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Christmas on the Western Front, 1915

In his letters to Mae Davison, whom Beston came to call Marraine, (godmother; marraine de guerre is used to designate a female wartime pen pal) Beston often described life on the front, and the underlying paradox of modern warfare: “A curious life, here. In the trenches one takes to the earth like a cave man, you live like a troglodyte while the ‘dernier cri’ of modern science bursts over your head. A paradox, n-est-ce pas?” Like many of the volunteers, when lulls in the fighting occurred it was easy for Beston to fall prey to loneliness and homesickness. This was often apparent in his letters to Davison: “Your constant kindliness has meant a great deal to a rather lonesome young philosopher, for we are all ‘philosophes’ here. We have to be. A thousand thanks for the jolly papers and the tea. If you have any warm socks on hand, I should very much like to have some. The mud is fearful, and my feet are nearly always moist.”

Winter came early to the western front in 1915, with much rain, sleet, and snow. In early December Beston wrote to Davison that the trenches were now mud sluice-ways, and that, to make things even more nerve-wracking, all along the front, orders have been given to have gas-masks handy—the result, I believe, of the information that the Boches are manufacturing monstrous quantities of this stuff. The other day I was sent up to a village on the line to try out my mask. I put it on, half smothering myself with the multicoloured compress, and then descended into a cellar full of thick chlorine fumes. I never felt a thing, tho [sic] I realized that the air I was breathing was of a different quality than is usually found. The masks dehumanize us in an ogre-ish sort of way.

In the same letter, he rather sheepishly conveyed some happier news: “I am very glad to write that I am now brigadier or corporal of the section, and wear two humble broad blue stripes upon my sleeve. The soldiers call me “Caporal” which amuses me hugely.”

Unlike Christmas1914, there would be no spontaneous “Christmas Truce” in 1915; instead, hostilities continued virtually unabated. For the Entente, 1915 had been a discouraging year. Despite tremendous losses, the Allies had made little progress in reconquering lost territory on the western front; the Russians had suffered a staggering number of casualties on the eastern front in addition to losing vast swathes of land to the Germans; the British offensive at Gallipoli ended in ignominious defeat. Beston and his unit spent Christmas at their station in Pont-a-Mousson, from where they would soon be deployed to Verdun and one of the most significant battles of the Great War.

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