I own a stereoview card, one half which is seen above, that may portray mourners of President Franklin Pierce. To accompany this image, I am reblogging an excellent look at Pierce’s life and burial place by Gravely Speaking, an historian after my own heart.
A sign outside the gates of the Old North Cemetery announces the burial of the most New Hampshire native son within its fencing. The sign outlines the major accomplishments of Franklin Pierce:
1804 – 1869
Fourteenth President of the United States
Lies buried in nearby Minot enclosure.
Native son of New Hampshire,
Graduate of Bowdoin College,
Lawyer, effective political leader,
Congressman and U.S. Senator,
Mexican War veteran, courageous
Advocate of States’ rights,
He was popularly known as
“Young Hickory of the Granite Hills.”
While the sign outlines Pierce’s political accomplishments, there is nothing about his personal life. Franklin Pierce was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He married Jane Appleton, the daughter of a Congregational minister. Jane and Franklin were nearly polar opposites. Franklin was outgoing and gregarious. Jane was shy and suffered from depression. Jane was pro-temperance and devoutly religious. Jane was from a family that…
“I was not surprised when we received the notice of Aunty’s death. From what you had written to me I was expecting it.”
To: Miss Anna M. Ramsey Richborough P.D. Bucks County Pennsylvania C/O Mr. Ed Ramsey Please forward
High Point April 27th ‘84
Dear Cousin Anna,
Yours of April 4 received. Was so glad to hear from you. I had looked for a letter for some time from Aunty. But have treasured up my last one from her. Anna, I sympathize deeply with your in your affliction. Your loss is her gain. But it is so hard to part with those we love so dearly but Aunty has only passed from this wicked world to a brighter and better one beyond. But oh the loneliness and sadness in the home without a mother or father. My heart aches for you, well I do remember the bitter pangs of suffering I passed through when I had to give up my dear mother. It seemed as though all the sunshine had gone out of the world. To this day I grieve for her. But time changes all things and we must be reconciled.
I was not surprised when we received the notice of Aunty’s death. From what you had written to me I was expecting it. But felt very sad indeed. I wanted to come east last fall to see you all once more but Jeff was sick so long and so bad that we could not leave him. I think from what you tell me about Aunty she must have been (in her sickness) very much like cos Kate Hume (McNair). She did not suffer pain but had that distress feeling and sick at her stomach. She had a cancerous tumor.
Dear Anna, we are so lonely. We miss Jeff so much. He was so good and kind to all. I had often read of happy deaths but never witnessed such a one in my life. He was sick only five days. In the afternoon of the day he died, Rosie was sitting on his bed crying. He said to her “I would so much rather you would go to the piano and play and sing for me ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ then to sit here and cry.” She went to the piano and played and tried to sing with the help of some friends. Poor child. It seemed as if it would kill her almost.
He bid all goodbye and talked to each one separately and was perfectly willing to go. Said he did not dread death and was ready to die, only his worldly affairs were not just as he would have them. He thought he lingered longer toward the last then he ought to, so asked a friend to read and sing with the friends that time might pass faster. There was about 50 persons in to bid him farewell. He shook hands and had some good word for all. It hurt him very much to talk but when he found he could not live he talked the most of the time until about half an hour before his death.
He had a great many friends. There was between 1,000 and 1,500 persons at his funeral. He requested to have one of our old preachers to preach at his funeral. The sermon was very good. He was buried with Masonic honors. We sent a notice to Aunty. Did you get it? Anna, I would like you to write to me soon and tell me about Aunty’s death. All join one with much love to all friends. Accept a very large share for yourself.
From your cousin,
Harriet S. Hart
The poignant letter above was written by Harriet Shepard Vanartsdalen Hart (22 February, 1830, Philadelphia, PA–11 December, 1900, High Point, MO), wife of Thomas Jefferson Hart (9 February, 1826, Bucks Co., PA–29 February, 1884, High Point, MO). According to his obituary, Hart struggled for years with “an enfeebling lung disease,” his “exhausted nature at last yielded to an attack of acute pneumonia after five days’ illness,” leaving a Harriet a widow with eight surviving children of the 16 she had born.
Many years later, Jeff Hart’s then-middle-aged son Louis, a lawyer and later governor of the State of Washington, filed an application to join the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). The document contains substantial genealogical evidence about the Hart family, naming Jeff Hart’s father as Lewis Folwell Hart (17 March, 1792, Bucks County, PA–1841, Belleview, Illinois). Jeff’s mother was Sidney Gill (1796–1854). He was the grandson of Joseph Folwell Hart (b. 7 December, 1758) and Ann Folwell (1758, Warminster, PA–11 March, 1843, Southampton, PA), who was the daughter of Colonel William Thomas Folwell (1737 – 1813). That Joseph was the son of Warminster, Pennsylvania, native Joseph Hart (1 September, 1715–25 February 1788) and his wife Elizabeth Collet (14 May, 1744, Philadelphia, PA-19 February, 1788, Warminster, PA).
Joseph, Sr., took part in the American Revolution as a “colonel, Second Battalion,” the SAR application notes. He commanded a regiment of Bucks County militia, serving in Amboy, New Jersey, during the latter part of the summer of 1776. Joseph, Sr., was a great-grandson of Christopher and Mary Hart of Oxfordshire, England, who came to America with William Penn and settled in Warminster Township, Bucks County, where the family lived until 1855, when Jeff Hart moved his branch of the family to Missouri.
Harriet was the daughter of John Vanartsdalen (b. abt. 1800–aft. 1870) and his wife Maria S. Davis (1807, PA–7 November, 1854, Philadelphia, PA). Harriet’s family was descended from early Dutch settlers Simon Jansz Van Arsdalen and his wife Jannetje Romeyn.
Jeff Hart married Harriet Vanartsdalen on 16 March, 1848. On the 1850 Census of Philadelphia, the young couple and their second-born son John Byron (b. 1849, PA–1886) (the first, also named John Byron, died either at birth or in early infancy), were living with—or possibly visiting—Harriet’s mother Maria, the woman of whom her daughter would later write, “Well I do remember the pangs of suffering I passed through when I had to give up my own dear mother. It seemed as though all the sunshine had gone out of the world.” Also in the household was Harriet’s younger brother, John (b. 1835). Jeff Hart’s occupation at that time was carpenter.
Harriet lost her beloved mother in November 1854. Maria was laid to rest in Philadelphia’s Odd Fellows Burial Ground, an historic cemetery at 24th and Diamond Streets established in 1849. The cemetery property was acquired by the Philadelphia Housing Authority in 1950 for construction of a housing project. The bodies that had been interred there, including Maria’s, were relocated to Philadelphia’s Mount Peace Cemetery and Lawnview Memorial Park in Rockledge, Pennsylvania.
When the U.S. Civil War erupted, the Jeff Hart family had been in Missouri for about six years. They dwelt in “Township 43, Range 15” of Moniteau County. Today, that place is called High Point. It is less a town than a crossroads placed amidst a deeply agrarian landscape. At High Point, the 1860 Census reveals Jeff Hart had made a leap from carpenter to merchant, and Harriet managed four children who ranged in age from 11 to six months: Byron; Frank H. (1858 – 1905), Laura Louisa (b. 1859); and Lillie Josephine (1856 – 1863).
Jeff Hart served in the U.S. Civil War in Company B of the 48th Missouri Infantry as a captain. His registration record of the summer of 1863 enumerates him as a 37-year-old merchant with three months of previous experience serving in a militia. According to its regimental history, his unit saw service at Rolla, Missouri, “until December 9, 1864. Defense of Rolla against Price.” This is likely the only military action that Hart participated in.
“In 1864, the Missouri legislature was gearing up for a new election. Confederate leaders believed that if they could take the capital, Jefferson City, return the exiled Confederate politicians there, and hold elections, that the state would elect a Southerner, putting the state legally in the hands of the South for the next four years. General Sterling Price was chosen to lead this raid because of his popularity in the state,” explains The Civil War in Missouri.
After this, Hart moved with the unit to Nashville, Tennessee, from December 9 to 19. Then, his unit was “assigned to post duty at Columbia, Tenn., and garrison blockhouses on Tennessee & Alabama Railroad from Franklin to Talioka until February, 1865. Moved to Chicago, Ill., February 18-22. Guard duty at Camp Douglas and escort Confederate prisoners to City Point, Va., for exchange until June 16. Ordered to Benton Barracks, Mo., June 16. Mustered out June 22, 1865. Regiment lost during service by disease 120.”
After the war, on 29 March, 1867, Jeff Hart was appointed postmaster for High Point—it was a position that made practical sense, as he operated out of an adjoining storefront. Hart held the government-paid postmaster position until his death. The 1871 Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval in the Service of the United States states that his pay that year was $110, but in 1873, it had fallen to $81. A slight lessening likely did not discomfit the family. In 1881, the Osage Valley Banner reported in its social column that Hart, who was “largely engaged in [railroad] tie contracts and general merchadise,” had been in town—the paper naming him “the Rothchild [sic] of High Point.”
The 1870 Census of Moniteau County lists the couple’s children living at home as Byron; Frank; Laura; Louis; Emma Rosealie (b. 1866)—the “Rosie” mentioned in the letter weeping for her dying father; and Alberta S. (b. 1869). All the children, with the exception of the first, were born in Missouri. Also living with the family was a nonrelated servant, dry goods clerk, and laborer, as well as a man, aged 70, who is simply called “Van Archdalen,”—a farmer born in Pennsylvania. This was almost certainly Harriet’s father, John. (Other Hart children who died young were the first John Byron (1849-1849); Annie Louisa (1850-1852); two babies named Howell Dorman—the first lived from 1852 to 1853, the second from 1853-1854; Maria Louisa (1854–1854); U. S. Grant (1863–1864); and Lillie Bell (1865-1865.)
A short memoir by a family member gives us a more personal glimpse into the Hart family at that time. “[Jeff] was for a number of years a prominent merchant…. His area of trade extended south to near the Osage River…. To this union was born 16 children. [Harriet] did not nurse them, so all were cared for by ‘hired girls.’ [Eight] of these children died in infancy and 8 lived (5 boys and 3 girls). She did almost all of the buying for the store in St. Louis, Mo., sometimes leaving her babies when they were less than 2 weeks old. In that way, she was a great help to her husband as he was badly needed to stay and take care of the business at their store. Their eldest son was named Byron. He married their hired girl….” (She was Mary Elizabeth Foraker, born in 1848. The couple had three children before her early death in 1885. The following year, on 12 May, 1886, Byron Hart was killed by a train in Arthur, Missouri.)
Jeff’s son Louis would become a lawyer, and there is some evidence that Jeff himself also practiced law. He was described by the Jefferson City State Journal on 17 September, 1875, as “T. J. Hart, Esq.” in an article about his pursuit, with the local sheriff, of a Hart employee, Charles Thomas, who had stolen $165. The pair traced the employee “across the country and river to Columbia, where they found he had 40 minutes before left for Centralia. The sheriff…telegraphed the description of Thomas to his deputy, and the latter arrested Thomas as he was purchasing a ticket to St. Louis. He had purchased two sets of clothes, a revolver, &c., and had left $58. The pursuers arrived in a hack, and Sheriff Yarnell and Hart returning with their prisoner, he was indicted by a special grand jury, tried, convicted, and sentenced…ten days from the time of commission of the crime.”
Just a few months later, on 26 November, the same newspaper reported: “T. J. Hart’s store came very near to being destroyed by fire on Friday last night. The Odd Fellows Hall is situated over the store. It is supposed that when they retired, some of the party lit their pipes and probably threw a match into the spittoon. When Mr. Hart’s son went to the store and discovered fire on the show case, he lost no time in getting in the hall, which was almost suffocating him with smoke. The wooden spittoon was nearly consumed, a stand was minus one leg, and a hole in the floor nearly two feet square and a 2 x 8 joist nearly burned off. [There was a ] burning hole in the ceiling of the store, ready to warm things in general.”
The 1880 Census of High Point shows Jeff Hart then had no occupation, as he was presumably struggling with his chronic lung disease, which could have been Tuberculosis, lung cancer, severe asthma, or any number of other issues affecting the airways that could lead to fatal pneumonia. The children living at home at that time were Laura; Louis; Rosie; Alberta; Elmer E. (1870 – 1930); and Carlos Brumhawk (b. 1875). The eldest son, Louis, was the only member of the family with work—he was listed a clerk in a store, almost assuredly his father’s.
In mid-November of that year, there was yet another brush with fire. The Hart’s uninsured farm at High Point burned to the ground. According to the Kirkville Weekly Graphic of 27 November, “Thirty-eight hogs, two calves, two buggies and one carriage, besides a great deal of provender, were consumed.” But the tragedy could have been much worse. “Mrs. Hart, [Jeff’s daughter-in-law], led one mule and two horses from the burning building, and was in the act of rescuing a calf when her clothing caught fire. With a presence of mind remarkable under the circumstances, she tore her clothing off thereby preventing what would have been a frightful death.”
On 13 March, 1884, within a fortnight of her husband’s death and about five weeks before writing her letter to Anna Ramsey, Harriet became the post mistress for High Point and appears to have retained the role until October 1891, when a replacement was named. That man, Robert Reynolds, may have taken over the Harts’ mercantile business at the same time.
At some point after selling off the store, Harriet went to live in the home of her daughter Laura, who married Simon Patrick Cronin of California, Missouri. Harriet did not die until 11 December, 1900, and ought to appear for a final time on the census of that year, but I cannot find her. She was buried in High Point, presumably beside Jeff, whose grave appears to be unmarked.
The recipient of the letter Harriet wrote in April 1884 was Anna Mary Ramsey (b. 21 October, 1847, Richboro, Bucks Co., PA), the daughter of farmer Robert Ramsey (b. 1814, PA) and his wife Elizabeth Vanartsdalen (b. 1817, PA)—the “Aunty” of whom this letter speaks. Elizabeth was, it appears, the great-aunt of Harriet Vanartsdalen Hart—her paternal grandfather’s sister.
The Ramsey family was large, with eight children who all reached adulthood. The 1850 Census saw the family living in Northampton, Bucks County, where Robert Ramsey was a farmer. The children listed on the 1850 census were Jeanette V. (b. 1842); Amelia G. (b. 1844); Henry K. (1845-1910); Anna; and John V. (12 January, 1850–5 May, 1890). The 1860 census includes all of these children, as well as William Augustus (b. 1852) and Edward (b. 1855), the latter of whom this letter was sent in the care of.
Anna’s brother Henry may have fought during the final year of the Civil War. A Henry Ramsey enlisted as private on 17 February, 1865, in Company I, 61st Pennsylvania Infantry and was mustered out on 28 June, 1865, in Washington, D.C. However, there are multiple Pennsylvania Henry Ramseys who enlisted during the war. Some can be ruled out as Anna’s brother, but none who remain supply the recorded evidence to make certain identification.
Ten years later, in 1870, Robert and Elizabeth appear alone on the 1870 census of Northampton—all of their offspring had flown. Sons Henry and Edward were enumerated in Abingdon, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, working as laborers on the farm of maternal kin Amos and Lottie Vanartsdalen. The rest of the children were nearby, still in Northampton. Son John worked as a laborer on the farm of Jesse and Hannah Twining. Eldest daughter Jeanette lived with another Vanartsdalen relation, 64-year-old Jane. Jeanette may have been with Jane Vanartsdalen as early as May 1864, when both their names were entered as members of the Dutch Reformed Church of North and Southampton.
Amelia lived on the farm of Marshall and Sarah Cummings, working as a seamstress. Anna was with farmer Charles Torbert and his 21-year-old daughter Emma, keeping house.
Anna’s father, Robert, died 5 May, 1878, and was buried in Union Cemetery, Richboro, Bucks County, “aged 64 years, 6 months, and 8 days,” according to his tombstone. Anna and William then returned to live with 62-year-old widow Elizabeth and were thusly enumerated on the 1880 Census. Anna’s brother John was nearby, enumerated in the 1880 Census as a laborer. He had married a woman named Emma and had two children: Mary (b. 1875) and Robert (b. 1877).
On 18 January, 1882, at the Dutch Reformed Church, William Ramsey married Adelaide B. Addis (1859–1896) and became the father of Anna Maud (1886–1906), Harry A. (1887–1954), and Charles H. (1888–1964.) Anna Ramsey never married, and died in Morristown, Pennsylvania, 7 December, 1933, aged 86, of chronic valvular heart disease and bronchial pneumonia. She was buried on 12 December in Union Cemetery between her mother, “Aunty” Elizabeth and her bachelor brother Henry, 50 years after receiving the grief-stricken missive I now own. Ω
Continental Square in York, Pa. Courtesy of the York History Center.
The metallic reverberating sound of gongs repeatedly sounded throughout downtown York, Pa., in August of 1925. It was a sound people recognized as the alert on a fire truck. Somewhere in York, a fire was burning.
“During the disturbance patrons of theaters, hurriedly snatched their wraps and fled from the amusement places to ‘go to the fire.’ Others telephoned or went to their homes,” The York Dispatch reported.
People attending a municipal band concert at Farquhar Park heard the gongs over the music and streamed out of the park, seeking the fire or their homes to make sure that it wasn’t burning.
The problem was that there was no fire. “A callithumpian band mounted on a truck which also carried, despite their objections the bride and bridegroom, coursed about downtown streets for about an hour last evening,” The York…
“When old Francis died in 1913, Dad sent him off in a hearse pulled by four black horses followed by mutes carrying ostrich feather wands and a procession of friends and family in the deepest mourning possible.”—Barbara Nadel
Unless otherwise noted, all images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe
This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.
The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.
Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.
The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.
Throughout history, the comet’s apparitions brought fear and awe to earthbound viewers, who saw comets as a predictors of great and potentially horrific events. In 218, for example, Roman historian Dio Cassius termed it “a very fearful star,” and of the 1456 comet pass, Bartolomeo Platina named it “a hairy and fiery star” that he heard would bring “grievous pestilence, dearth, and some great calamity.” Its 1066 apparition is commemorated by the Bayeux Tapestry—the great embroidered epic of the Norman Conquest—as a portent that Duke William of Normandy’s ascension to the throne of England was literally writ in the stars.
The 1835 comet apparition predated photography by nearly a decade, but astronomical drawings were made by Sir John Frederick William Herschel from a position in South Africa. In the lead up to Halley’s Comet’s arrival, and during the months it graced the night sky, Georgians indulged their love of symbolism and used the shape of the comet, with its long tail, as the basis for generally singular, and relatively expensive, gold jewelry—although pinchbeck and gilt 1835 brooches can be found. These pieces commemorated the comet apparition in conjunction with the human events that transpired during its nightly reign, such as births, betrothals, marriages, and deaths.
My brooch fits the latter of these, but there are many stunning examples that evoke the joy and wonder felt by those with comet fever. For example, the lovely duo below, sold by Rowan & Rowan, are gold with a foiled citrine and garnets.
Halley’s was not the only comet visible to those living in the 19th Century. Stuart L. Schneider, the author of Halley’s Comet: Memories of 1910, noted, “Most people who saw Halley’s comet in 1986 were disappointed with the comet’s showing. We were not as fortunate as the folks living in the 1800s…. In 1811 there was a beautiful comet with a tail 100,000,000 miles long. It was called the Great Comet of 1811 and was visible for 17 months. In 1843, a comet appeared … with a tail twice as long as that of the Great Comet of 1811. Abraham Lincoln commented on Donati’s Comet of 1858. It appeared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Civil War soldiers saw the Comet of 1861, which had six or more tails. In 1874, Coggin’s Comet appeared in the skies, and in 1882 a comet appeared that was visible for 4 months.”
I own another comet brooch that may commemorate one or both of the century’s unexpected celestial visitors, Comet Tebbutt C/1881 K1, or the Great Comet of 1881, and the Great Comet of September 1882, C/1882 R1, which Schneider alluded to above.
Comet Tebbutt was visible during the summer and Autumn of 1881, finally becoming lost to observers in early 1882. It was followed later that year by another comet of such luminosity that, at its perihelion, it was visible next to the sun in the daytime sky.
After it was gone—“buried in the darkness of space”—Professor H. A. Howe of Denver University wrote in The Sidereal Messenger’s May 1884 issue, “This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny. Then, perchance, it will again burst unexpectedly into view, to be firmly bound by the chains of mathematical analysis, which, more tenuous than gossamer, are stronger than steel.”
When Halley’s Comet returned in 1910, it brought age-old fears with it, as well as a new wave of comet jewelry. Author Christopher S. Cevasco, wrote that the 1910 apparition “came with its own doomsday predictions. One of the gases discovered in the tail through spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen, leading French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion to predict that when the earth passed through the comet’s tail, the gas ‘would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monsieur Flammarion was not only an astronomer but an author of science fiction novels, and fortunately here it seems he let his imagination run away with him. Notwithstanding many panicked Earthlings running out to buy gas masks, anti-comet pills, and apparently even anti-comet umbrellas, the planet suffered no harm given how diffuse the gas was.”
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) also believed in the portents of comets. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died 21 April, 1910, just after the comet reached its brightest. Ω
New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31 December for the first time in 45 B.C. when the Julian calendar came into effect.
Happy New Year, Gentle Readers. Thank you for following me on this journey this far. Leave a comment, if you can. It is always deeply appreciated. And heed Benjamin Franklin, who advised, “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”
During World War I, soldiers on both sides ceased dealing death for one joyous Christmas Day.
It came and then was gone, but for a while death held no dominion on the battlefields of France. Soldiers on both sides were entrenched, following killing orders from generals and cousin kings. “You no shoot, we no shoot,” the signs Germans troops held up supposedly read. So, the British did not shoot. Instead, they all met in the middle—a muddy No Man’s Land. They decorated tiny Yule trees and exchanged cigarettes, cigars, tinned foods, and even helmets. They buried their dead; they sang carols and played football, too.
According to historian Gerard DeGroot, a professor at the Unversity of St. Andrews, “The truce was, first and foremost, an act of rebellion against authority. In the trenches, though peace on earth seemed a ridiculous fantasy, impromptu ceasefires had been occurring as early as December 18. The British High Command, alarmed that the holiday might inspire goodwill, issued a stern order against fraternisation. Officers were warned that yuletide benevolence might ‘destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks’. Christmas, in other words, was to be a killing time.
“The Germans, however, were stubbornly festive. In an effort to bolster morale, truckloads of Christmas trees were sent to the Kaiser’s forces. All along the line, Germans were acting in bizarrely peaceful fashion. Guns fell silent. Candles and lanterns taunted British snipers. Late on Christmas Eve, Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’ [‘Silent Night’] echoed across no man’s land. The British, initially perplexed, soon joined in.”
In a letter home, Frederick James Davies, a private in the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, wrote of 25 December, “We had a good chat with the Germans on Xmas Day. They were only fifty yards away from us in the trenches. They came out and we went to meet them. We shook hands with them. We gave them cigs, jam, and corn beef. They also gave us cigars but they didn’t have much food. I think they are hard up for it. They were fed up with the war.”
Captain Bruce Bairnsfather recalled, “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything…. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons…. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange…. The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
Henry Williamson, 5th Battalion, The London Rifle Brigade, City of London Regiment, Territorial Forces, wrote to his mother on 26 December, “It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?…. Our men are speaking to them now. They are landsturmers or landwehr, I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked.”
Another member of Williamson’s unit, Rifleman Graham Williams, recollected, “Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the frosty air! First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing—two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Wrote a German soldier, Josef Wenzl, “What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches—by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items. A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.”
And then there was the footie—a match between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment against Scottish troops. The 133rd’s War History, says that someone produced a ball, and that this “developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the center. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.”
Why do we remember this blessed peaceful night? It was a beacon of light in a useless apocalypse that killed 18 million people and wounded 23 million more. British soldier Alfred Anderson recalled at the end of his life, “It was then we discovered that those on the ‘other’ side were not the savage barbarians we’d been told. They were like us. Why were we led to believe otherwise?” Ω