WWI Diaries Testify of a Legendary Christmas

A Tale of Unity in Christ Despite the Strains of the War to End All Wars

As told in a Christmas 2016 post by the Christian Broadcast Network, Christian fellowship overcame adversity during World War I. This tale came to us via diaries written by Robert Hamilton and discovered by Andrew Hamilton.

Each year, Andrew Hamilton lays a wreath at the World War I monument in his small English village, a tribute to the grandfather he barely knew.

“What do you remember of him?” asked John Jessup.

“I just remember an old man who shouted a lot, because he was deaf.  He had lost his hearing during the first World War, so he was very quite frightening.”  replied Sir Andrew Hamilton, grandson of Captain Robert Hamilton.  “When I read his diaries, I was amazed at the life he had been involved in.”

As Hamilton writes in his book, Meet at Dawn Unarmed, his grandfather, Capt. Robert Hamilton, kept diaries from 1913 to 1950. Most years were fairly mundane, with one remarkable exception: 1914.

“Wednesday the 5th of August. Wire to mobilize at 5:30 am,” Hamilton’s grandfather wrote. “Capt. Hamilton was part of the initial wave of British troops in what came to be known as the First World War.”

The general consensus was the fighting would be over by Christmas.  Just one day earlier, German troops had invaded Belgium and England joined the fight. Ironically, the leaders of the opposing sides were first cousins: Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and King George V of England.  The tiny country of Belgium was caught in the middle.

“This very provincial, rural area of Belgium was almost at the center of the world attention, Piet Chielens, coordinator of the In Flanders Field Museum, told CBN News. “I grew up listening to stories of elderly people in my village that had to do with the war.”

German troops cut a path of destruction through Belgium into France. Allied forces stopped them outside of Paris, pushing them back, but only so far. A stalemate ensued, with both sides literally digging in. Trench warfare on the Western Front had begun.

“September the 18th,” Hamilton’s diary reads. “Several men killed and wounded in the trenches by shell fire… This was without exception the most miserable night ever spent. I stood all night in water up to my ankles and the rain pouring down.”

Some of the original trenches from over 100 years ago remain. There were two parallel, zig-zagging trenches, built by German and Allied Forces, stretching over 450 miles. In some places, the opposing armies were only 50 yards apart.

“Both parties have dug in and the cold is coming in, Piet Chielens explained. “And so all of a sudden the first enemy is not your opponent to the other side of the ‘No Man’s Land,’ but it’s the cold.”

By the end of November, there were over 1.5 million casualties on the Western Front. As the stalemate continued, it became clear the war would not be over by Christmas.

The outside world pushed for an official Christmas truce, including Pope Benedict IV, who asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”

British Brigadier General Horace Smith-Dorrien, however, issued a directive forbidding fraternization, saying it “destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.”

“December the 24th. We marched up to our trenches, a little downhearted to spend Christmas Day in them,” Hamilton recorded.

By now Hamilton’s friend, artist Bruce Bairnsfather, had joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a machine gun officer. He recounted his war experiences in the book, Bullets and Billets.

On Christmas Eve, Bairnsfather remembered going to the trenches, “being very down on my luck about this, as anything in the nature of Christmas Day festivities was obviously knocked on the head.”

But the Germans didn’t let war stop their celebration. They displayed Christmas trees in their trenches. And on December 23, they held a church service in a bombed-out sugar refinery.

School teacher Lt. Kurt Zehmisch served in the 134th Saxon Regiment. Like Hamilton, he kept a diary during the war.

“We sang the song, ‘This is the Day the Lord Has Made.’ The celebration moved many to tears,” Zehmisch said.

“I think Christmas in those days was much more an important festival in the German culture than it was in French or Belgian or Anglo Saxon countries,” Chielens said.

“I ordered my men that on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day no shots were to be fired from our side if it could be avoided,” Zehmisch recorded.

Then something extraordinary happened.

“No sooner had we settled into the trenches, we (and the Brits) tried to draw attention to each other,” Zehmisch continued.

“The spirit of Christmas began to permeate us all,” Bairnsfather said in his diary. “We tried to plot ways and means of making the next day, Christmas, different in some way to others.”

Additionally, if you like this, you might visit the post from last Christmas that includes a Sainsbury tribute to the same event or you might view the video below.

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