As many of you will be aware, I’ve been researching WWI rather intensively for the last two years in what has emerged as a series of research projects. Those of you who also research in a more intuitive fashion and allow yourselves the luxury of pursuing all those twists and turns others might dismiss as “distractions”, “rabbit warrens”, will be familiar with the joy of discovering new worlds and perspectives you never knew existed, rather than simply proving your own point. It was this seemingly random fossicking, which led me to Australian author, Ethel Turner from an entirely different angle finding a message of hope, human kindness and generosity we sorely need today.
To do this story justice, I’m going to straddle the story of Christmas 1921 across both my blogs here at Beyond the Flow, and over at Tea With Ethel Turner. Here I’ll provide more of the social and political background and context to Christmas 1921 and why it was special while over at Tea With Ethel Turner, I’ll share how she made a difference to Christmas 1921 with her band of Sunbeamers.
While the 1920s is often portrayed as a time of unrestrained celebration after the horrors of WWI, the reality was much more complex and certainly Christmas 1921 was a time of very mixed fortunes. Sure, the war was over. The Spanish Flu was also officially over as well. On the 6th December, 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed seeing independence for Southern Ireland and ending the Anglo-Irish War. The Washington Conference was also promising peace in the Pacific. Yet, following his speech on the 20th December, 1921 Mr Stanley Bruce (the 8th Prime Minister from 1923 to 1929) who was representing Australia at the League of Nations, was described as “a supreme pessimist: sees nothing but trouble” after these dire warnings :
“SYDNEY, Tuesday.—Mr. S. M. Bruce, speaking at a National Club luncheon, remarked: “When one comes, back to Australia one is a little horrified to see what is going on. The whole of Europe to-day is struggling in a morass and it is doubtful whether it will ever get out. It is recognised if nothing is done to restore the economic stability of the world a wave of Bolshevism may spread all over the earth. We in Australia have a land where everything is good. Our country is the soundest of any in the world, but it is going to be faced, with the same troubles as the rest. We do not seem to have recognised this. We are only squabbling amongst ourselves.1.”
Gee, does this sound strangely familiar?
Anyway, here’s “Christmas 1921” which was published in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve, 1921:
For many thousands of people throughout the world this must be a “black” Christmas. Almost every country is suffering from the effects of those five years of war, during which production was stopped and the savings of decades were scattered. Thousands of families to-day will be clouded with anxiety because there is no longer a market for the goods the production of which has furnished them with a means of living and their breadwinners with employment. To other families Christmas brings back memories which, though they are colored with pride, arc memories of sadness. It seems impossible that in the lifetime of this generation Christmas shall ever be a season of unmixed rejoicing, except for the children, whose festival it is. Yet throughout the world it will be recognised that the Christmas of 1921 is more in accord with those universal ideals which it connotes than any that we have known for many years past. To-morrow men can take part in a festival of peace and hope without any reflection on the vanity of human effort or the insincerity of all professions of faith. The year has been one in which a genuine and fruitful attempt has been made to banish the dangers of war. For the first time for a hundred years the statesmen of the world have given a practical demonstration of their faith that peace should be the goal of their policy and is the greatest .of human blessings. The delegates to Washington have set aside personal ambition and national avarice in their work for the good of mankind. The delegates from Great Britain and Ireland have agreed that each nation may have failed to appreciate the point of view of the other, and that each must make sacrifices of its own beliefs for the sake of peace. And when these public achievements are noticed men will be driven back to remember the many private acts of beneficence that have been carried out during the past three years. “There is a budding to-morrow in midnight.” It may pass unnoticed while men are oppressed by the surrounding darkness, but it should be acknowledged when we have at last arrived at the dawning of an era of peace and goodwill. In almost every epoch there are lamentations at the incurable selfishness of mankind or at the degeneration of the human species, and invariably they are answered by convincing examples. Before the war we were told that the age of self sacrifice had passed, that men had degenerated physically and morally, that the virtue of patriotism would be practised only by barbarians. The last months of 1914 answered, that reproach. Never was there a clearer response to the appeal of idealism, never did men come forward more spontaneously to avenge and to rescue the oppressed. Every day of the blackest period of human history was illuminated by some act of devotion, when men sacrificed themselves for one another or for their cause, when the motive of self interest, conspicuous though it was, was less frequently exemplified than any other. Since attention has been concentrated on the struggle for the spoils of victory the nobility of hundreds of thousands of obscure lives has been forgotten, but to-day it can be remembered and can be acknowledged as of the same quality as the self-sacrifice which has been placed at the service of the famine-stricken peoples of Europe. To-day we may rejoice in the efforts made by statesmen to establish peace among nations. But while these same states men were manoeuvring other work more urgently and immediately needed was being carried on with even less regard for international boundaries. In Austria and Ger many citizens of the victorious countries have given their money and their services for the sake Of their former enemies. The war, though it has founded much hatred and bitterness, has produced the clearest practical recognition of the brotherhood of man. The period In which lamentations at the folly and avarice of men have be on most frequent, and apparently most abundantly justified, has again seen them answered by the most indisputable examples. “Man, what is this? And why are thou despairing? God shall forgive thee all but thy despair?” The same question might have been asked, and the same comment made at any time during the period which is now coming to an end. At no time has there been so much self-sacrifice; at no time have individual citizens been so ready to spend their lives in the service of their fellowmen, and, if necessary, to ignore the boundaries ‘between one nation and another. Was there ever a more heroic instance of such devotion than that given by Sir Arthur Pearson, who “turned his necessity to glorious gain,” and set himself to brighten-the lives of others stricken with the same infirmity as himself? In this last period the work of the individual has been -in contrast with that of the statesmen; but we cannot afford to forget it now that the statesmen are giving themselves to the furtherance of peace and concord. Rather the inference should be that the impulse towards peace and brotherhood is never dead, but moves forward continually until statesmen are compelled to reduce into the form of a. public document’ the desire of hundreds of thousands of their constituents. We cannot say to-day that these efforts towards pacification have been completely successful. Both at Washington – and In Ireland there are elements so blinded by tradition that they cannot obey the force of reason. But all the ‘omens for peace are good. Not since the reign of – Caesar Augustus have there been so many signs of unity among the nations that make up the civilised world, and not since the Great War ended has there been so good a prospect that the men who fought there will reap the fruit of their sacrifices In the elimination of one of the chief causes of future wars.”2.
I can’t help looking back at these precious people of Christmas 1921 with their varying degrees of pessimism and hope, but still probably largely believing something could be done. That the Wall Street Crash, The Depression along and WWII weren’t just around the corner, although the writing was already on the wall.
Those babies born at Christmas 1921 would be 19 years old in 1939. It is unthinkable that so many of them went on to fight on the very same battlefields as their fathers, and that Australia’s sons would also find themselves fighting the Japanese and defending home soil. Our women weren’t immune either.
Yikes, sometimes time travel isn’t much fun after all, is it?!!
Meanwhile, while I’m tapping away here about Christmas 1921, we’re watching the movie: Don’t Look Up. A comet is threatening to collide with the Earth and the response of Americans is let’s just say “a concern”. I know that while we’re focusing on covid, climate change is our big threat and most of us don’t see it coming either. I hope this movie isn’t too prophetic!
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Hauled up at home on a wet and overcast day with covid spreading like wildfire all around us, I feel like I’m talking to myself. However, I know you’re out there and I’d love to hear from you!
- Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 – 1954), Wednesday 21 December 1921, page 13
- Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), Saturday 24 December 1921, page 10