Because we’re the only history department in the country (probably) who doesn’t teach WW1 at the start of year 9, it meant that this December we were coming to the end of our WW1 study and therefore I was unable to steal wholesale Richard Kennett’s excellent austerity WW2 Christmas lesson. Instead, I set out to plan my own “Christmas in the trenches” lesson.
I decided to focus on the famous 1914 No Man’s Land football match, so off I went to read a bit more about that. I struggled to see how I could make it meaningfully last an hour, though, short of getting them to make newspaper helmets and go out on the field to recreate it (not sure how meaningful that would have been).
However, after a bit of reading something took shape for me. The interesting thing for me about this unofficial Christmas Day truce was that the officers were against it, the censors removed references to it from letters (which means it’s a bit secretive) and it was not repeated through the rest of the war. This was because they didn’t want the British public, let alone the soldiers, to think of the Germans as like them, because it would be impossible then to effectively wage a propaganda war against them and convince the soldiers to be as brutal as was necessary.
With the censors, I had my hook. After using Rich’s suggested video clip of Christmas in Afghanistan as a starter, we looked at a range of sources of information about the Christmas truce, starting with the scene from Oh What a Lovely War, and the trailer for Joyeaux Noel (which seems like a French version of the truce story but rather misses the point by suggesting that “this event changed everything” when, actually, it doesn’t appear to have changed anything, but that’s the film industry for you – and I am making a snap judgement based on the trailer). After that I distributed packs of information snippets I had slurped up from various websites, and students wrote a Christmas letter home about Christmas day in the trenches.
That probably lasted for a good 35-40 minutes, and then came the fun bit. I explained that the censors would not have allowed mentions of the truce to go home, and we discussed why that might be. Then students swapped letters and received a highlighter or a marker, as was their wont. Their next task was to censor the letter, redacting any mention of the Christmas truce. Some students were horrified to receive their letters back with almost the whole text coloured in, with only “Merry Christmas, I miss you” visible at the bottom.
I was pleased with my effort: it was seasonal, it was meaningful, and they got a good whack of knowledge about trench warfare and propaganda that they might otherwise have missed. I felt even more successful today when a student, during a discussion about why the government introduced conscription in 1916, wondered how people were put off joining the army by the terrible stories reaching Britain when the censors had been at work on letters home from the trenches.