Christmas in the trenches – Czech soldiers in WW1

K.u.k.-Infanterie an der Ostfront (Foto: Public Domain)

Between 2014 and 2018, the world is marking a centenary since the Great War swept across Europe and beyond. There is hardly a family in this country that didn’t have at least one of their male ancestors fighting on one or more of the fronts of the conflict. In this special programme, we look at the ways Czech soldiers in WW1 spent their Christmas in various places around Europe and the Far East. Using authentic documents: letters, journals and memoirs provided by the soldiers’ descendants to Czech Radio, the programme brings a testimony of the very different life our great-grandfathers lived a hundred years ago.

Photo: Public Domain
During the first wartime Christmas in 1914, thousands of British and German troops on the Western Front put their weapons down and talked to each other, sang carols and even played football. The legendary Christmas Truce of 1914 has since been remembered as a victory of humanity and common sense over the mindlessness and terror of war. Czech soldiers weren’t part of that event as they were mostly deployed in the East of Europe: Galicia, Russia, Poland and the Balkans.

The future village chronicler Václav Gayer from Jezeřany-Maršovice near the town of Znojmo was recruited in the summer of 1914 and sent with his regiment to the east of Poland. In his memoirs he described his Christmas as well as St Nicholas Day on the Eastern Front near the village of Czerkovice and the Nida River.

“On the 8th of December we were surprised by St Nicholas Day presents. They were sent by the officials and citizens of Znojmo to us – their local regiment. The parcels contained items like: cigarettes, notebooks, postcards, chocolate, needles, confectionery, gloves, even a small bottle of slivovitz. Everybody first inspected the parcels carefully from the outside trying to secure the best and most valuable gift. Our joy over this St Nicholas distribution was no less than childish. We would look at our presents again and again. The highlight of the day was when our friend Čepera arrived with his choice of St Nicholas presents: bacon, zwieback and a bottle full of rum. He managed to steal those items from the supply company. As he himself had had enough, he donated the things to us, his compatriots and neighbours in our humble field abodes. Of course, we weren’t cross with him and dug into those glorious St Nicholas presents straight away. In exchange we took Čepera’s guard duty.”

“At noon we finished our jobs and returned home carrying a pretty Christmas tree. During the afternoon parade we were encouraged to display more bravery and were reassured of the wonderful prospect of peace soon to come.

“On Christmas Eve we had a day off so we had time to pick our overpopulated parasites, the mean winter sun helping us somewhat. We had only potato soup to eat. In the afternoon the fifth march-battalion arrived. In the evening it was time for the presents. Everyone was given about ten cigarettes, a few cookies, a slice of sausage and an apple. And then we slept, like we would at home after the traditional Christmas carp. Only our bare Christmas tree, stuck in the straw, rattled as the wind blowing in through the crevices in the walls played with it. We fell asleep with the sad memories of our faraway homes and the past years when we used to be full of joy on this day. Only now did we recognize and appreciate all that past happiness, in our sad destitution and difficult uncertainty of life. Many a father shed an involuntary tear and I could only guess their minds were wandering in the faraway homeland, with their families where their lovely children certainly thought of their daddy, where maybe just now they were folding their hands in prayer for the return of their father. I must admit my heart was aching, even though I hadn’t yet known the happiness of having my own family. And thinking of my dear ones with whom I had spent many a beautiful moment during my previous 23 Christmas Eves, tears welled up in my eyes. It occurred to me that I might never see my dear family again. Maybe I will spend my last Christmas Eve in this barren and blood soaked steppe, this battle field. And maybe the birth of the Saviour tomorrow will find me in the throes of a deadly battle.

Jaroslav Janda, photo: Jaroslav Janda's family archive
“Long into the night such thoughts didn’t allow us to sleep and we lingered in our dreams by the Christmas trees in our own homes. We didn’t sleep long. During the night, the Russians’ heavy artillery started shelling us and shells were landing among our barns. There was an alarm and we had to run out into the muddy field. That was an unpleasant early morning mass. We stood outside until dawn. Then we went back after the shelling stopped. Immediately afterwards we went to church to the holy mass offered by our field chaplain. The church was wooden but beautifully decorated inside. Words cannot describe the impression this quiet, simple service evoked in us. I shall only say that in their mind, everybody dwelled in their beloved home, where everyone at this moment was present at the early morning mass, and during the service perhaps thought of us – the defenders of the motherland.”

Many of the soldiers spent more than one Christmas away from home. Some of them, such as Jaroslav Janda, a military medic from Prague, as many as five. In his long account of his wartime years he describes the Christmas of 1914 which he spent as a prisoner of war in the Serbian town of Valjevo.

“We were very busy but it was getting somewhat better. Then Christmas came and our regiment doctor Milota had a dairy cow slaughtered for us that was still left from our reserves. By Christmas we had used up all our reserves. We had nothing for dinner for the wounded, only canned black coffee. We ourselves had it slightly better but we couldn’t scrape up as much as we wanted for everybody.

“On Christmas Eve we all remembered our homes. We were given raw beef and cooked goulash from it in the school where we were quartered. We did it secretly because there were too many eyes everywhere and we couldn’t share our food with everyone. I also made pancakes and we had beer. It was good. Also we fixed electric lighting for ourselves. Without asking we connected to the grid, from the posts out in the street. I made a makeshift switch beside my cot by the window. Serbian soldiers came over to visit us when they heard us singing ‘Jesus Christ was Born” after dinner. My friend Falout stood by the switch and at my command he either switched the light on or off while I was on the other side of the room. The Serbian soldiers were bewildered at the light going on and off automatically at my command.”

Some stories recorded by Czech soldiers indeed resemble the comic episodes from the world-famous “Good Soldier Švejk” by Jaroslav Hašek – the most translated novel of Czech literature. Others are quite idyllic, such as this following memory. In a recording made in the late 1950s, Alexander Novotný, a post office worker from the city of Brno, recalls his Christmas of 1917 in what is now Slovenia.

“On the 23rd of November we went closer to the enemy lines. At that time we were just ready for the front. We concluded our military training there. We arrived in the village of Radovljica, or Radmannsdorf in German, sixteen of us, junior officers. So we established a little choir. Our conductor and choirmaster was a teacher, a good guy. We sang in the church there and we learned some Slovenian songs: Lijepa Marija and so on. And the choirmaster and teacher liked me, so he chose me to sing a solo at Christmas. So at midnight on Christmas Eve I sang a solo, then at seven in the morning and at eleven again, and I was famous. When we were leaving the village, the local priest himself came to the school where we were quartered to thank me.”

Alexander Novotný and his son (early 1930s), photo: Alexander Novotný's family archive
That was Alexander Novotný from Brno singing a Christmas song by Antonín Dvořák. Earlier he reminisced about his Christmas in Slovenia in 1917, in a recording made some 40 years later.

Josef Jakubíček, a builder from the south Moravian rural town of Veselí nad Moravou, was sent to the Italian front in Slovenia in the summer of 1917. Later that year, he spent his first and last Christmas away from home there. This is what he wrote in his memoirs from the 1930s.

“On the 23rd of December at 7 am, we leave Silvelette and at 11 a.m. we pass through Vittorio. From there the road leads uphill and as we ascend, mud gives way to snow and the road is icy and slippery. We arrive in a village by the lake and we sleep in a cowshed among cows and donkeys. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and our quarters resemble the conditions in which Jesus Christ was born.

“On December 24th they wake us up at 5 a.m. At half past six we set off. They give us apples. We walk uphill and at noon we arrive in a small village at the foot of the mountains. We get canned food, wine, nuts and cornmeal – as a special Christmas treat. We keep ourselves warm – we have heated the room up with our own breath. Some four kilometres below us there is a small town where we get our supplies. We go there to fetch bread, meat and other supplies. For that we borrowed a sledge from the farmer. The sledge has large arches in the front and the one driving it stands between them when we ride downhill. We saw the locals carry huge loads of timber downhill on the sledge and riding it skilfully. One of our friends tried it but was no good at it, so we crashed into the stone wall by the road and broke the sledge. In the town, we saw a sledge just like ours, so we simply swapped them. Once we collected the required items, we had to pull the sledge back uphill so we got really warm. We passed some locals riding downhill on small sledges and later carrying them under their arms in the village. We also saw a boy riding one with his sister on the sidewalk and steering it with a club at the back, he could even turn right angles.

“December 25th. Christmas Day. There was no reveille this morning and my friend let me sleep in. When I was looking for black coffee, the kitchen had already run out. So I went over to the 6th company’s kitchen. They still had some coffee. They said I had already been there but I swore I hadn’t. I’m thinking of everyone at home, what they are doing.”

Josef Jakubíček, photo: Josef Jakubíček's family archive
Josef Jakubíček was injured just a few weeks after that Christmas. He lost two fingers on his right hand after being hit by shrapnel and following treatment in a hospital in Austria he was transported back to Moravia and eventually discharged. He and Alexander Novotný never met while serving on the Italian front, but some thirty years later Josef’s daughter and Alexander’s son would fall in love and get married. Their marriage would produce three children. Alexander Novotný’s son made this recording of his father-in-law singing his regiment song in the late 1950s.

Barber and hairdresser Josef Müller from the village of Dolní Cetno near the town of Mladá Boleslav in Central Bohemia was 32 years old when he was recruited in 1914 and sent to the Eastern Front. During the war he also served in the Balkans, in Hungary and Italy. He briefly described his Christmas of 1917 in his wartime memoir.

“There had been a coup in Russia, the government had been overthrown, Tsar Nicholas dethroned. The times were strange, unstable, uncertain. Russian soldiers refused obedience, they didn’t know who they were supposed to fight for or against. In short, they were in the same position as us, Czechs, since the beginning of the war. First Kerensky, then Kolchak, then others from different guberniyas. Simply chaos. Therefore nothing was happening on either the Russian, or our side. We received very little food. Only rum came in full rations. On the other hand, the Russians didn’t get any vodka but plenty of food. So we always walked half way and traded rum for bread and cigarettes. Thus we established quite a good relations.

“Meanwhile the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I. died and Charles I. ascended the throne at Christmas came. We expected some special treats or presents. But nothing! Only floury soup and a piece of bread.”

Thirty-year old carpenter František Matula from a small village near the town of Hustopeče in South Moravia was taken prisoner in Russia in the autumn of 1914. Before he eventually joined the Czechoslovak Legion, he lived in various villages in Siberia with a number of other Czech prisoners. He wrote a diary to keep himself busy. He describes both the Catholic and Orthodox Christmas, several days apart in 1914 in the village of Voskrysenka near the city of Omsk.

“The first Christmas Eve in captivity was sad for me. I remembered my home, how we used to get together at Christmas. Sitting around the table we would always say: ‘Will we meet again here, alive and well in a year’s time?’ Lying in bed at night I recalled everything at home and I felt sorry and sad and I had a good cry. The birth of the Lord for me was a sad memory of home.

“The weather here is severe: blizzard, low visibility and extreme cold. In the evening we made white coffee. All day we sang and talked, remembering our homes. We arrived here just before the Russian Christmas, it starts 13 days after ours. Christmas Eve here in Siberia falls on the 6th of January in Austria. The Christmas Eve dish was cabbage soup, sweet rice, preserved cherries and raisins.

Josef Müller, photo: Josef Müller's family archive
“The birth of Christ, December 25th. The custom here in Siberia is for young children to go from house to house in the morning before dawn and sing carols. We ate very late. We waited for our landlords to come back from church. I was very hungry, it was about 11 o’clock when we started eating. We had meat soup – there was a lot of cabbage in it. Then meat, pretzels with butter, and eggs and tea. At 4 pm we had beef, pretzels and tea, so we only ate twice that day. I was hungry.

“December 26th, St Stephen’s Day. I don’t know what they call the holiday here. At 10 am we had breakfast and lunch all combined. We had beef soup with cabbage, meat, blini pancakes and tea. At 5 pm beef, blini, and tea with pretzels. It wasn’t enough for me. The morning fasting was too long, I couldn’t endure it, my stomach hurt. Happy holidays or ‘s prazdnikom’ as they say here. That’s all from me now, as far as Christmas is concerned.”

A year later František Matula spent his Christmas in the Siberian village of Kyrsanova, still in captivity.

“Friday is Christmas Eve back home, so we all gathered in the evening. We talked about our dear homes and our loved ones. I observed Christmas Day as well. I did nothing on that day. I had permission from the landlord. In the morning we all gathered in the house, where we cooked for ourselves. White coffee in the morning, it was very tasty. We also bought desserts together. We cooked a Czech dinner. Roast beef and pork, dumplings and cabbage. We all loved it. We hadn’t had anything like that since we had left home.”

After the terrible march across Serbia and Albania in the final months of 1915, the Serbian and later Italian prisoner of war Jaroslav Janda spent the Christmas of 1915 on a boat heading for the island of Asinara. The following Christmas found him working in a harbour near Paris as a French prisoner of war.

“And meanwhile Christmas came. We had to work all day on Christmas Eve and St Stephen’s Day. Only on Christmas Day we didn’t work and spent the free time doing laundry and cleaning our clothes. We remembered our home a lot. This was our third Christmas in captivity in the war and we hoped it was the last. We played chess, made tea and hot chocolate. At night before bedtime I went for a walk in the courtyard so I would sleep better.”

In 1917 Jaroslav Janda signed up for the Czechoslovak legion in France. He spent Christmas that year still in the prisoner camp of Carpentras.

“It was another Christmas, the fourth in the war, and my eighth one in the military. Even though the situation for the Entente without Russia was bad, we still hoped it would be the last wartime Christmas. We brought a Christmas tree and decorated it with candy and cigarettes. We sang and remembered home.”

But Jaroslav Janda spent yet another Christmas away from home: in Italy, during his journey to Prague and his new homeland – Czechoslovakia.

Tomáš Hrbek (1915), photo: Tomáš Hrbek's family archive
“It was my ninth Christmas in the military. The women sprinkled the wide staircase outside the church with corn for the pigeons and they entered the church. Men entered through a narrow alley on the side of the church by the parish house. I thought it was a local custom for men to wish Merry Christmas to the priest. I didn’t feel like it so I entered the church through the main door. But there I was the only man among the women and I could see that all the men were at the front by the altar. So I started walking towards the men but I noticed the church was divided up by a small fence in the middle so I couldn’t go any further. What now? I looked around. There were no pews in the church, only wicker chairs. And all of a sudden one of the women pushed a chair towards me, so I sat down and whispered: ‘grazie’. Everybody sang in the church, men, women, old ladies and children, beautifully but loudly. In Prague the church singing can be ugly at times. Some sing too fast to show off they know the lyrics by heart, others too slowly to emphasize their piousness, ignoring the organ. During elevation everybody rose to their feet, the chairs from the back were quickly moved to the front and everybody knelt down on the chairs. I did the same but I was a little late. And this was repeated during communion, I was careful and it went smoothly. After the mass I was only sorry I didn’t speak any Italian so I could apologize for entering through the wrong door.”

Jaroslav Janda finally arrived in Prague in January 1919, four and a half years after leaving his homeland. He lost his wartime diaries during the fighting in France but reconstructed his adventures from memory in 1934.

Václav Nový from Doubravka, now part of the city of Pilsen, was twenty years old when he spent the Christmas of 1915 in Russia after being taken prisoner earlier that year on the Dniester River.

“These are our first Christmas holidays in captivity. We bought ginger bread, sausages, cigarettes and we celebrate the birth of little baby Jesus quite merrily. We sing and eat. The mood is still quite happy. Later on we started remembering our homes, we told each other stories about the holidays. The mood became sad. Everyone remembered their loved ones at home, how they were spending this lovely evening. Everybody knew that back home, they were thinking of us just as we were thinking of them, because we missed each other.”

Václav Nový later joined the Czechoslovak legion. After travelling across the Russian east his unit eventually reached the port of Vladivostok from where ships sailed back to Europe after the war. He spent the Christmas of 1919 aboard one of the cruisers. Here he describes a brief stopover in Singapore.

“In the morning we go to see the city. There are shops everywhere and a lot of noise. It is mostly Chinese and Indian people here. We were given some Singapore dollars so we shop until we run out of money. In the evening we celebrate Christmas Eve in the cabin. We sing a few choir pieces. The commander of the regiment and the ship’s captain are also present. We remember our loved ones at home where, hopefully, they have a calmer holiday.”

Tomáš Hrbek's postcard, photo: Tomáš Hrbek's family archive
Thirty-six year old bricklayer Tomáš Hrbek from the central Bohemian village of Velká Lečice sent a Christmas greeting from Békéscsaba in Hungary to his wife dated December 25th, 1915.

“My dearest family. I’m letting you know that I am in good health and we are celebrating the Lord’s holidays too. On Christmas Eve we were at home, not out in the field. For dinner, we had dumplings with gravy, and tea, a small loaf of bread, eight apples and 30 walnuts. We have a pretty Christmas tree which many of us find moving. There are also some who find it laughable. Some people are worse than animals. The colonel himself reminded us to go and pray. A few of us went to church but most stayed at home, playing cards and doing pranks. A friend of mine and I went to church and then to the Protestant one. There are no pictures inside but it’s beautiful. They sang during mass, so we sang along.” This following card is dated after Christmas 1915.

“Dearest Mařenka! I received your card on Christmas Eve for which I extend to you a thousand thanks and I also wish you a happy 1916. May we meet again in good health and hold each other in our arms, to endure life together, be it good or harsh, as we both had vowed. We were befallen by a tough destiny but we don’t sink, we stand firmly and bear it. Trust in God that we shall meet again. We are soon to leave and I don’t know where to. I’m sending the children walnuts from Christmas Eve. Farewell, children, farewell father. Pray for my happy return, for us to meet again in good health and make merry. I am leaving with a heavy heart but I entrust myself into God’s will, my conscience is calm. Let the others be held accountable for what they have caused. Should death reach me, I beg you all for forgiveness in case I ever hurt you. Farewell, good-bye.”

Tomáš Hrbek never saw his loved ones again. In the summer of 1916 he was shot on guard somewhere on the Italian front. He was one of the estimated 140,000 Czechs who perished in the First World War.