to Newcastle University in 1967 to receive an honorary degree.

Another pack has been prepared for churches so that services, as well as schools, can recall the front line events of 1914 which so alarmed and infuriated the High Commands of both sides, who ordered a prompt resumption of hostilities and even removed soldiers “tainted” by the truce experience and replaced them with fresh troops.

German and British soldiers mingle during the Christmas truce, pictured by H Robson of the Northumberland Hussars
German and British soldiers mingle during the Christmas truce, pictured by H Robson of the Northumberland Hussars
 

A soldier from Jarrow wrote a letter on Boxing Day about stopping fighting to celebrate Christmas with the Germans, but finished by adding: “Now today it is different. Where we were at peace with them yesterday, we are at war today and the guns are roaring as usual and the rifles are being fired. It is a queer time right enough!”

Arthur Pelham-Burn, a 19-year-old lieutenant, also wrote about a joint service held on Christmas Eve by the two sides to bury their dead.

“The mass burial of the dead was awful, too awful to describe so I won’t attempt it, but the joint burial service was most wonderful. Chaplain Adams arranged the prayers and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first by our Padre and then in German. . It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other.”

Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden wrote: “ The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over.”

Research by the British Council earlier this year confirmed the Christmas Truce as one of the most recognised moments of the First World War – with more than two thirds of UK adults aware of the football matches that took place.

Dr Nick Megoran, a lecturer in political geography at Newcastle University, has been involved in creating the resource packs.

His church, Heaton Road Baptist Church in Newcastle, is holding a carol service on December 21 at 6pm when the Northumberland Hussars will take part – as they did during the 1914 truce, with one of their number taking a photograph of the two sides coming together.

Nick, honorary chaplain to Newcastle University, says: “These were not isolated incidents but were widespread right down the Anglo-German fronts from the North Sea to Switzerland, made possible by shared traditions of Christian celebration. It is estimated that 100,000 men took part.

“It was a hopeful moment of recognition of common humanity and a brief rejection of the terrible violence of industrialised war pursued by rulers in a deadly game of global imperial competition for territories and resources.

“They followed weeks of unofficial fraternization by soldiers who discovered that, rather than being the monsters portrayed in state propaganda, the other side were men like themselves with a preference for staying alive rather than dying.

“Indeed throughout the entire war many combatants managed, through a ‘live-and-let-live’ system, to reduce risk of death by local truces and tacit understandings that angered the high commands of both sides.

“Nonetheless the December 1914 truces are a key moment in the history of the period when the remembrance of Christmas as a time of peace and goodwill overcame the hostility.

“These spontaneous acts of festive goodwill directly contradicted orders from high command, and offered an evocative and hopeful – albeit brief - recognition of shared humanity.”

The truce packs can be downloaded from www.mlkpc.org

There will be a series of events to mark the truce, including a fully booked night at the cinema 1914-style at Newcastle Discovery Museum, which will feature scenes of Allied troops celebrating Christmas at the Front.

This special compilation from the British Film Institute recreates the mix of comedies, dramas, travelogues and newsreels which would have formed a typical night out in 1914.

The truce and its kickabouts will also be marked by Football Remembers Week from December 6-14,

A joint effort between the Premier League, The FA, the Football League and the British Council.

Dr Nick Megoran
Dr Nick Megoran
 

Among the activities are: A Moment in History.

For the matches in the Barclays Premier League, the Sky Bet Championship and the FA Cup Second Round from December 6-8, all players who start the match will pose together in a group photograph as a mark of respect to those who played in 1914. The pictures will be uploaded to a special website.

Fans, teams and schools are asked to upload their pre-match pictures to the same site via social media. Any match of any size can be uploaded, from school to Sunday league fixtures, five-a-side matches to kickabouts in the back garden.

The site will act as a moment of record of football in 2014, a century on from the First World War, and will be preserved for future generations.

* Football Remembers poster design competition.

Young people are invited to create posters telling the stories of footballers who fought in the First World War and send them to the National Football Museum in Manchester https://schoolsonline.britishcouncil.org/classroom-resources/football-remembers/find-a-footballer

Newcastle schoolboy's football truce memorial

Next week will see the unveiling of a memorial to the Christmas truce designed by a 10-year-old Newcastle schoolboy.

Spencer Turner’s idea came tops in a nationwide competition and will now be on show permanently at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

It was Newcastle United’s Steven Taylor and Adam Armstrong who surprised Spencer Turner with the news that his design was a winner.

“The centenary of the Christmas Truce match will allow football to pay its respects,” said Steven Taylor.

The players visited Farne Primary School at Newbiggin Hall Estate, to deliver the news that Spencer’s drawing of a handshake with a football had been selected by the Duke of Cambridge, who is president of the FA, and Arsenal and England forward Theo Walcott.

“I did a lot of research about the Christmas Truce,” said Spencer.

“I found it interesting that football could stop people from fighting and shooting at each other and instead it brought people together.

“So I went through a few designs before I decided on that one. I thought a few people might draw players standing up shaking hands and I just thought it might be nice just to show the handshake. That’s what you do before a match as an act of friendship.”

As well as the new memorial, the Premier League’s Christmas Truce International Tournament will feature under-12 teams, playing on a new 3G pitch that the league has gifted to the city of Ypres.

Ten teams will play in the tournament: two each from the Premier League, German Bundesliga, French Ligue 1, Belgium Pro League, and one each from Scotland and Austria

Spencer’s design was selected from 33 shortlisted entries and Theo Walcott said: “ Huge congratulations to Spencer whose design was very impressive.”

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