When I was searching Google for vintage Christmas images, one theme kept coming up over and over again: the relationship between WWI propaganda and Christmas. Now, it’s not one that you’d think of straight away, but it’s a theme that recruiters used over and over again throughout the war. Recruiters soon realized that the best way to get men to sign up to fight was by using emotional tactics.
The message that Christmas was all about giving was blended with the idea that going off to fight would be giving a gift to the country. Patriotism was at all time high. And even those who refused to sign up were pressured into going to war; those who refused to enlist for WWI were given white feathers. These were seen as the ultimate symbol of cowardice.
An even greater amount of posters at the start of the war had promised that ‘the war would be over by Christmas’. WWI propaganda and Christmas was used heavily.
Christmas Truce of 1914
There’s one event that made the already unbearable war that much worse. Soldiers would spend weeks at a time cold, developing trench foot and watching their friends die alongside them on a daily basis. Many developed PTSD that would go undiagnosed for decades and others suffered life-altering injuries. And of course, antibiotics hadn’t even been discovered yet. The promise that the war ‘would be over by Christmas’ had clearly been false and morale was at an all-time low.
No one knows quite how the Christmas Truce of 1914 began but one story goes a little like this: On Christmas eve of 1914, German troops up and down the front lines began singing their version of ‘Silent Night’ (Stille Nacht). The tune is the same as are many of the words. Often troops on either side of the front lines were barely a couple of hundred meters apart. The singing was loud enough that the allied troops could hear. Soon thousands of troops were singing Silent Night in their own tongue; French, German, and English were among the languages sung.
The Christmas Day Truce Begins
The next day, men on both sides dropped their weapons and tenderly emerged from their trenches. No weapons were fired. Instead, the men met and began to make friends. They exchanged chocolate, cigarettes, and other small gifts. They showed each other photos of their families back home and joked together. Some even swapped addresses.
Lots of the men engaged in games of football and aided each other in burying their fallen comrades with the respect and rituals they deserved. This was much needed for the living as much as for the dead; the bodies of fallen troops were often left on the battlefield. Even today, bodies of troops from WWI are regularly found by farmers and construction workers in Northern France and Belgium.
The aftermath of the Christmas Truce
Not all men joined in the Christmas truce of 1914. All things told it was a fairly small event. However, the potential effect it could have on the troops’ ability to fight was unparalleled.
Of course, the officers and commanders in charge of the army knew how bad a truce would be for the troops’ morale. They simply couldn’t afford to see “the enemy” as men just like themselves, with wives, girlfriends, children and lives back home. How were they meant to go into the trenches the next day and shoot at one another if they had made friends with the men they were fighting? I can’t even begin to imagine how hard that next day must have been…
Troops on both sides were informed that ‘fraternizing with the enemy’ would be severed to the highest degree from then on. The highest degree being capital punishment; i.e. death. Soldiers on all sides were forced to go back over the top of the trenches next day, guns in tow and shoot at their new found friends. The alternative was a certain death by firing squad.
WWI Propaganda and Christmas
You can see the extent that WWI propaganda and Christmas were used alongside patriotism to persuade men to enlist to fight int he war.