“Sisterhood of Sorrow”: WW1’s Other Battle

The Christmas celebration dates centuries back. And although its Biblical origins are these days generally shrugged off to make room for a food-feast and a consumerist orgy, it is still given a special place amongst the favorite traditions worldwide. It also displays its own codes: the Christmas tree, carols, Advent Calendars – interestingly by the way, the latter included pictures of saints before its windows opened on chocolates. So, to wrap it all up, Christmas is a family celebration, ideally a bit much drank to, cheered up by some bawdy jokes as a chimney fire purrs in the background.

Nonetheless, the tradition was about to have a hard time in the course of the events leading up to Christmas 1914. At the time, Europe had been bogged down in the trenches of WW1 for about six months. On the French side alone, more than 300,000 soldiers had perished. The general atmosphere did not seem prone to gift-giving and turkey-carving… But a precursory sign of peace was about to make its way up to the frontline.

British suffragettes demonstration GB UK voting rights for women
British suffragettes campaigning at the door of a Police Station, 1911. (Photo: Johnny Cyprus via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

British suffragettes, who tenaciously campaigned for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, published an ‘Open Christmas Letter’ addressed to German and Austrian women – the wives of the other side’s soldiers – in the final days of December 1914. Signed by a hundred feminist activists, the letter illustrated a change of mind in these days of grief and darkness:

“The Christmas message sounds like mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to such of you who feel as we do. […] Is it not our mission to preserve life? Do not humanity and common sense alike prompt us to join hands with the women of neutral countries, and urge our rulers to stay further bloodshed?”

This peaceful message, inspired by a spirit of ‘sisterhood of sorrow’, is no stranger to the continent-wide struggle for women’s suffrage that features Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The International Alliance of Women was founded in 1904, notably spearheaded by American suffragettes such as Carrie Chapman Catt and Susan Anthony; plus, the right to vote had already been granted to the women of Finland (1907) and Norway (1913). Needless to say that, through wartime, women had to take the seats vacated by the men enlisted. Called en masse to work in ammunition factories, one can witness for the first time, by the end of 1914, a woman wearing a firefighter uniform or driving a bus! (Still, they were less paid than their male counterparts. See, that’s a long-standing issue.)

Women working at man jobs during WW1
Because of WW1, women were offered positions usually performed by men: drivers of the Metropolitan Electric Tramways Company (left) or workers in ammunition factories (right). (Photo via Striking Women © TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University)

Through wartime, women turned into a powerful political force, and they stated it loud and clear by sending peaceful messages. The phenomenon known as ‘fraternization’ that occurred at Christmas 1914 did not, however, only happen down the columns of a feminist review: even up to the frontline could the process be (quite surprisingly) witnessed.

As if to respect the tradition, Christmas carols were sang by German soldiers to their British enemies, from one trench to another; following some white-flag-waving, military personnel from both sides emerged from their shelters and met, unarmed, into no man’s land. Here, football games were organized (using food cans as balls); there, cognac and tobacco were exchanged. Sometimes, those unofficial truces happened while fighting kept going at other spots of the frontline — bullets keeping ringing the ears of the newly-befriended soldiers. British private Henry Williamson wrote to his mother over the next day:

“Dear Mother,

I am writing from the trenches. 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?”

British and German soldiers meeting up in December 1914. Quick vocab list: “Merry Christmas!” = “Schöne Weihnachten”. (Photo: Robson Harold B via Wikipedia)

What’s more, soldiers who took part in these informal gatherings understood that the other faction was already weary about making war. Everyone was looking forward to coming home, regardless of the outcome. “They are distinctly bored with the war,” Captain Robert Patrick Miles asserted following his encounter with German troops. “In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.” But gunshots would soon be heard again on the battlefield. The general staffs, from the safety of their bunkers, shouted at the top of their voices that war should resume on both sides. Thus the truce was eventually brought to an end and the soldiers led back to the cold reality of bloody, muddy trenches.

In March 1915, as the merry fraternizations had turned into some faraway memory whose occurrence could even be doubted, a group of 155 German suffragettes decided to reply to their British counterparts’ letter of Christmas 1914. It read:

“To our English sisters, sisters of the same race, we express in the name of many German women our warm and heartfelt thanks for their Christmas greetings, which we only heard of lately. This message was a confirmation of what we foresaw—that women of the belligerent countries, with all faithfulness, devotion, and love to their country, can go beyond it and maintain true solidarity with the women of other belligerent nations, and that really civilised women never lose their humanity.”

Shared ambitions and expectations showed up for European women despite the fact their countries were torn apart by war. Finally it seemed that women’s issues had overstepped the privilege of nationality to trigger an international struggle for suffrage. As the war came to an end in 1918, the belligerent states had no other alternative than addressing those concerns. The UK granted British women aged 30 year old and more the right to vote, with several restrictions however, in February. Germany followed suit in November.

Votes for Women US Referendum
Henry Mayer, The Awakening, 1915. American women were gradually granted the right to vote, depending on each state’s local regulation; eventually it was implemented nationwide in 1920. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In France, although governmental proposals dealing with that matter were discussed in the political sphere, the conservative Senate systematically rejected them. French women would have to wait until 1944 and the end of WW2 to be granted the right to vote – this was recognized by De Gaulle notably for the key role women played in the clandestine activities of the French Resistance. Serving as radio operators, typists, sometimes taking up arms, these brave women earned the right to vote thanks to resolute willpower; they were named Germaine Tillion, Lucie Aubrac or Hélène Viannay, among others.

Simone Segouin Resistance française Women French resistance
Simone Segouin was a 18-year-old French resistant fighter who took part of the Liberation of Paris in August 1944. (Photo: Rare Historical Photos)

Wartime thus served as a backdrop for other clashes than those happening on the battlefield. They were fought using speeches and international solidarity as weapons, aiming them at narrow-mindedness and anti-progressionism. One remembers from Christmas 1914 the happy gatherings of German, British and French soldiers into no man’s land, but easily forgets the worldwide unity of women struggling for change. One easily recalls the heavy toll of WW1 – about 18 million dead recorded between 1914 and 1918; but, over the same time span, more than a hundred million women in the world were granted access to ballot boxes for the first time.




Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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