Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Goodies from the Ghosts of 1914

Hello dear readers,
I hope you are happy, warm, and enjoying yourselves as Christmas approaches! Here are a few amazing WWI history finds from around the web:

The IWM's Great War Centenary has a wonderful blog post with audio about the bitter winter of 1916-17. This is the same winter pictured in the photo of men having Christmas dinner in a shell hole in my last post. The photo appears at the bottom of the Centenary's blog post, along with many other vivid illustrations and artifacts from this truly dreadful winter.

I've just found the new World War One Discovery Programme, which gathers online WWI resources from all over. A phenomenal resource.

Oxford's World War I Centenary Programme has an informative blog about WWI-related events and resources (mostly in the UK).


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Across the Great Divides

A soldier on leave at Epsom, 1914. © IWM, Item Q 53560.

It's December 19th and Christmas is less than a week away! Last year at this point, I was writing about the famous 1914 Christmas Truce and about gifts for soldiers, like the Princess Mary's Gift Box. Both of these phenomena reflect the crossing of significant barriers or divides, whether that which lay between one side and the other on the battlefield or between home and front. A wartime Christmas mediated such boundaries in many ways. Christmas was a time to set aside differences, in the case of the truce, which was said to involve games of football, solemn reflections, and food and gift exchanges. It was also a particularly meaningful time for civilians to connect with troops.

The poster above suggests a pipe or a pouch of tobacco as a gift for a soldier, urging the shopper to make the purchase as a safeguard against forgetting a serviceperson altogether (a sad and hopefully unlikely possibility). Below, the so-called "Sheffield Telegraph" Fund was a safeguard against the absence of Christmas puddings for soldiers:

"Christmas Puddings for Soldiers and Sailors," ca. 1914-18.  © IWM, Item PST 10793.

The soldiers who would have received such treats from home were not so lucky as to have been granted leave for the holiday (like their sledding comrade in the first image here). However, these men would have celebrated the holidays in as merry a fashion possible. Photographs from the IWM's collections database suggest that every effort was made to mark the occasion, even in the harshest of conditions:

Christmas dinner in a shell-hole, 1916. © IWM, Item Q1630.

I can't tell whether the group in the above photo are dining in the company of a grave (marked by the mound of gravel and wooden cross?). It certainly appears so. As I noted in my previous post about wartime theatre, many festivities on the front had to confront severe circumstances or limitations in achieving their various illusions. Regardless of whether my suspicion about the photo here is correct, the soldiers pictured are participating in a kind of theater of their own, replicating as closely as possible a festive meal shared between loved ones who are gathered specially for the occasion. Given the grim necessity of eating a surely modest supper whilst assembled in a blasted crater and possibly in the company of a dead comrade, the distance between the real and the imagined or fancifully replicated is clear, though the effort to bridge this divide is moving.

That the men keep their helmets on throughout this meal suggests that while their meal may represent a respite from the everyday reality of war, very serious danger persists. It is possible, of course, that there is no attempt to erase the battlefield here. The soldiers may well be embracing their prevailing reality (especially given their chronologically and psychologically entrenched position in the disastrous midle years of the war), with the nod to holiday tradition a somewhat farcical performance that can only highlight the impossible distance between themselves and a pre-war era or a civilian world.

Back at home, civilians seeking a bit of festive escape from the everyday might have attended the "Christmas in Wartime" event:
"Christmas in Wartime," ca. 1915. © IWM, Item PST 1074.
A khaki-clad Father Christmas sits atop the great performance venue in this poster, welcoming all to attend the fundraising event, though also reminding them of the war's heavy burden on the nation, especially at the holidays. Whether at home or on the front, Britons were well aware of Christmas's symbolic power, which in no small way was/is tied to its theatricality--its ability to represent and permit the kind of joy, peace, or communal celebration that we wish for all year round. Our participation in Christmas festivities is a way of participating in a performance--an enactment of the happy things that we want to be true or real on more than just one day out of every three hundred sixty-five (which might explain my need to set up our Christmas tree and start listening to holiday music right after Thanksgiving this year!). Nearly a century ago, our ghosts of 1914 must have longed for the normalcy of Christmas's usual illusions. Their attempts to cross the divides of war and home or wartime and peacetime evince these heartfelt holiday wishes.

I hope you've enjoyed this first set of images and musings under our Great War Christmas tree this year. I'll be back with more holiday goodies leading up to the big day next week!

© Fiona Robinson

Saturday, December 15, 2012

India in Flanders Field: "Our Day," December 1917

"Our Day" Poster, India, 1917. © IWM, Item PST 12592.
Another almost-Christmas post for my readers today. I found this interesting poster in the IWM Collections Database this morning whilst looking for holiday-related items. It was, I discovered, a timely find. Almost exactly 95 years ago, the Red Cross's "Our Day" celebrations took place in India. 

I managed to locate this digitized newspaper article (oh, how I love the internet!) about the festivities at the National Library of Australia's website. On December 13th, 1917, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, all across India on the 12th, a fundraising effort and various Imperial huzzahs (marked by Union Jack "buttonholes," lovingly circulated "portraits of Their Majesties," etc.) were raised.

Here's another poster from "Our Day," this one more clearly linking the day's purpose to the Red Cross's fundraising in India:

"Our Day" Poster, 1917, India. © IWM, Item PST  12590.
According to the 1917 or 1918 book, The Work of the American Red Cross, which reported on efforts of the American branch of the organization as well as its international collaborations from "the outbreak of War to November 1, 1917," the "Our Day" fundraising campaign took place in many nations and was a tremendous fundraising success for the British Red Cross. Here, for instance, is a poster proclaiming a different "Our Day" in South Africa:

"Our Day" poster, South Africa, ca. 1917 (?). © IWM, Item PST 12337.
In prior years, the Red Cross had organized "Our Day" campaigns, though all indications are that 1917 was the first and/or only year of India's participation. The posters' imagery suggests an effort to make or find order amongst the chaos of the battlefield. Angelic or benevolent figures represent the Red Cross's hopeful, helpful, presence amid the pain and struggle of soldiers. The bright white light in the South African poster or the nurse's crisp apron are depicted rising above strife and focus our attention within each image. The first poster (at top) is the least similar in its imagery, though its promise that the funds collected will go primarily to the "men fighting in Mesopotamia" is supported by the various sketches of soldiers in action.

If you are moved to remember soldiers' and/or their families this holiday season, you might check out my earlier posts about service or contribution opportunities among several well-respected charities in the U.S. and Britain. For more about India's role in the Great War, take a look at earlier writings in the "India in Flanders Field" series here on "Ghosts of 1914."

Next time we'll get into the holiday spirit and begin honoring Christmas with the ghosts of 1914. To my readers celebrating Hanukkah, may you enjoy the last weekend of the festivities. 

© Fiona Robinson

Friday, December 7, 2012

Great War Festivities: The Theater

Hello Readers,
December will be a month of festivities here at "Ghosts of 1914." While we will, of course, be looking at December holidays, I wanted to start us off with a brief consideration of some other kinds of festivities. Included in that category are the many, many, theatrical performances and events that were so vividly a part of Great War experience at home and on the front.

Canadian performers (including a female impersonator) getting ready for a show, 1917. © IWM, Item  CO 2013.

Theater was an important aspect of the war--entertainment for troops and civilians was an important cultural space or experience in which relaxation, pleasure, and a bit of escapism were possible. As the above photo of a Canadian performer preparing to play a female character (because women would not have been present on the front) shows us, wartime theater often worked within many limitations to achieve its illusions. While doing research on British P.O.W. camps, for instance, I discovered that imprisoned soldiers frequently participated in light-hearted theatrical shows or other entertainments. The disparity between such momentary fantasy and the horrible gravitas of a prisoner's typical existence is quite moving. Despite (or perhaps because of) grim circumstances and daily oppression, prisoners of war from many nations embraced the opportunity to set reality aside and don costumes, sing or dance, and play dramatic roles. There were politically-motivated theatrical events for P.O.W.s too. A pamphlet or flier in the IWM collection represents a German P.O.W.  "production of music, recitations, and a lecture" all about William Shakespeare at a camp on the Isle of Man. 

Troops in service and civilians at home were also committed to the theater in wartime. There are dozens and dozens of beautiful and exciting images representing the theater of war in the IWM's wonderful collections database. Posters and artworks concerning exhibitions of war photographs, reenactments, concerts, comedy acts, and all sorts of other entertainments can be found. Just a sampling of these resources can demonstrate the wide variety of theatrical festivities that our ghosts of 1914 might have enjoyed. For example, female munitions workers watch a show in this lovely sketch by Nellie Isaac:

Nellie Isaac, "At a Performance in the Canteen Theatre," ca. 1914-18. © IWM, Item ART 2318.
An aptly-named company, "The Shrapnels," advertise their upcoming concert for British troops in a 1915 poster:

A performing troupe with a lovable though somewhat odd name, "The Merry Magnets," advertises a pleasant-sounding outdoor concert during the last summer of the war:

"The Merry Magnets," 1918. © IWM, Item PST 13757.

At home in London, the Women's Auxiliary Force advertises a multi-faceted event including a flower show, carnival, costume parade, and various musical groups to be held at the Savoy Hotel, 1918.  From all indications, this was a high-society fundraiser:

"Floral Fete and Carnival," 1918. © IWM, Item PST 5486.

Thank you for joining us for this little exploration of one of the many scenes that played out on the stage of Great War history! Stay tuned for holiday-themed posts next time at Ghosts of 1914.

© Fiona Robinson