Despite the pressures of war, many people still made time for Christmas traditions
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. Imperial War Museum in their “Voices of the First World War” series takes us on a journey through these times.
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.”
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…’”
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!”
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.”