December 2016: Issue #4  -  Trench Life and the Christmas Truce
World War I changed everything. Let's change how students think about the everyday life of soldiers during war.

Welcome to Understanding the Great War. Each issue includes articles, lessons, teaching guidelines, and primary sources that you can freely use,  arriving in your inbox every other month.  

Trench Life
"Men die of mud as they die from bullets, but more horribly.  ...  Mud swallows a man and - what is worse - his soul.  ...  Mud hides the stripes of rank. There are only poor suffering beasts.  ...  Hell is not fire, that would not be the ultimate suffering. Hell is mud!"
- Excerpts from a French soldier's writing in the March 26, 1917
edition of the trench newspaper Le Bochofage, available in French from
the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon.

There was more to life in the trenches than intense hand-to-hand fighting and going "over the top." This lesson plan created by high school teacher Brian Weaver for National History Day helps students gain a full understanding of the challenges and boredom of trench life through the exploration of primary sources.

In 2007, the Library of Congress set out with the Veterans History Project to record the firsthand accounts of World War I veterans. Now, with no living veterans from the Great War left, these oral histories, letters, diaries, and photographs help us better understand the American experience during World War I.

"Twenty yards behind us clumps of earth whirled up out of a white cloud and smacked into the boughs. ... Explosion followed explosion. Choking gases drifted through the undergrowth, smoke obscured the treetops, trees and branches came crashing to the ground, screams. We leaped up and ran blindly, chased by lightning and crushing air pressure, from tree to tree, looking for cover, skirting around giant tree trunks like frightened game."
- German soldier Ernst Jünger, from his memoir Storm of Steel.

Trenches stretched for thousands of miles across the Western Front. This short video by HISTORY® explores how the millions of soldiers lived and fought in the trenches.

At the Doiran front. Noonday meal in the Bulgarian trenches. 1917
Photograph courtesy of the National Archives

In a time before emails and text messages, soldiers in World War I relied on written letters to communicate with their loved ones back home. In this activity from the Virginia Cooperative Extension 4-H, young students will learn more about the importance of communication for soldiers both past and present. With this activity, students are encourage to write letters to current service members.

At least four million non-white troops served with the Allies and Central Powers in combat and non-combat roles during World War I. In the article "Experiences of Colonial Troops" from the British Library, Santanu Das describes the daily lives of colonial soldiers as well as how race was used to dictate military policy.

In many ways, soldiers on all sides of the Western Front had similar experiences fighting in the trenches. In the article "The German Front Experience" from the BBC, Martin Kitchen explores the Great War from the often ambiguous German perspective while also investigating the German soldier's psyche.

Al Jazeera English created a three part video series that explores the Great War from the often overlooked Arab perspective. We shared episode three of this series in the Global Effects of WWI issue of this newsletter, but episode one (45 minutes) provides a look into the individual experiences of Arab troops during the war. It describes the often horrible treatment of these troops in the Middle East, North Africa, Ottoman Empire, and Europe. The experiences of Muslim troops are also highlighted.

Based on the real life experiences of Canadian soldiers, this interactive adventure from the Canadian War Museum allows players to become a soldier in the trenches with one goal in mind: survival. Players use their newly gained knowledge of World War I, plus common sense and a bit of luck, to decide their own fate in the trenches.

While World War I is closely associated with trench warfare, soldiers fighting outside of the Western Front experienced different types of warfare. This article in Smithsonian Magazine by Brian Mockenaupt, explores the often overlooked alpine war that took place on the Italian Front while recounting his own journey to the highest battlefields of the War.

The Christmas Truce
"On Christmas Eve we were surprised to see Christmas trees alight on the tops of the enemy's trenches. Some of the Germans (139th Saxon Regiment) shouted to our fellows to come over and have a drink and a smoke. They turned the searchlight on, and some of our boys went out and met them half-way. The first German who came along threw his arms around one of our chap's neck and kissed him. Next they offered us cigars. On Christmas Day we were out of the trenches along with the Germans, some of whom had a song and dance, while two of our platoons had a game of football... A number of our fellows have got addresses from the Germans and are going to try and meet one another after the war."
- Private Farnden, of the Rifle Brigade, in a letter to his family,
republished in the Essex County Chronicle, January 15, 1915.

Many soldiers during the Christmas of 1914 were surprised that they were still fighting. After all, everyone had said they would be home by Christmas.
This article and short video from HISTORY® describes the "Christmas Truce" of 1914, when some soldiers stopped fighting to celebrate the season with their adversaries.

Photograph courtesy of the National WWI Museum and Memorial
The Christmas Truce, Winter 1914 is an online exhibition from the National WWI Museum and Memorial. Read essays by noted historians and explore firsthand accounts from soldiers themselves. Then decide for yourself the real story behind the Christmas Truce.

"We were in the trenches on Christmas Day. We spent a merrier day than we expected. There was a truce to bury our dead. We had a short service over the graves, conducted by our minister and the German one. They read the 23rd Psalm and had a short prayer. I don't think I will ever forget the Christmas Day I spent in the trenches. After the service we were speaking to the Germans and getting souvenirs from them. Fancy shaking hands with the enemy!"
- Private B. Calder - 6th Gordon Highlanders Regiment, D Company
letter published January 8, 1915 in The Bedfordshire Times and Independent.

Visit for more education resources that you can use free of charge and see the Understanding the Great War newsletter archive.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission and the National World War I Museum and Memorial are dedicated to educating the public about the causes, events, and consequences of the conflict and we encourage the use of these resources to better understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.

Partners on this project include:
The Pritzker Military Museum and Library is a founding sponsor of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.