Christmas at War

In the two World Wars, a Christmas spent in conflict meant different things to all different sorts of people. One thing was true for everyone, though; whether the season was marked in the trenches and on the Front Line, in a Prisoner of War camp far from Britain or back on the Home Front, nobody was having a ‘normal’, traditional celebration. Attacks, operations, shortages, worry and longing for loved ones far away made sure of that. So what did a Christmas spent at war look like?

Here, we recount what happened during the war years:

Christmas Day in France, British soldiers sitting on a captured German gun with mistletoe, The Great War, I Was There, issue 7, page 296

Everyone has surely heard of the Christmas truce of 1914, when German and British soldiers came out of their trenches in certain areas of the Western Front to sing Carols together, exchange gifts or kick a football around, with one soldier writing to his mother, “War was absolutely forgotten. They weren’t half a bad lot, really.” However, every account of the truce agrees that this show of peace was unique and special, and certainly not a common thing (apart from anything, the authorities banned ‘fraternisation’ in the wake of these niceties).

Elsewhere that same year, one German plane dropped the first bomb of the war on British soil on Christmas Eve (which thankfully did little damage), while another had to be chased away from the coast near Sheerness by our own fighters on Christmas Day proper. At sea, Sub Lieutenant Stephen King-Hall, on the HMS Southampton, organised a ‘concert’ of sort to cheer up the sailors at their action stations by hooking up his gun-control telephone to a gramophone, so that they could all listen to music. The day almost took a tragic turn when a torpedo was suddenly fired upon them by an enemy submarine, but thankfully it missed the ship. The crew of Southampton lived to fight another day, and no dreaded telegrams were sent out to ruin the holiday season for their relatives.

Meanwhile, our side was launching the first combined sea and air strike, the Cuxhaven Raid, during which our seaplanes, with support from ships and submarines, pre-emptively bombed sheds housing German Zeppelins in an attempt to stop them attacking Britain.

A year later, in 1915 at Kut-al-Amara in Iraq, a vicious attack was launched by the Turks on Christmas Eve as part of the Siege of Kut. As reported in ‘Twenty Years after the Battlefield of 1914-18, then and now’, a bombardment lasting several hours preceded a short, sharp burst of hand-to-hand fighting that lasted a half hour. In the afternoon the Turkish soldiers regrouped, and at 8pm their bombers and infantry launched a second, larger attack. The 103rd Mahratta Light Infantry was practically wiped out in the first few minutes of combat, and six hours of fierce fighting followed before the Turks finally retreated again in the early hours of Christmas Day. It is hard to imagine a more miserable way to welcome in what should be a day of rest and celebration.

Carving the turkey in the officers' mess RASC, Salonica, Christmas Day, ?Twenty Years after the Battlefields 1914-18, 

In 1916 Private W.J.Fletcher, 33rd Division, Bethune in France, recorded the following mixed account of his festive season in his ‘World War One Memoirs and Letters’:

“Christmas was spent quietly. I drew a load of petrol on Xmas Eve and took my diary into the MSM to sign out; he queried my lorry only doing 5 miles per gallon until he noticed other 4 tonners doing 4mpg. They were always making petty criticisms. I got a week’s letters and some parcels. A cake from Mrs Lea and a soft woollen scarf which I sent home as being too good for war and I still have it in 1934. Previously I had a pass to go back to civilisation; the QSM, Sergeant, I and mate went to Amiens for some Christmas fare and whiskey. It was a treat to see people. I went to the shop for some celery and oranges etc. and aired my French on a very pretty girl, after I had struggled to say something she said, “What is it in English, I was a long time in Devonshire before the war.” I felt a fool and soon went out. We had a meal of 6 eggs each at the expense of the QSM. He and the sergeant went off for a long time and my mate and I went into the Cathedral where people were at Confession.

On Boxing Day we did a delivery and decided to park on another site as the ground was frozen hard, we were just greasing up and clearing mud off the lorry when there was a whistle and roar and a great upheaval and a hole 30 feet by 75 feet appeared 100 yds away. Soon we heard the next whistle and laid flat, again a hole and nearer and a big piece went through the back of the lorry. We stayed under the engine but the next shell delivered a piece of hot copper driving band next to my head. We rapidly moved the lorry back to our old park and watched as the Post Office and RTO blew high into the air. This destroyed a huge number of parcels including one for the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII). I picked up the centre fuse pipe from the shell when it landed two feet from me. The attack carried on all night.”

The R.A.S.C. Review for Xmas 1944 in our Historic Documents archive tells a story of relative brightness and optimism as the Second World War drew to a close. Many long years had been spent at war, and 1940 had been a particularly dark time for Britain, when the country stood alone in Europe, invasion seemed imminent, and even once ‘Operation Sealion’ had faltered the German bombers remained the give the British civilians a very difficult and anxious Christmas.

Now, the Blitz was long over, the Allied troops were pounding through Europe and it looked like we would win the war. The editor verbalises the hopes of the nation by saying, “We ourselves would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and that 1945 will bring many of you back to your homes to celebrate next Christmas at your own firesides.”

Cover for 'The R.A.S.C. Review for Xmas, 1944', held in our Historic Documents archive

Meanwhile, there was to be feasting… if you can count tinned food as fitting fare for a feast. The report on plans for the season in the Middle East talks about entertainments being organised and food stocked to “make the dinner stand out from the rest of the year”. Pork was to be issued instead of beef where possible, with frozen meat delivered to units with freezers and fresh meat obtained otherwise in pig-producing areas. The editorial boasts that “The poultry situation is even more cheering, for while no turkeys will be imported from overseas, the Minister of Food in London has released 180,000 lbs of tinned poultry to NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air Force Institute) for issue.” Explaining that around 150,000 lbs of live poultry would also be purchased locally, and that 66 tonnes of pudding, 14 tonnes of mincemeat for pies and 37,000 lbs of Christmas cake would be provided, the editor adds jovially, “In fact, there seems enough to give every man in the Middle East and Ceylon indigestion.”

King George VI’s Christmas broadcast of the same year, whose transcript is also available to read in our Historic Documents Archive, is a bit more solemn, speaking as it does about families scattered around the world, soldiers held captive or lying in hospital wounded or sick, and ‘the grief of separation’ where combatants have made the ultimate sacrifice.

He too, however, ends on a note of hope for the future: “We do not know what awaits us when we open the door to 1945, but if we look back to those earlier Christmas Days of the war we can surely say that the darkness daily grows less and less. The lamps which the Germans put out all over Europe, first in 1914 and then in 1939, are being slowly rekindled. Already we can see some of them beginning to shine through the fog of war that still shrouds so many lands. Anxiety is giving way to confidence, and let us hope that before next Christmas Day, God willing, the story of liberation and triumph will be complete.”

Merry Christmas from Forces War Records!
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