Tuesday, 31 December 2013

'The French know how to raise good turkeys!'

Christmas celebrations on the Western Front
Source: Nationaal Archief, Netherlands
The traditions of Christmas were always appreciated by troops fighting at the Front, and New Year letters home were full of the celebrations they had enjoyed. Festive meals were often elaborate and well thought-out and lots of planning obviously went into this repast, described by a Canadian medical officer at the beginning of 1917:

8 January, France

'We had a much better Christmas this season than last. Fortunately we were out of the trenches in resreve and billeted in huts. The weather was fairly well behaved although we had some rain. All the men has a good Christmas dinner including turkey, plum pudding, beer, nuts, candy etc. We had previously ordred 500 kilos of turkey. We made a contract for them and the dealer shipped them in from Normandy. I must say the French know how to raise good turkeys.

'The tables were set in the YMCA hut and we hired dishes from the French civilians. We had to divide the dinner into four sections, one for each company. Two were held on Christmas day and two the day after. The band rendered musical programs during the dinners and each night put on a minstrel show which was really not at all bad. We had  good dinner in battalion HQ mess, but most of our pleas ure was derived from seeing the men have a good feed and enjoy themselves for once.'

But it wasn't long before Christmas was forgotten and the officer's next letter was more concerned with growling guns, frozen slush, and freezing 5.30am starts. Extracts will be published in the next post, so watch this space.

Friday, 13 December 2013

'A pretty sight, all the trees glistening white'

An embroidered card sent from France

A letter-writer who pops up frequently in my book is an unassuming soldier from Bristol called Tom Fake. He served on the Western Front (and survived) for two years and wrote regularly to his wife in a style that was plain and simple - he told it as it was. His letters have been beautifully kept by his family and below is a rather poignant one to his wife and young son written at Christmas 1917. It begins with some disappointing news...

Friday, 21st December 1917

'Well my dear I am not in the running for a leave this Christmas, just missed it, but I shall be in the next lot and that will probably be next week, so when you answer this letter, you need not write again till after I have been home.

'Well my dear, it won't be so bad if I am home for the new year will it? All the same I should liked to have been home for Christmas. I hope you will have a pleasant time, but I know it is no good to wish you a merry Christmas, make the best of it won't you, and all being well I shall be home to cheer you up for the new year.'

He goes on to describe the crisp weather they've been having in France, and explains plans for some early festive celebrations because his unit will be back in the trenches on Christmas Day.

'We have had some very hard weather ever since I wrote you last, it must be cruel for the men up the line, but where we are to it's is a pretty sight, all the trees are glistening white or at least it has been up to this evening, but since dark it has started thawing. We are keeping up Christmas Day on Sunday (as we are going up the line again) and I think we shall have a fine time by what I can hear.

'I had a small parcel from the Dowsetts a few days ago, it consisted of a handkerchief khaki colour, and an ounce of tobacco, very good of them wasn't it.'


Friday, 6 December 2013

'Every day the garrison became weaker'

Kut-al-Amarah in ruins at the end of the siege
Mesopotamia might not rank as one of the best-known campaigns of the First World War, but the stories and letters to emerge from it are every bit as gripping as those from the Western Front or Gallipoli.

I've been lucky enough to discover for use in my book a vivid account of the siege of Kut-al-Amarah, on the River Tigirs, which began on December 7th 1915 when the Turkish Army besieged soldiers of the 6th Indian Division.
It lasted five months, during which those inside held out in freezing temperatures and heavy rain against infantry assault, sniper fire, shelling and bombing. Hundreds died of wounds and disease and food quickly began to run short - especially as 6,000 Arabs who lived in the town also needed to be fed. The division's livestock was gradually slaughtered, but hunger was still rife among Indian soldiers whose beliefs stopped them eating horsemeat.

Three attempts were made to relieve Kut but they all failed and at the end of April 1916, on the brink of starvation, the men surrendered and were taken prisoner.

Besieged: Capt Sandes
Among those trapped in Kut was Captain Edward Sandes, a Royal Engineer who wrote a long, journal-style letter which he hoped to send to his mother but was never able to. Extracts from this letter will be used in my book. After the war, Sandes wrote a personal memoir which included a description of his time in Kut, and below is an extract which shows how food came to dominate the men's waking hours.

'Every day, as rations were gradually reduced, the garrison became weaker and less able to take the field. We were now getting only twelve ounces of bread instead of a pound, no vegetables or sugar, two ounces of jam or one ounce of butter, and half an ounce of tea. On the other hand, we received one and a quarter pounds of horseflesh instead of a pound of beef or mutton. Now that the weather was gettiing warmer I found horseflesh more repulsive than before and could never eat the whole of my ration.

'Three camels, the only ones in Kut, were slaughtered one day, and as my 23 men [Indians] still refused to eat horseflesh I indented for camel meat and received 29 pounds as their ration. They roasted it in the couryard below my room and had a great feast; but the smell nearly made me sick and I had to refuse some tit-bits they generously offered me.

'Only the coarsest type of tobcco could now be bought from the Supply and Transport Corps. European cigarettes had vanished, so cigarette smokers bought the Arab variety from a few small shops still open in the bazaar. This consisted of a narrow paper bag filled with tobacco dust and was provided with a tube as a mouthpiece. It was a dangerous contraption and unpleasant to smoke. Burning tobacco dust fell onto one's tunic, and the acrid taste made one's throat sore. Even before the price became prohibitive, I smoked very few.'

Captain Sandes went on to become a well-respected writer of military history and his excellent book 'In Kut and Captivity' can still be found in secondhand bookshops.