The gathering storm: A look back on middle-class Europe’s last carefree Christmas before the onset of World War One

From the following summer, Britain, mainland Europe and a large part of the rest of the world changed for ever

” There are “striking and unsettling parallels”, Emmerson says, with the “geopolitics of the world today”. He does not go there, but try casting today’s China as the impatient, rising Germany of 1913; or today’s America as the already declining Britain of that time; or today’s well-meaning, stumbling European Union as a fracturing Austria-Hungary whose collapse unleashed vicious, nationalist hatreds and rivalries”

John Lichfield

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Wilfred Owen spent a lonely Christmas teaching in Bordeaux. He complained that he had received no Christmas cards from his favourite, former pupils in England.

Raymond Asquith spent Christmas Day with his father, Herbert, at the family home at Easton Gray in Wiltshire, “a typical example of dignified English domestic architecture”.

Sandy Turnbull played inside left for Manchester United on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Turnbull was a leading player in the first great United team, which was beginning to fall apart. United suffered two defeats by Everton that Christmas, 0-1 and 0-5.

Jack Kipling went to the Christmas shows in London with his famous writer father, Rudyard, and then travelled with him to a chateau in France owned by the American railroad lawyer, Chauncey Mitchell Depew II.

Henri Alban-Fournier was celebrating the success of his first novel, Le Grand Meaulnes. The book had been cheated of the Goncourt prize the previous month but was the best-seller in France that Christmas. Its author may also have taken his football boots down to a muddy field beside the Seine, where he ran one of the first French rugby clubs.

Alfred Lichtenstein did not celebrate Christmas but spent the holiday at home with his wealthy, Jewish family in Berlin, discussing his recent military service and the publication of his doubly prophetic book of poetry, Die Dämmerung (The Dusk).

“Soon there’ll come – the signs are fair –

A death-storm from the distant north.

Stink of corpses everywhere,

Mass assassins marching forth.”

Christmas 1913 was the last Noel: the last Christmas before the world plunged into its first global and industrial war. From the following summer, Britain, mainland Europe and a large part of the rest of the world changed for ever.


The 1914-18 war did not create the modern world, but it fast-forwarded many processes that had already begun, from the breaking of empires to the emancipation of women. The real transformation – our sense that the 1920s are the beginning of a different world – is based on something more intangible. It is summed up in Philip Larkin’s line: “Never such innocence again”.

Within five years, all the young men listed above were dead. So were 10,000,000 other combatants and 7,000,000 civilians. Our six represent not just the “doomed youth” of Christmas 1913 but, in their different ways, the golden hopes of the first decade of the 20th century.

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Categories: Escalation / Destabilization Conflict

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