a group of soldiers singing on Christmas

On the WWI battlefield, U.S. soldiers cobbled together a homemade Christmas

In the December 1919 issue, National Geographic shared the firsthand account of how soldiers celebrated far from home in France.

Nearly every billet in France where American soldiers last year celebrated their Christmas had its own particular “Tara,” battered, jiggly, and out of tune, but still with melody in its soul.

Photograph by American Red Cross, Nat Geo Image Collection
This story first appeared in the December 1919 issue of Natitonal Geographic magazine.

Christmas day, 1918, was for many Americans their first experience of that season in a foreign land, thousands of miles from home, among people of different race, language, and sympathy. When we realize that over two million of our young men were in France at the time, it seems appropriate, on the approach of another Christmas, to recall that day—a day we shall remember as long as we live—our different Christmas.

At that time active hostilities were over, of course, but many combat divisions still held their lines just where the fighting had ceased on November 11. The following account tells how the men of my organization, the 158th lnfantry Brigade, made the most of circumstances and celebrated their Christmas with a spirit of cheer and good-will that overcame all obstacles, even rising above the curse of Meuse rains, the amazing mud and slime of French battlefields.

A marvelous tree

The day began early for me and in a surprising fashion, to say the least, for upon waking up about dawn, I saw beside my chicken-wire bunk a Christmas tree—a real, true Christmas tree—such as might well have been found in millions of American homes, but quite the last thing one would look for on the ruined battle area north of Verdun. The little tree stood about two feet high and was a marvel of ingenuity in its trimmings. One of the men had made the whole thing, spending hours of his time upon it, keeping it a secret until he had found a chance to put it beside my bunk on Christmas Eve, as I slept.

The tree had been set in a sort of base made from a one-pounder projectile of the whiz-bang variety, which stood, in turn, on a cleverly carved stand. I believe the wood for the latter came from a cigar-box, cut and whittled into shape, then carefully fitted together and polished brilliantly in some mysterious manner. The whole thing—tree, base, and all—rested upon a moss-covered board, around the edge of which ran a tiny rustic fence of wild-rose branches entwined with ivy.

By way of tinsel, the tree had been hung with little silver balls made from the tinfoil that comes round chocolate bars. Strands of burnished wire, thin as silk threads and shining like gold, puzzled me for a long time, until I found they had been “salvaged” from the inside mechanism of broken field telephones captured in battle from the Germans. Little beads hung here and there along the branches; they were those found in the long wooden handles of German grenades. Red pods and berries from the wild rose bushes glowed in the jolliest way among the green needles of the spruce.

Surely there never was before or since a Christmas tree quite like it or a finer array of trimmings. During the whole day it occupied the place of honor at the mess, shining away as merrily as any tree at home. That little Christmas tree beside my bunk at Réville meant more to me than any fancy tree I had ever seen. It sounded the note for the day. Christmas was to be Christmas still, all the mud and rain in France to the contrary. (See the electric and eclectic ways Americans celebrate Christmas today.)

A Christmas landscape in Northern France

A fine, gray mist covered the plain, a sort of ground fog that rose from the flooded ditches and, swirling here and there in the breeze of dawn, half concealed the lowlands of La Thinte. To the east, high out of the fog, I could see the three hills that dominate the landscape—Cote du Chateau, Cote d’Horgne, and the Cote de Morimont. A light cap of snow rested on their summits, catching the first rays of the sun, until the ridge shone and sparkled like winter beacons above the shadows.

Not a house could be seen. The great plain of the Woëvre might well have been a wilderness, so effectually had the curtains of fog been draped about it.

As the sun rose higher over the distant heights of the Moselle, the mists began to grow thin, disclosing more and more of the valley. A church tower was the first sign to appear, the gilded cock of its weathervane standing proudly above the cross—inevitable coq gaulois, a sure token of France.

Another steeple followed—Damvillers, Réville, Etraye, Peuvillers—I counted them one after another as they came into view, all that was left of what had once been the churches in each little red-tiled village. Here and there great rents showed in the solid masonry of their towers, while gaping voids between the buttresses of their walls allowed one to look on the havoc within—upon shattered choirs and broken chancels, a shapeless cluster of stone and glass, the shards of what once had been priceless beauty.

As the last shreds of mist drifted down the lowlands toward Gibercy and far-distant St. Mihiel, the full horror of the picture struck home. Not merely the torn and shattered churches, the piles of broken stones and roof tiles that told of one-time hamlets, not merely these had suffered, but the very surface of the ground itself was ripped and wounded beyond all resemblance of its former self.

Great shell-holes filled with stagnant water, some of them twenty feet across, yawned by the dozen where a few weeks before had been pleasant meadows. Countless smaller holes, the mark of exploding 75's, had pocked the cattle pastures until they resembled the waves of a choppy sea.

The waste and wreckage of war

Everywhere about me lay the waste and wreckage of war: piles of ammunition left by the retreating Hun, each shell in its basket of wickerwork; boxes of hand grenades partly opened; unexploded "duds" still half buried in the ground, as they had landed during the days of battle; discarded gas-masks, helmets cleverly camouflaged for snipers, rifles, haversacks, even rubber boots lay here and there rotting in the water-soaked holes.

Upturned trees sprawled where they had been hurled by the high explosives, while a few great stumps still reared their splintered bodies above the level of ruin about them.

Across the plain, running roughly north and south, just east of the little river of La Thinte, a line of tiny holes, scraped out by entrenching tool and mess-kit lid, marked the farthest advance of our troops when the firing had ceased on Armistice Day.

A more lonely wilderness of ravage, horror, and destruction could not well be imagined than that laid bare before me in the growing light, as the mists swirled upward to meet the dawn of Christmas Day on the topmost peak of Morimont.

Down the road that runs from Damvillers to Peuvillers, close by the Hospital aux Greves, once a German evacuation point for wounded from Verdun, I clattered along through the mist, mounted orderly beside me, our horses splashing

fetlock deep in mud and water. We had left Brigade before sunrise, bound for the church at Peuvillers, where the men of the Third Battalion were holding an early carol service.

A sentry’s greeting

A sentry by the roadside came to "present arms," the snap of his rifle sling striking briskly on the keen morning air. A shout of "Merry Christmas!", "The same to you, sir!" and we had parted; but the day had been marked as different for both of us. It was Christmas after all, in spite of three thousand miles of sea between us and home, in spite of the ruined battlefield of mud about us and the graves of our comrades, many hundreds of them, lying here and there along the woodlands of the Meuse, from the ordered rows on Hill 378 to the great circle of crosses that rings the heights of Montfaucon across the river, a silent token of its storming.

More men appeared, as I rode along, walking in little clusters toward Peuvillers. Some, I saw, were wearing sprigs of holly or mistletoe stuck jauntily in the sides of their oversea caps. Shouts of "Merry Christmas!" could be heard, as others came up from their makeshift quarters along the way.

One group swung by me in the jolliest possible fashion, singing the good old carols with a will. They had got up before dawn and marched round their huts in the mud, singing the Christmas waits—"Silent Night," "Little Town of Bethlehem," "Good King Wenceslas," and the rest. (Who were the three kings in the Christmas story?)

Everywhere was the mud; inches of it covered the road, while through it slopped the men in khaki with the evergreens in their caps and the songs of good cheer on their lips, bent upon keeping the spirit of Christmas as bright as ever it had shone at home.

Carols at the village church

By half after 6 the village church was filled. Row upon row of men crowded the nave, their quaint leather jerkins glowing in the candlelight that shone down upon them from the chancel. High in the eastern wall a great hole opened in the masonry, marking the savage burst of a shell. I could see where it had been partially filled with holly boughs. The men had gathered great quantities of the green for that purpose on Christmas Eve.

Small bits of stained glass, all that was left of once beautiful windows, clung here and there to the twisted bands of lead that latticed the carved stonework of the arches. These windows in chancel, nave, and choir had been the glory of the church once, the offering of praise and devotion from the hand of some patient workman-artist who had fitted them together centuries ago, bit by bit, each glorious patch of color in its own appointed place, held there by the metal strips, the whole completed picture in its lacelike frame of chiseled stone and sharply pointed arch. Now they were gone, all their glory reduced to a few bright stars of vivid color that caught the morning glow and pierced the twilight of the nave with spears of light.

The little church was gay with greens. All Christmas Eve the men of the battalion had been at work, some cutting the holly and dragging it in from the woodlands, others wading out into the waters of the marsh and climbing great poplars after mistletoe that grew in clusters high up among the branches. Ivy had been gathered in long ropes and twined about the pillars of the nave. The altar, chancel, choir, and transepts, all were fresh and gay with green. The very walls were hung with it, so that I had to look twice to see the shell-scarred plaster beneath or the tattered Stations of the Cross in their frames.

An unforgettable scene

Cedar, spruce, holly, ivy, mistletoe, everywhere the Christmas greens, everywhere a clean, fresh breath of out-of-doors, until the old and broken church must have thought itself young again, must have stirred to feel within its walls a spirit of reverence that had already softened the scars of war, hiding them under the holly wreaths and garlands. (Read more: Why mistletoe is everyone's favorite parasite.)

The service was short and simple; just the singing of a few old carols, then the celebration of the Holy Communion. The fact that the form used followed that of the Episcopal Church made no difference whatever to the men of various denominations in the nave. It was curious to note how the broadening strain of battle, the common hardships and sacrifice, had done away with all feeling of sect.

Later in the day, other services were held at Reville and the villages round about, but in spite of more elaborate singing and the attendance of the regimental bands, the impressive effect of the carol service at dawn was lacking.

The scene in that ruined church at Peuvillers was one never to be forgotten, as the growing light sparkled through the remnants of old glass upon the crowded uniforms half hidden along the shadowy vaults of the aisles. It was a picture from the Middle Ages, accentuated by the white vestments of the clergyman standing high in the tapered chancel.

“Friend of foe”

Close by the church door, as we were leaving, I saw the men gathered round a granite boulder, a sort of rough monument. Evidently it had been placed there in the graveyard by the enemy during the period they had held the plain of the Woevre. The inscription was carved boldly across the face of the rock in German. It read:

'"Whether it be friend or foe,
In death alike united.
To those who fell in defense
Of their fatherland,
1914.”

By a curious coincidence that monument of fellowship and forgiveness between foes, a rare enough thing in this war of bitter feeling and national hatred, stood in the very churchyard where for the first time in many months our men had had a chance to attend divine service.

Taken in connection with the ending of the war so few weeks before and the Christmas carols of peace and good-will we had just sung, it went a great way toward showing us that some of the Huns, at least, had been men who could respect the dead and appreciate the sacrifices of patriotism, regardless of country.

A stadium of mud

By noon the cheering effect of sunshine had long since departed and Christmas Day returned to the usual drizzle of northern France. Had it been possible to produce more mud, or deeper mud, or sloppier mud, the Meuse Valley would undoubtedly have done so; but the limit had been reached some weeks before.

The fields were utterly impassable. Where the ground had not been carved into huge shell craters full of water, it was just brown and yellow clay of a consistence that stuck to our hobnails and would not let go. That was bad enough, but it kept on increasing about our shoes so alarmingly at each step that we had to carry a stick and pry off great hunks of it every minute or come to a standstill through lack of power to move our feet.

The roads—what four years of war, lack of care, and the shell fire of a modern battle had left of them—were somewhat better. They were muddy all right, but only to a depth of two or three inches, and the mud was of the soft and slushy variety, resting on more or less solid underpinnings. That was a great help, for we could slop along comfortably enough without being pulled to a halt. It is no exaggeration to say that we Americans had not known what mud could be like until we found it at its worst in the lowlands of the Meuse and Woevre.

The plans for Christmas Day called for field sports in the afternoon. That seemed to be as near an approach to a real home Christmas as we could come under the circumstances. The prospects certainly were far from encouraging, but, be it ever said to the credit of the American doughboy, he rose triumphant over all obstacles. The first problem was where to hold the sports. Very clearly we could not use the fields, for no one can run where he cannot walk, nor jump where he can scarcely crawl. In the end, we had to fall back upon the road.

The hundred-yard dash, the two-twenty, the running broad jump, the high jump, potato race, sack race, three-legged race, signal relay, Yorkshire wrestling—every last man in the outfit went in for something. Winners, led by the sergeant major, strove through the mud and rain against the Dashers, captained by the first sergeant of brigade.

The deeper the mud, the higher ran the rivalry, the harder struggled the men, until the shell-torn hollow, with its little ruin of Reville, echoed to the strangest cheers it had ever heard.

The Brigadier himself came down from his shack on the hillside, plowing through the mud and crawling round shell-holes until he had reached a vantage point on the bank above the road. Here, the man who had taken Grande Pré, and thus broken the keystone of German resistance in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, stood all afternoon in mist and driving rain, shouting encouragement to the racing men with the same spirit that had led him but a few weeks before to take a first-line battalion forward in person when it seemed impossible for anyone to advance.

A mystery to the country-side French

As the sports grew keener, our cheering and noise grew louder, the hip-hip-hurrahs and three-times-threes attracting the attention of what few French refugees and poilus were in the neighborhood. They stood for a while along the roadside vainly trying to make out what it all could be about. It was too much for them, however. Clearly carol singing at dawn, then mad racing and leaping and tugging on a rope in the mud was beyond their ken. With significant shrugs and shaking of heads they went away.

They had put us down as mad, quite mad; but, then, all American soldiers seem so to them, and it did not make much matter to us. We left them to their own celebration of the day with vin rouge, stewed rabbit, and snails. The games went on with even louder shouts and hip-hip-hurrahs in the good old Anglo-Saxon way.

Muddy fields make for fun

The best fun of all were the sack race and three-legged race, for they were run off in the fields, where the mud and slime and ponds that had been shell craters only added to the comedy. Such slipping and sliding and falling in the mire could not well be imagined. It seemed as though all the rain and soggy discomforts of the previous weeks had been but a preliminary setting of the stage, a preparing of the ground for the afternoon's fun.

We could forgive the country of the Meuse a lot, even the mud somewhat, while we watched the comical antics of doughboys in gunny-sacks hopping, wobbling, sprawling head first over the course. It was a real course, too, in the way of hazards! Each contestant's friends and backers cheered him on his way with fervent cries and entreaties, one Irishman urging his favorite to "Lep to it like a man, for the love of God and County Mayo!"

The last two events in the games were a pie-eating contest and a tug o' war. Sassamann, from Missouri, competed with Helm, from Pennsylvania, and the man from Missouri won. Arms locked behind backs, both men knelt in the mud, the pies resting on the ground before them. At the word to begin, they bent over and the race was on. It was an excellent and a very practical demonstration of the value of chewing. Fletcher would have appreciated it keenly.

Missouri's son went to work in slow and deadly earnest, chewing each hunk well and swallowing it before bobbing for another, while Pennsylvania's representative attempted to win by a spurt. That bolt was fatal to success, for before long he had bitten off more than he could chew in a very literal sense of the words.

The tug o' war and Yorkshire wrestling over and the signal relay run far up the hillside and back, we left the muddy stretch of road and climbed to the little level where we had been billeted in shacks and dugouts vacated by the Germans during our advance in the last days of the war. We had begun long before to plan this Christmas, and its crowning feature was to be the dinner.

Making a mess hall

There were two requisites for that—something to eat and a place to eat it in. Uncle Sam, all the home newspapers to the contrary, could not be counted on to furnish us much of either. Experience had taught us a lot and—well, "corn willie" in the rain seemed but a poor substitute for the turkey and plum pudding of the old days; consequently we had begun work a fortnight before on our mess hall.

There was, as a starter, a shack that combined a leaky roof partially knocked in by a shell, with one end wall and glassless window. There were, beside, sufficient uprights to hold the sagging roof in place. That was all. The building had been started by the Germans, but never completed. It looked hopeless and very nearly was so. We built the mess hall, nevertheless, thanks to the magic of "salvage"—the modern army's substitute for Aladdin's Lamp.

The roof presented the most serious problem, as it never stopped raining on it and never could be expected to. We solved it finally by tearing away the badly splintered boards, replacing them by others salvaged from a near-by German dump, and covering the whole affair with a huge piece of water-soaked carpet that had once graced a village parlor. We battened it down with salvaged nails and rope for all the world like troopship hatches in a heavy sea. Strangely enough, it turned the weather in a way contrary to what we had dared expect.

The walls were easy. Lumber was plentiful at the captured dump and a four-line team furnished transportation. Last of all came the question of windows, and that was a puzzler, for a pane of unbroken glass was rarer than hen's teeth in all that shell-crushed plain. The men were patient, however, and contrived to locate a sufficient quantity, searching for days throughout the shelters and dugouts that burrowed deep into the hillsides.

Our carpenter was, by all odds, the hardest-working person at Brigade, for while the other men were gathering material he was always kept busy trying to hold up his end of the job, and he succeeded. On Christmas Eve the last board had been nailed on the walls and the last bench completed. We really had a mess hall that was worthy of the name.

All afternoon we had lugged in the greens and hung them everywhere, until the rafters and unpainted walls were hidden under an amazing curtain of spruce boughs, pines, cedars, holly, mistletoe, and ivy. The old verse was literally true:

"Lo, Christmas Day is here at last,
Let every one be jolly;
The posts are all with ivy dressed,
And all the walls with holly."

Rickety German trench stoves about two feet high stood in each corner. When they did not smoke too much, they kept the place comfortably warm, only threatening to burn us up at times, greens and all.

Tara, the pride of the mess hall

Tara, the pride of the mess, stood in a cleared place at one end, apart from the long tables and benches we had built out from the walls. Tara was a piano, a war-scarred veteran. Tara by name, because having lost his entire front casing in action, he looked more like a harp than anything else and, thanks to a weakness in the legs, had to lean against the wall for support.

Tara had fallen upon evil days before coming into our hands. Originally French, four years of German pounding had left their mark upon his keys. Then had come the Allied shelling, and Tara, with front boards shot to splinters, had stood for many weeks while the constant drizzle of the Meuse had soaked down upon him through the roofless jumble of stone that had been a house. The effect was that Tara's keys were mute, wedged solidly together, in fact—that is, until the trench stoves had got in their work.

We had carried Tara with infinite trouble to the driest of our dugouts—the one where the moisture only dripped from the roof at one end. Here we had surrounded him with trench stoves all stoked to the limit and going full tilt, with a man specially detailed to keep up the fires. The keys, one at a time, had responded to this heroic treatment, until now, on Christmas Day, Tara had once more found his soul.

Sending a truck across France

The problem of food had seemed overwhelming at first. We might well have been in some mountain fastness, for all the free communication there was with the outside world. Such roads as there were presented more the appearance of quarries than anything else. Railways could not be considered. Our quartermaster depot had trouble enough in getting the very necessities of life out to us, let alone Christmas luxuries. Finally we cut the Gordian Knot by attempting the impossible and sending our little Ford truck all the way across France, from the ruined hills of Verdun, on past Ste. Menehould and the shell-torn forest of the Argonne; then east to the great Route Nationale and Paris.

The Brigade Fund, helped out by a donation from the officers, had been put to good use and few, if any, troops of the A. E. F. still standing by their arms on the old battle line had a finer dinner than that we saw spread out before us as we entered the mess hall after our Christmas games.

The men sat down on both sides of the rough boards that served as tables. When all had found a place, the General himself entered the room. He spoke but a few words; yet no man present, officer or private, will ever forget the scene. It was a soldier 's greeting to soldiers, just the man who had led in battle wishing those of us who had served under him the best of luck and a Merry Christmas.

He told us to remember the day, to keep it fresh in our minds as one Christmas that had been different. He closed with a word about our dead—those who had died, many hundreds of them, our own friends, not because their sacrifice had been necessary at all, but through lack of proper training and preparation in the years before. Every man who had faced death in battle knew that the General spoke the simple truth.

A Christmas dinner surpassing all dreams

In contrast to our usual bullv-beef and potatoes, this Christmas dinner far surpassed anything that we had dreamed of. Turkey—yes, real American turkey—was there; mashed potatoes, tomatoes, stewed corn, celery, apple pie—it would have been a credit to the best chef in New York—yet every bit of it had been fetched at unbelievable trouble all the way from Paris; then cooked in an open shed, where the rain dripped down through the holes in the roof upon the small field range that smoked and sputtered in the mud below. Cigars and cigarettes had reached us from the "Y," together with a fine supply of candy.

No one can appreciate just what that Christmas dinner really meant to us unless he realizes what had gone before. It sounds like the usual dinner at home, but one must remember that our surroundings were very far from usual. Aside from any of the fighting, any of the horrors of Montfaucon, Nantillois, Wadonville, Hill 378, and the rest, this Christmas dinner was the very first meal my men had been able to eat in four months with a place to sit down together and a roof to cover them.

Since September they had stood in line, day after day, under constant rain, waiting for each meal, usually well soaked and muddy. When their kits were filled they had still stood, of necessity, in the rain, or found what uncomfortable shelter they could beneath some leaking shack or dugout pent. Now, on Christmas Day, we were in a warm room, sitting at tables and a real feast laid out before us.

There was no thought of a mess line. The cooks and kitchen police, though it meant far more work for them, would not hear of that. Volunteers hurried in with the food hot off the field range and served it to us at the tables.

In the spirit of the old song

It was really an old-fashioned feast, taking the late afternoon and a good part of the evening before coming to an end. Then it was that Tara came into play, finding his long-lost soul, as though it never had fled beneath the scourge of shrapnel and H. E. and endless rain.

The more we hammered away at him, the looser grew his keys, until at last only a few notes stuck together at a time. "Harry Lauder," "Where the River Shannon Flows," even "Rosy O'Grady ," all the old songs of home and Christmas were sung over and over again. An occasional clog or jig, got up offhand, added to the fun. The players took turns, but Tara held out to the last, his blackened keys clicking and clacking away at a great rate, while all his mysterious insides jumped and jiggled about, exposed to public view in a scandalous way.

Like everything else, Christmas came to an end at last. The mess hall was deserted and Tara left leaning against the wall once more, as mute as his famous namesake. The trench stoves burned a while, then smoked themselves out. In the morning we had work before us, lots of it. Sudden orders had come in for a march to distant billets. Two days after Christmas we made packs and early in the morning marched away. The mess hall had been used just once. "C'est la guerre!''

That was the last we ever saw of Reville: but the picture of our Christmas Day there in the rain and mud of that shell-torn hollow is one that will never fade. It proved, for one thing, that it takes a lot to down the doughboy. It takes more than war and hardship and a longing for home, since in the face of all these, from the little tree at dawn and the carols on to the last cracked note from Tara, we had held our sports and made our feast with the best of them, as the old song says, "keeping our Christmas merry still!"

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