Sunday, 14 December 2014

‘I spent my Xmas in the frontline trenches 100yds from the Huns'

As the first Christmas of the WW1 Centenary approaches, our minds turn to all those the Great War soldiers who had to spend 'festive' seasons at the Front, separated from families and often in pretty miserable conditions. With few exceptions, they tried to make the best of things and celebrate as best they could, as you can see from the selection of Christmas letters below. It's a subject I talk more about on a podcast recorded for December's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, which you can listen to here
Sgt George Smith

Sergeant George Smith wrote this from the Western Front in December 1915 where he served with the London Scottish Battalion:

‘ I spent my Xmas in the front line trenches 100 yds from the Huns & it rained the whole time and the only people who were allowed shelters were the platoon Sgts & we were continually dodging in & out on patrol. I had a nice box from the firm [probably C&E Morton, the food canning factory in east London where he had worked as a clerk], our best brands of tinned fruits etc which I divided up amongst the platoon. … We are going to try & make up for a bad Xmas on Hogmanay but we go up the line again on New Year’s Night I believe...With reference to your question about cocoa etc. we all think cocoa is about the best thing anybody can send out to troops for it is so warming & a food in itself.’

Bert Smythe, of the Australian Imperial Force, sent this humorous epistle home from Milbank Barracks Hospital, London, December 1915:

'Well its Christmas night...In the morning we went to Church. HM Queen Alex was there. I didn’t approve of things at all. Too much blooming ceremony & show for my liking. After church we had to wait for a long while in one of the wards for the Queen. When she came she gave us each a photo of herself & King Ned. After that was over I found that someone had shook my brand new hat out of the cloak room where they made us leave them. I got a clue as to where it went but before I could see about it myself a mate who knew of my loss went & got it back – but somebody had kindly removed the badge bust them.
'Then we had a spanking Christmas dinner. Turkey being the item in chief. Two bottles of beer or stout for each man but I had an orgy all on my own with lemonade.'

Private Tom Fake, of the Rifle Brigade, sent this letter to his wife and young son from France a few days before Christmas Day in 1917:

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 is a pretty sight, all the trees are glistening white or at least it has been so 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 oz of tobacco, very good of them wasn’t it.’

Not all soldiers were stuck at the Front for Christmas, the lucky ones came home on leave and in 1916 these were the excited scenes of homecoming described by the Bristol Times and Mirror:

‘All day the station was crowded with soldiers, coming and going and changing trains. The Christmas spirit was noisily evident, and the singing of snatches of songs, continuous. Never, surely, were trains more crowded, never were travellers more good humoured and content with their accommodation. The men got into the trains anyhow – some through the windows. They did not ask guards or porters to find them seats, but jumped into any compartment, not caring a toss whether they could sit or not...They did not mind so long as they got aboard and knew that they were going home.'

May I wish all my readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.

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