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Over by Christmas?

By Christmas 1914, Britain had been at war for four and a half months.
© University of Hull

After centuries of relying on the Royal Navy for its security, the most important change in how Britain fought the war was the decision by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, to raise a mass army of volunteers. The recruitment process was keenly reported on in local newspapers. Mrs T. Hutson of Skegness shared a letter from her son who was already a part-time soldier in the Territorial Force. He wrote from his training camp in August 1914:

“Dearest Mother and all. – Just a few lines to let you know I am in the land of the living, and most anxiously waiting to cut up a few yards of German sausage. […]
WE ARE READY, AND GOD HELP THE KAISER!
Tell my dear old dad not to worry, but to look forward with a stout heart and with confidence that your sons will do their duty.”

By Christmas 1914, Britain had been at war for four and a half months. Its small professional army had been despatched to the Western Front, and the army had been expanded by an extraordinary wave of volunteering: just over a million men had joined the army by the end of the year. None of those volunteers had yet reached the front. It is sometimes asserted that men ‘rushed to the colours’ amidst a wave of ‘war enthusiasm’ believing that they needed to hurry and not miss out because the war would be ‘over by Christmas’. Yet far from doing so simply as a result of joyful enthusiasm, there was also a spirit of worried determination, patriotism and duty, as well as economic need motivating these men. There’s little sign that anyone thought the war would be finished in a matter of weeks – if that were true, there would have been no point in raising a huge volunteer army that would take months to train.

The atrocity stories will have played their part in convincing the volunteers that they faced a terrible enemy and that the war was being fought over the most serious possible issues. Nonetheless, despite the hatred that was fuelled by atrocity stories, the most famous story about these early months of the war is the Christmas truce: the moment when British and German soldiers climbed out of their trenches on Christmas Day to fraternize in no man’s land on the Western Front. They drank, played football, exchanged souvenirs and buried the dead. Their shared humanity and desire to mark a religious festival outweighed feelings of enmity and antagonism, albeit briefly.

Christmas Day Truce - The Daily Mirror newspaper

‘An Historic Group: British and German Soldiers Photographed Together’, The Daily Mirror (unknown date)

© University of Hull
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British Germanophobia During WW1: 'The Enemy at Home'

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