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Podcast 38: Christmas At War

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Two officers came along and they heard these carols and one said to the other, ‘Could you believe it: conditions such as these, and the boys were singing carols…’

Those who lived through the First World War experienced Christmas in a variety of ways. One of the most famous Christmas-time events was the truce that took place along some parts of the line on the Western Front in 1914. British officer John Wedderburn-Maxwell took part in the truce. He described what he did after it was stopped.

After the war had recommenced, I went up to see the Lincoln colonel. And there I found the second in command and the adjutant sitting down to a jolly good Christmas, which they’d sent across and told me to come and join. And we had roast pheasant – it was wonderful the way they could cook in those trenches on charcoal fires – roast pheasant and plum pudding and plenty of rum. Of course, the colonel could always get rather more than the ration! No, we had a real slap-up meal.

In 1914, Britain’s Princess Mary set up a fund to provide a gift for every man serving at the front or at sea that Christmas. James Naylor of the Royal Field Artillery recalled his.

It was a gilt box containing a message and card. In it, there were two packets: one packet of cigarettes and one packet of tobacco. I’ve still got mine, it’s still in its canvas case, and the cigarettes and tobacco are still there intact. Of course, I didn’t smoke in those days and that’s why, I suppose, I kept it.

Colin Wilson of the Grenadier Guards spent part of that first Christmas at war having dinner with the future King Edward VIII.

We as the Grenadiers were relieved on, I think it was Boxing Day we was relieved. And went to the rear, oh two or three hundred yards behind the line, I suppose, or so-called line. And there we had our Christmas dinner, accompanied by the Prince of Wales who was then serving with my regiment.

Despite the pressures of war, many people still made time for Christmas traditions. Margaret Callender put a special effort into decorating the military hospital in Britain where she was a nurse.

That was my happy time! I did all the decorations for my ward, anyhow. Two Christmases I was there and did that. The other nurses helped me, you know, but I had to devise it all. We had very big mantle pieces and in the winter time I made a cottage with snow on top and light inside, windows and so on. And on the dark blue blinds I made a night sky, I had little polar bears and things in front and snow and little huts, too. And I put stars on the dark window, you see. And I think all the lights were snow drops.

And Louie Johnson ensured that each of the patients at her hospital in Leeds received a Christmas present.

People would kindly come in and give me little presents for the men, or money to buy presents. And I used to go to Leeds and make a little gift parcel for every man. Usually a packet of cigarettes, tobacco pouch, perhaps a scarf if they were going out, or an ounce of tobacco or something like that. And give every man a little present on Christmas morning, every time, every day.

Concert parties were often put on to entertain the men serving at the front. Frederick Goodman of the Royal Army Medical Corps appreciated the hard work that went into those he attended.

Christmas was a wonderful time. That was very well arranged. You see, all this depended – to make it a success – it would be left of course primarily to the sergeant major because he was the key of the whole thing, for that sort of thing. In other words, we had to have people on special duty or to go get this that and the other, whatever. And it meant a certain amount of time available to these chaps, they couldn’t be put on some other work. So he would agree to prepare for this sort of thing in a proper way. These chaps would be given quite a degree of latitude in doing whatever was necessary. Go and collect this that and the other, out of the line we had to be for a Christmas festivity, of course, and that sort of thing. And then, of course, always the party. We’d have this Christmas party going on. We played Aladdin or something, whatever it was, and so on. Cinderella, I believe, and that sort of thing. Oh, all sorts of things like that and they were very well done too.

Harcourt Kitchin served with the Royal Marines on convoy duty during the war. He recalled one Christmas concert that took place in rough seas.

One trip out that I remember particular well was Christmas 1917, when we struck very bad seas on the way out and we got green sea right through the wardroom galley. And everything, all the fresh food disappeared and we had a Christmas dinner of salt pork and rice, which wasn’t very appetising. But the sailors of course had to have their fun on Christmas Day. And this ship, which used to have its guns on the main deck where they were quite useless, had had the guns shifted up onto the upper deck. Well that put another five degrees on the roll, which in any case was round about forty degrees! And this is what she was doing. Well they had to have their concert, so they brought a piano down – somehow – on to the aft deck, lashed it to a stanchion and they got cracking. But unfortunately, the lashing gave way in the middle and the piano took charge and the concert really finished up with the sailors chasing a piano all over the deck!

Some of the men who were unlucky enough to spend Christmas day in the front line cheered themselves up by singing carols. Arthur Wagstaff, of the London Regiment, spent Christmas 1915 at Gallipoli.

Christmas day in the front lines was no joke, of course. Some of our boys who were off duty were in a shelter at the back of the trench, they were singing carols. That was on Christmas Day. I was on the firing step, looking over the no man’s land. And two officers came along and they heard these carols and one said to the other, ‘Could you believe it: conditions such as these, and the boys were singing carols…’

That same year, NCO Irving Jones was in the trenches at Festubert.

We were singing Christmas carols if you like, because the Welsh, you know, nearly all of them could sing, they were fond of music. They say about the Welsh people everybody can sing, you know it’s wrong. Every Welsh person likes singing but it don’t mean to say all Welsh people… Wherever I go now where I happen to say they think I’m Welsh, ‘Oh come on, you can sing’ I couldn’t keep a tune in a bucket with a lid on! I couldn’t. But I love singing, I love it. Well we all do, so we used to have a little sing, Christmas Day, I remember, and before. And the Germans used to retaliate by singing.

A good or bad Christmas experience often depended on whether the men were supplied with enough food and drink to properly celebrate the occasion. British NCO Frederick Higgins had fond memories of an important part of the Christmas dinner menu.

I had four Christmases there and the only thing I can remember about the Christmases was that we had Christmas pudding every Christmas. We had a ration of Christmas pudding, but what else we had I really don’t know! But Christmas pudding always remained in my mind. It didn’t matter where you was, there was a ration of Christmas pudding for you every Christmas. I’d be scooping it out with a spoon out of the tins; they were big tins holding about seven pounds, I suppose, all specially made. If somebody said you’ve got to have a bit of Christmas pudding, no doubt I would I must say, speaking for myself! We had Christmas pudding every Christmas. I can’t remember what we had to eat, what the dinner was, but we certainly had afters!

Another essential Christmas dinner ingredient is, of course, turkey. Although these are usually roasted, Maurice Greenwood and his comrades cooked the one they had in a less conventional way.

First Christmas we had, someone got a turkey. But I don’t know where they got it from. But we made a trough in the ground and put a fire in and then put some iron bars across top and laid turkey on the top. It was a sort of a barbecue thing, you know!

British officer William Richards wasn’t quite so lucky with one of his wartime Christmas meals.

Christmas 1916 was an awful winter. My Christmas dinner was a tin of bully beef which I’d dug out of the snow, because it had been discarded by the previous occupants of the gun pit. The cook, together with other people – the commissariat – the ration lorry couldn’t come because the roads were in such a state on account of ice and snow. And so my Christmas was a tin of bully beef and he made a hash of it, you know what I mean. He just fried it up and made a hash of it. That was 1916, yes.

Although Walter Williams of the Army Service Corps was in a very appropriate location for Christmas 1917, it didn’t turn out to be particularly festive.

I remember the rainy season at Christmas time 1917 it was very wet and a wee bit cold too. And our 1917 Christmas dinner was eaten in a dump near Bethlehem. It was the usual bully beef eaten with a jack knife and a little drop of tea from a dixie made on a primus. And that was our Christmas dinner 1917!

Many who experienced Christmas at war found that it was a day just like any other, as Walter Hare of the West Yorkshire Regiment explained.

They used to say that the fighting stopped for Christmas, well not where we were it didn’t. So there were no celebrations. I think it was a bit quiet; there wasn’t quite so much shelling going on and that kind of thing. But there wasn’t a stop; there wasn’t a halt or anything like that. The shelling went on occasionally and the occasional machine-gun and rifle fire. But it was a bit what we would call quiet.

Christmas celebrations were often made merrier by a good supply of alcohol. But Marmaduke Walkinton of the Machine Gun Corps paid a price for the bottle of drink he got hold of.

I remember that we had a sort of dinner party thing and we had all the sergeants and everybody into the officer’s mess. And I found myself tucked away in a corner with three sergeants I had. And the only drink we could get hold of was a bottle of cherry whisky. And somehow or other it all disappeared… And then I was in trouble because it had been presented to the company by the brigadier for Christmas and we swiped the lot…! So I was called “cherry whisky” from then on…

Serving in cold conditions on the Western Front in 1917, Edmund Williams was promised a warming Christmas drink.

So we had our Christmas dinner and then the troops dispersed. It had been snowing, there was a heavy frost; the snow had half melted and had frozen. The slopes of the hill were very nearly impassable. The duckboards had to be crawled on, otherwise people who had liquor taken couldn’t have stood upright without falling. So it was said that those of us who stayed in camp would be given a special treat of having a milk and rum punch served to us. So about 100 of us stayed up in the camp and duly the dixies containing the milk and rum punch were delivered. And the officer in charge took a sip and spat it out… The cooks, gloriously drunk, had substituted the demijohns of rum with the demijohns of whale oil! So only one out of the 4 dixies, I think, had any rum in it. The rest had milk and whale oil. So none of us got any rum punch!

After working hard one Christmas Day, Joseph Yarwood and the rest of his Field Ambulance team were looking forward to celebrating in the evening – but things did not go to plan.

We were working all day on the wards and I think they got some money out of the canteen funds to buy some beer. And it was arranged that we were supposed to have a concert after all things were quiet, 7 or 8 o’clock. And we were to meet in this marquee and they had the beer there and all this sort of thing. Well we all got there after having done our duty; we were standing there like a lot of sheep. The sergeant major came in – he’d been well at it, you know, they’d been enjoying themselves. And he said, ‘Well now, before we start, lads,’ he said, ‘we’d better ask the officer to come to drink our health.’ So in comes the colonel and all the officers, and they’d had a couple. And one of the officers was even telling dirty stories, if you please! Well this went on for about half an hour, and the officers had had enough, so they shoot off. And the sergeant major said, ‘Well that’s it lads, he said, we’ll call it a day now.’ And none of our blokes had had a drink or anything! And of course they had a riot! It ended up in a free fight. Anyway, it looked as though there was going to be a … almost get to court martial stage! But in the end it was all hushed up… But Christmas 1916 was a dead loss, as far as we were concerned! Awful.

It was an army tradition that at Christmas time, the officers served the men their Christmas dinner. William Holmes, a private in the London Regiment, thoroughly enjoyed this arrangement.

In the Christmas 1917, when we came out of the line, we were given a treat for Christmas at a place called Poperinghe. The whole battalion were put into rows of huts. And for two days, starting off the first morning, the officers and sergeants came round and brought us our early morning tea, breakfast, dinner, tea and everything, the whole two days. We never had one parade those whole two days. And we were treated as though we were the officers. Every officer and every sergeant spent the whole of his time bringing us food and smokes and that. All smoking away, singing away, food galore. It was the only time, I shall never forget.

But NCO John Wainwright found that it had its drawbacks.

It was traditional in the Army that on Christmas Day, that the NCOs looked after, acted as waiters and so on and served the troops with their meals. So I mean the private soldiers sat down and had the sergeants and company sergeant major and all the NCOs coming round and dishing out the food. And by this time I had been made a corporal and so on this day, on this Christmas Day, I was one of NCOs looking after the men. And I remember we were very, very busy indeed. The men had, I believe, they had a very good meal. I just can’t remember if it was turkey or roast pork or whatever it was. But it was a traditional Christmas meal, a very good meal indeed. Then afterwards, we were supposed to have our meal in the cookhouse afterwards. But by the time we got there, all the food had gone and I missed my Christmas dinner! So that’s one of my memories of Christmas day.

The unique circumstances of war meant that Christmas might be spent in a wide range of situations. Joseph Napier of the South Wales Borderers passed Christmas 1917 at a prisoner of war camp in Turkey.

Well Christmas of course at home is a tremendous day, one can go out and shop and do all sorts of things. In our case it was, as far as I remember, it was a very humble affair. A certain number of these, what I call, ‘Kut officers’ had arrived already in our camp. They weren’t in our building many of them; they were billeted in the town. But I think we’d already put on a small play among ourselves. But I think it was a very small little thing. We had a sort of dinner party, such as a dinner party was. And we acted this little play, which may have amused them or may not. But I think as far as I remember that was about the only celebration we had at Christmas. I don’t think we had snow there. It was high up and fairly wintery, it could be snowy, but Christmas was just a non-starter.

Conscientious objector Walter Griffin was in Canterbury Prison that year.

Christmas Day was no different from any other, of course, war was on and in any case prison isn’t a place where they want to make any amusements, things very joyful for you. As far as eats are concerned, well the food was exactly the same as any other day. I presume the kitchen; they would have been quite pleased it was no different, because they could do it with their eyes shut in any case. And on Christmas Day I know for sure the menu – haha! that sounds good doesn’t it? In the hotel that I was enjoying then – was soup, potatoes, bread and rice. Something of that kind of thing was general. The quantities were more or less very carefully allowed out so that there was no second helpings of course!

Royal Navy signalman Frederick Allen’s Christmas dinner on board HMS Dominion was a simple affair – but that didn’t worry him.

My mess was on the port side and there was a 6 inch gun in our mess and whilst we were at sea that gun port was open all the time; whatever the sea, it came in. And my Christmas dinner consisted of pea soup, boiled potatoes and bully beef. And wasn’t I pleased with it! And I sat on a stretcher to eat that, because we hadn’t got any tables or stools. The skipper had had them all put down below and burnt in the stokehold: if a shell burst it’d be less to catch fire. So that’s what I had for my Christmas dinner!

Wounded signaller Leonard Ounsworth and his fellow patients at a hospital in Rochdale were well treated during Christmas 1916.

It was a civilian hospital controlled by the military. They were so well treated there, that in the early part of December the resident doctor, Dr Coker, was asking chaps who were ready to be discharged did they want to stay another week or two over Christmas? And you’d be surprised how many of them stayed over Christmas there. And a number of them who’d been discharged the week before Christmas came back to the hospital for Christmas dinner, during their leave.

The famous truce of 1914 was never fully repeated again. Christmas Day was still very much another day of the war. Stanley Parker Bird was serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps at Gallipoli in 1915.

There was a case of a carol service held on Christmas Day in the casualty clearing station, where a stray shell from the Turks disrupted the service. Killed the chaplain and injured a number of the personnel who were engaged in the carol service.

George Wray of the Royal Naval Division thought that he was going to get to celebrate Christmas 1917, but he was soon called back into action in France.

We were relieved on Christmas Eve and we had to go back to a town called Metz, it was about 5km from our lines, you see. So we went back. It was Christmas morning and going back we were fully expecting that we’d be there for a while and we would be able, which we did, to have our breakfast and have our parcels from home and letters to read and all this. And about 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, word came that the Germans had broken the line that we’d left. They’d broken through the line and they’d taken some of the men prisoners. So of course, we had to leave everything, get packed up and go back again. Sad to say, we lost quite a few men…

Christmas during the war was experienced and celebrated in a range of ways. It often provided no more than a brief respite from the harsh conditions of life at the front. Ambulance driver Alice Remington clearly recalled a moment of Christmas calm during her time on the Western Front.

One particular Christmas which was a really beautiful starlit night, it was Christmas Eve, and a very big convoy came in, but they weren’t badly wounded. They were all very cheerful at the idea of getting into a bed and having Christmas in bed. We started singing; I think it was ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ or something. Anyhow, they all sang and it was such a very quiet, still night and you could hear them going up and winding up and down this hill, these boys singing their hearts out, Christmas carols. It was really a lovely thing, moon shining, and the stars shining and these boys all singing carols as they went up to the hospital. They were so thankful; they knew they’d get a bath and a clean. It was wonderful, I’ll always remember that night.

To find out about First World War Centenary news, projects and more, go to www.1914.org. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us on iTunes or leave a comment at 1914.org.

Listen out for Podcast 39: Weapons Of War