The Inspiration Behind Holiday Ops 2019

The holidays are a time of coming together and reflecting on the year that’s passing. For those on the frontline, this time of year is very different. With that in mind, we decided 2019’s Holiday Ops should focus on the wartime traditions and events from the past and how soldiers celebrated around Christmas and New Year. From its origins of the makeshift football pitch in Ypres in 1914, the festive period has become more about a farewell to arms, albeit short-lived, than ally versus enemy.

Our historical team has been hard at work researching about wartime holiday efforts from all around the world. Some you may already know, others are a bit less well-known but are as influential or important to the notion of “live and let live”. Below you can find details about all of the events that inspired this year’s Holiday Ops:

  • A Peaceful New Year
  • Xmas in the Vosges
  • Xmas Football
  • New Year 1944
  • Submarine Xmas

Celebrating a Peaceful New Year

Anatoly Fedorovich Zarva remembers the New Year celebration in 1944. The 1st Guards Tank Army was visited by its commander, general Katukov, accompanied by a member of the Military Council, general Popel. They congratulated the military personnel and rewarded the soldiers for their distinguished service in heavy battles. The 20th Guards Motor Rifle Division, where Zarva served, were defending, but the situation on the front was relatively peaceful that day. The soldiers enjoyed a unique opportunity to celebrate a peaceful New Year.

A real surprise was waiting for them: the menu was significantly extended. Everybody received a chocolate bar, a few apples, and a glass of milk as New Year gifts. Milk was something beyond dreams, because the tankers did not see it often during wartime.

In the early morning of January 1, while the German soldiers were asleep, the Commander of the 20th Motor Rifle Division ordered his men to form up, congratulated everyone, and wished them a happy New Year.

Sometime later, the Germans positioned themselves in front of the Soviet forces and joined the celebration by singing "Katyusha", a song they took a liking to at the very beginning of the war.

Christmas in the Vosges

German officer Richard Schirrmann shares his memories of 1915. The territory near Bernhardstein in the Vosges (a mountain group on the north-east of France) was occupied by German and French troops who were separated by a narrow no man's land. He described the landscape as "a wilderness of earth strewn with shattered trees and roots, the ground ploughed up by shellfire."

But the enemies ceased fire on Christmas night.

Schirrmann recalled that when the Christmas bells had rung in the Vosges villages, the German and French forces had felt something opposite to hostility.

They stopped fighting and made improvised hostels, using abandoned trenches to visit each other and exchange their local goods for Westphalian brown bread, cookies, and ham. The officer says they were so happy back then that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.

That occasion gave Schirrmann the idea to create hostels, cheap hotels for young people, where they could stay for a night or two and socialize.

Christmas Football

By Christmas morning, the neutral ground was filled with sociable soldiers who were sharing presents and rations and singing songs together. Some used this Christmas truce to find their fallen comrades and lay them to rest with due respects, which was hardly possible under heavy fire.

Soon after that, some improvised balls were ready, and a football match started.

A mutual understanding and lack of fear put the British soldiers at ease, and they started playing football. Eventually, the German soldiers were challenged to a full-scale match. Both sides formed their teams and discussed the rules.

The players tried to follow the football rules of that time. Two boulders served as an improvised goal. Germany won 3-2 that day.

"I Have Never Tried Patties Like This Before"

Timofey Kutigin recalls the New Year celebration of 1944. Their comrade, Konstantsin Konstantsinovich Argutin, a Caucasian native in his late fifties, used to boast that he had solid cooking experience in almost every restaurant in Pyatigorsk and Nalchik. He obtained some flour at the depot to mix the dough, and used mackerel and pease porridge from the daily rations as stuffing for festive baked patties.

After that, he made a stove in the dug-out and started baking.

Other soldiers followed the smell that reminded them of home and crowded round the dug-out.

Sometime before midnight, the radio operator ordered the unit to battle. Everyone rushed to their posts, when suddenly the battalion commander said, "Dear comrades, best wishes for the New Year of 1944. I hope everybody returns home and that the war will soon be over. Get ready to launch some "fireworks"! Three quick shots at the enemy, fire!"

After this celebration, the unit returned to the trenches. Kutygin, as a party organizer, was giving a short speech, when the enemy decided to return the favor and congratulate the soldiers with some "fireworks" of their own. Someone used a ground sheet to cover the patties from falling dirt. The bombardment ended, and the soldiers had a proper dinner. Even the division paper had a note about this celebration. Kutygin liked to say he had never tried patties like it before.

Christmas at a Depth of 20 Meters

From the U-123 submarine log record, commander Reinhard Hardegen:

"Christmas on board in the Bay of Biscay. All compartments were provided with artificial fir trees decorated with electric lights. Following the holiday ceremony and dinner, the letters and presents from home were distributed among the crew. The celebration continued in compartments filled with Christmas songs."

However, the book by Michael Gannon provides more vivid witness recollections. They reveal some facts that show the importance of the celebration in the routine life of German submariners. So, the persons involved provided their own version.

The U-123 commander was expecting to celebrate Christmas on the base, but received the order to get ready to set off. However, he managed to prepare for the celebration on board. The captain developed a cunning plan that could raise the spirits of the crew members who were not happy with the U-boat expedition happening right before Christmas. After the first day, at noon on December 24, the commander ordered a quick dive. Once the submarine reached a depth of 20 meters, he used a speakerphone to congratulate the U-123 crew.

When they heard "Captain speaking", the submariners tensed up, waiting for important information about their mission, but the worry on their faces soon gave way to amusement.

Hardegen informed everyone that the submarine crew was celebrating Christmas, and the submarine would spend some hours at depth to avoid any disturbances. He said he wanted to make it as festive as possible on a submarine. All off-duty crew members were invited to the central control compartment.

When the crew gathered, they learned that intendants had fir trees for every compartment, and the sergeants would start distributing them soon. The largest fir tree was meant for the control center, and the electricians would decorate it with electric lights. Moreover, the submariners were told that the navigator had managed to get some cakes, and the cook was making a pie.

There were more surprises in store though. The captain announced that after dinner, deck officer Horst von Schroeter would hand out gifts and letters from home, as he temporarily assumed the responsibilities of Knecht Ruprecht (a companion of Saint Nicholas). "But remember," Hardegen said jokingly, "if you were a bad boy, you will be punished!"

The captain's idea worked well, as the very news about gifts and celebration encouraged the crew.

  • New Year's Eve 1945
  • Christmas Fraternization
  • Back Home
  • Christmas Truce of 1914
  • New Year Celebrations

Celebratory Gunfire on New Year's Eve 1945

Of all war-time New Year celebrations by Ivan Denisovich Shastun, the most memorable is the one from 1945. The previous year had not provided a chance for any celebration—the liberation of Cherkasy was instantly followed by fierce and violent battles for the city of Smila near the Tiasmyn river.

After the capitulation of Romania, Shastun with his comrades reached Poland and occupied a small foothold on the river Visla, some ten kilometers away from the frontline. The temperature dropped to 30–35 degrees, and the soldiers had to pound the stone ground to create dugouts.

They made three ground swells, set up a stove, and started heating it up. Everyone gathered around it and wished for a happy New Year and prompt victory.

After that, there was some celebratory gunfire: everyone went outside and fired every kind of weapon they had. That's how the year of Victory began.

Soon after that, the Commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front ordered an advance. Shastun was a battery commander of the 373rd Rifle Division. The Elbe and Victory Day followed, and it is hard to imagine the joy of those days, as well as the overall excitement and jubilation. However, the artillery unit had one more destination—Prague.

British and German Fraternization on Christmas Eve

In the evening of December 24, 1914, British soldiers saw that something strange was happening on the frontline near Ypres: the enemy trenches were decorated with an ocean of small candles. The German soldiers started to sing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (a Christmas carol written by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber in 1818). The British listened to the end of the song and then sang it themselves. The Germans greeted them with thunderous applause.

In other parts of the frontline, German and English soldiers left their trenches, exchanged souvenirs and food, sang Christmas carols, and attended to their fallen.

However, the Christmas truce was held mainly by British and German units. The French were less inclined to fraternize with invaders due to the fact that the Germans were occupying their homeland and turning a great many of their cities and villages into ruins.

The authorities' reactions to the Christmas fraternization was different. The British newspapers published numerous letters that soldiers sent to their families, telling them about the miraculous truce. Both leading national newspapers, the Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch, printed photographs of British and German troops fraternizing with each other. The tone of the reports was mainly positive. Meanwhile, the German newspapers did not cover the event, all letters from the front were severely censored, and soldiers were forbidden to write about the truce. The French press reported that all cases of fraternization happened only in those sectors along the front where the British and Germans faced each other, and French soldiers did not take part in them at all.

Back Home

N. A. Vdovkin, Sotnik of the 1st Orenburg Cossack Regiment, recalled how he commanded the mounted patrol heading to the Rimanov village in Galicia. The enemy had taken some high ground nearby. After a skirmish, the Cossacks stealthily approached a cabin guarded by Austrian soldiers. The scouts broke into the cabin and captured up to 30 enemy soldiers and officers without firing a single shot. They sent the captives to the village and placed them in an empty house. The Cossacks were feeding their horses when one of soldiers told Vdovkin that a captive wanted to speak to him.

Vdovkin agreed.

A tall, broad-shouldered captive entered the house and asked Sotnik to let him go home for a while.

"Let you go home?" Vdovkin asked in surprise

"Yes, home!"

"Are you out of your mind?"

"No, Sir. It's right around the corner..." the captive mumbled.

"What's around the corner?" Sotnik asked.

"My house, where my elderly mother lives. Please let me go, we're celebrating the Mass of Christ tomorrow."

"The Mass of Christ? You mean Christmas?"

"Yes! Yes! Christmas! So what do you say, Sir?" the captive continued.

"What is your name?"

"Joseph" replied the sergeant major, clasping his hands. "Like St. Joseph, Husband of Mary."

"You may go!" permitted Vdovkin. "Go but remember, Mr. Joseph, if you don't return, you will fail me. And your lie may provoke the Virgin Mary to anger..."

Sotnik Vdovkin didn't regret his decision. Sixty years later, he would remember how the sergeant major returned back into captivity that same morning and how they met again in Tavriya during the Civil War, where Joseph was together with his wife and daughter. His family prayed for Sotnik Vdovkin every Christmas Eve.

Christmas Truce of 1914

The German soldiers started by putting candles on their trenches and decorating fir trees, and continued by singing Christmas carols. The British, in their turn, sang their own carols.

They continued to exchange wishes for a happy Christmas.

The Germans shouted out in their broken English, "A happy Christmas to you, Englishmen!" and heard back "Same to you, Fritz, but dinna o’er eat yourself wi' they sausages!" Shortly thereafter, the soldiers from both sides ventured into no man's land to exchange food and small gifts like buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The Christmas truce allowed soldiers to attend to their fallen comrades behind the frontline. Joint services were held. However, the fraternization was not without its risks—some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted only through Christmas night, but in some areas it was extended until New Year's Day.

Bruce Bairnsfather, who served in the British army, wrote "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 an enemy soldier, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, was furious when he heard what was happening, and forbade friendly communication with the opposing German troops.

Tales of New Year Celebrations

War cannot stop the New Year advance. And the brave anti-aircraft gunners used their skills to prepare for a true celebration: they put a dwarf birch into a 37 mm shell case and decorated it with preserve wraps from the holiday ration. A candy in a vibrant wrapper served as a topper for the improvised New Year tree. The festive table offered tinned sausages, American canned meat, sugar lumps, and a hot pot of tea.

Fairy-tale characters—Ded Moroz and Snegurochka—were made of snow.

Fortunately, there is an abundance of snow in the polar regions during winter: snowdrifts were waist-high.

Petr Ignatyevich recalls that the division officer congratulated them on the New Year, wishing them a prompt victory and that they return from the war alive and well. His wish came true, because every soldier from the veteran's unit came home alive.

After the celebratory dinner and congratulations, the most interesting part started: the soldiers started to talk about what would happen if they were to celebrate the New Year at home.

Nasyp from Kazan said he would serve sweet chak-chak and lamb shurpa soup.

Stepan from Ukraine countered with cherry dumplings cooked by his mother.


No matter how and where you spend it, have an enjoyable Holiday Ops! Happy holidays, one and all!

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