Peace at Christmas in 1918 after the end of the Great War

The guns had finally fallen silent the month before, after more than four long years of war. But what was Christmas in 1918 like for people? Chris Bond reports.

Children outside a greengrocers selling Christmas trees on Christmas Eve, 1918. (Picture credit: Getty Images).
Children outside a greengrocers selling Christmas trees on Christmas Eve, 1918. (Picture credit: Getty Images).

IN the days and weeks following the announcement of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, a wave of euphoria and relief swept the nation, as more than four long, harrowing years of war finally came to an end.

Then on December 14, David Lloyd George, who had led the country for the previous two years, won a landslide victory in the General Election on the back of his campaign pledge to make “a country fit for heroes”.

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The election was notable, too, for the fact that some women, providing they were over 30 and they or their husbands were an owner of property, were able to vote in a general election for the first time. It meant that 8.5 million women were eligible to vote thanks to the Representation of the People Act.

A Christmas card from a century ago.

As Christmas approached there was a sense of hope and renewal following the trauma of a conflict that claimed the lives of just over 700,000 British soldiers.

It’s little surprise that headlines of “Christmas in peace” could be found inked across the front pages of newspapers in December 1918. Including our sister paper the Yorkshire Evening Post, whose Christmas Eve edition ran with: ‘May Sorrows Be Lightened And Joys Increased With Christmas.’

Beneath this sits a quote from the poet Walter Scott which reads:

The wind is chill,

The Leeds Mercury from December 24, 1918. (YPN).

But let it whistle as it will,

We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.

There was an added poignancy to Christmas a century ago – the first in five years without the shadow of war smothering it. But while the newspaper wished people in this country good cheer, there was an air of triumphalism in one of its main stories from Christmas Eve.

“Probably no happier time was ever looked forward to in the Allied countries – the lands of victors. The contrast with the conditions in the defeated countries – Berlin is dismal, Vienna near starvation – is emphatic, and inevitable.”

It contrasted Leeds, where with its “crowded streets” and “the hum of business”, with an article from a Daily Chronicle correspondent who wrote: “Christmas in Germany this year will be the most pathetic, without doubt, of the five since war broke out. Almost everything which is associated with the greatest of all festivals is absent.” Adding that “the dull atmosphere of defeat” hangs over the country.

The Leeds Mercury’s December 24th edition opted for a positive outlook, reporting that “Christmas shopping” in Leeds was “still brisk” with plenty of chickens available but few turkeys. “Shopkeepers will remember this “Victory” Christmas as one of exceptionally good trade, despite the prevailing high prices for both luxuries and necessities,” it said.

“The shopping crowds have been plentifully supplied with money which has been spent with a seasonable freedom accelerated by the atmosphere of rejoicing at the happy termination of the war.

“There was little flagging of the shopping fever in Leeds, yesterday, when fine, bright weather gave an appreciated cheerfulness to the streets.”

It reported, too, that this year’s pantomime – Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood – had just opened to a packed house at the city’s Theatre Royal.

However, the war continued to claim more victims even though the fighting had stopped and on the same page was a story noting that Jack Bellimore, of the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, had died of his wounds in Germany after being taken prisoner in March that year. The article included an appeal from his father who would be “indebted” to anyone who could shed light on the circumstances of his son’s capture and death.

The sombre mood was recorded by the Doncaster Gazette in 1918, which stated: “There was a notable restraint and lack of boisterousness about the way in which the season was celebrated. There was little doing in town to lure people away from their firesides. The holiday was a particularly quiet and sober one.”

The muted atmosphere will have been reinforced by the fact that victory had come at a dreadful price. More than 38,000 people in Yorkshire regiments had been killed during the war – but casualties continued to grow even after the war ended as men succumbed to their injuries.

There was also the realisation that the men at the Front wouldn’t be returning home for Christmas – for some it would be many months before they returned back to England.

Dr Jessica Meyer, Associate Professor of Modern British History at the University of Leeds, points out that for places like No. 2 Northern General Hospital, in Leeds, nothing had really changed. “Hospitals like the Northern General Hospital, and the other military general hospitals all around Yorkshire, still had a lot of seriously injured patients.

“The Northern General actually stayed open until 1926. It specialised in orthopaedic wounds, including amputations, so there were men learning to walk again, and others with long term disabilities,” she says,

There were festive celebrations in most hospitals. “There would have been a meal for the men, the wards were decorated and the local community had carol singing with school children coming in. There was various forms of entertainment. In Leeds there was a fund set up to pay for concert parties throughout the year and they had special concerts at Christmas.”

Relief that the war was over was tempered by the fact that people were still dying and Spanish Flu continued claiming lives. “For many medical personnel at Christmas there would have been a lot of hard work, rather than celebrations, because they were looking after the sick and those with long term injuries... The war had its casualties long after the Armistice was signed.”

As Dr Meyer says, any joy people felt would have been diluted by the enormity of what had happened during the preceding four yours. “The emotion would have been one of relief but not necessarily wild celebration. Christmas would have seemed less ironic, though civilian life hadn’t returned to normal. They wouldn’t have had access to more food than in previous years, it would have felt like other wartime Christmases just with this added sense of relief.”

We know that the fighting did stop in 1918, but at the time many people would have been concerned about what happened next. “It was an armistice rather than a peace treaty so there was always a fear that the war might start again. It was only six or seven weeks since the fighting stopped so there would have still been some uncertainty.”

The Christmas spirit could still be found, however. When crowds of soldiers were left stranded at Doncaster train station on their home to their loved ones, locals provided a bed and meals for the stranded men who were entertained at the YMCA. As a special present, the YMCA arranged for the men to make a phone call to their local police station, which then contacted their families to let them know they were almost home.

Life carried on and though, in many respects, it was a world away from the one we enjoy today, there were some striking similarities.

On Christmas Eve, the Yorkshire Evening Post carried a story about public complaints relating to the “inadequate service and unsatisfactory running of the Leeds tramcars”.

It seems some things never really change.