Christmas in the War
"Peace . . . . to men of Goodwill"
Certain persons in these latter years like to argue the academic question of the so-called moral anomaly of Christmas, and the celebration of that religious Feast in the midst of War. But Right, Justice, Law must precede Peace and ensue it, and peace at any price is a treacherous doctrine, which leaves the weak at the mercy of the strong, whence they have to be rescued by the world police force, even as it may be again. I quote a newspaper article with which the large majority will agree:
"Nothing could be easier than to draw a contrast between the celebration of the Prince of Peace, and the spectacle of half the world at war. Yet to do so would be merely a literary exercise in the outward appearance of things and not in their realities. If there is any virtue in sacrifice for an enobling cause, in the spirit that dedicates life itself to that end, in the brotherliness and unity that bear down all barriers, and link rich and poor in a common sympathy and devotion, then the war is not without its redeeming side. Certainly we in the British Empire can lay our hands on the altar and testify that our consciences are clear of any share in the guilt of precipitating this over- whelming calamity."
All British hospitals, in whatever war zone they happened to be, made the most of the day, and with the participation of the patients usually achieved a festive scene with hand-made streamers, mottos, garlands of green, interspersed with flags. Military routine relaxed, and cheery badinage, songs and good-will prevailed. There was always one or more wag in every ward, and concerts and vaudeville entertainments were arranged in the “Home” hospitals, and wherever there was a British community.
Our first December 25th. was spent at Le Touquet. We had sent as many patients as possible across the Channel, and the remainder were not too numerous to entertain. On Christmas Eve we gathered in the central hall, and sang carols from the staircase, where they could be heard by the bed-patients, while all who could be up were gathered in wheel chairs and benches on the floor below. This was a surprise feature, and pleased the men as a reminder of the Eve at home. On Christmas morning there was an early celebration of Holy Communion, to which many came. The patients each received a Canadian Red Cross present from our stores, and were regaled with a good dinner. Instead of the meal on a tray, a long table was set up in each ward and the men enjoyed most of all the community repast. The Colonel visited every ward, all being gaily decorated and wished his charges a merry Christmas. The cards sent from the King and Queen to each man were distributed, and Princess Mary's gift box. The British Grocers' Federation contributed individual tins of toffee, decorated with the Flag and portrait of the King, inscribed "To our fighting heroes," while another Firm sent gifts bearing the legend: "Good luck to our 'Contemptible little army'". So that even the "All-Highest" had part in the merriment of the occasion. Special cakes had been ordered by the sisters from Paris-Plage, and were elaborately decorated, and much admired as well as otherwise enjoyed by our soldier guests. A gramophone had arrived from England, and during the afternoon English residents at Le Touquet paid a visit with a present of tobacco, always welcome, and gave a concert in the evening. The day was fine and bright, and cheered the spirits of those who were spending their first Christmas at war. Canadian nurses in Boulogne were invited to dinner at our Mess, and the officers and sisters dined together, with toasts to Canada.
The Christmas of 1915, was very different, and an exception to all others. There was, no jollity for there was no means of marking the Day. Though the Sisters had by that time, through their own efforts, attained some comfort on the Island of Lemnos, and a good dinner was provided in the evening, it was spoiled to a great extent by inability to cater for the patients as well. An order for 100 gifts for my ward had been sent to England in September, and through the kind attention of a friend, immediately selected and forwarded. I believe the packing-cases were actually on the Island and lying in some tent, (as the mail often did) but I never heard of them till after New Year. During the previous night an order had come to get a convoy ready for the Olympic, and the men lay dressed on the beds from 8 A.M. boots and knapsacks beside them, expecting any moment to be called for. It was impossible to tidy the huts, or bring order out of chaos. Dinner time approached, and no ambulances had arrived. It had been understood that a chicken dinner had been procured for each ward, and we prepared to serve it, with what 'trimmings' we could collect. But no fowl appeared; the same scant diet came from the cook-house, and as those supposed to have left, had been "struck off the strength", there was even less to go round than usual. The men warned for the ship were fed somehow, but the sisters were miserably disappointed at the fiasco. The trestle table remained empty in its white sheet, and no one had sufficient spirit to jest. Men from the camps dropped in in the afternoon, and we asked each other if a change in the calendar had been effected, and Dec. 25th. eliminated by the war? It was a blank date on the debit side that we hate to think of. On New-Year's Eve the Medical Officers serenaded our lines with Auld Lang Syne at midnight, ships' syrens wakened the echoes of the harbour, and were answered by bugle calls from the camps. Somewhere in the distance a voice sang: "Where my caravan has rested . . .” the words pulsating clearly over the waste spaces. It was a mournful, rather than a hopeful greeting to the opening of the second year of warfare.
Another Christmas of acute discomfort was spent at sea. A convoy of nine ships, guarded by the Calgarian armed as a cruiser (torpedoed shortly after) had left St. John, N.B. in December, calling at Halifax to embark reinforcements. It was two weeks after the explosion of the Belgian ship in that harbour, and the ruined area of the city presented a forlorn appearance under snow and leaden skies. Troopships and other vessels crowded the port, which played a very important part in the war from the Imperial aspect. The voyage was cold and rough. There were 1500 troops packed like the proverbial sardine between decks on a small ship. Few had ever been on the sea, and 1500 were sea-sick!! They were brought up on deck for two hours compulsory airing every day, while a squad swept up below. The port-holes were never opened for twelve days, owing to the seas, there was no space for marching or physical drill, and the boys, for they were all young in 1917, merely stood round in great coats in the cold rain, and kicked their heels. Two brothers always started choruses, and it was really remarkable that anyone could sing.
One's life-belt was an absolute 'order', to be carried constantly, even to meals, and boats were slung out all the voyage. Guards were posted on deck, and look-outs at every angle strained their eyes across the dark, heaving water to detect the first indication of a possible periscope. Boat-drill was insisted upon daily. From the 22nd. to 26th. a stiff gale blew, and from the way the ship rolled, we seemed to be broadside on to the waves. Fog had accompanied us most of the way, and though the Calgarian showed up occasionally, scarcely a ship of the nine was seen after the first forty-eight hours. One of them carried Australians, and had come through the Panama Canal. Dishes, books, furniture, and baggage rattled and crashed unceasingly, and catapulted in stateroom and saloon. Many a time it felt as though that particular roll must be the last. Three sisters in a small stateroom, with port-hole closed and frequently submerged, were violently ill, a condition contributed to by the fact that the last 'cargo' carried had been a Chinese Labour Corps. I believe four passengers partook of Christmas dinner, but we were not caring except to forbid mention of the menu!
Destroyers as usual met us punctually off the north of Ireland, and we headed for Liverpool. But we could hear wireless talking at length, and presently we changed course, and coast lights faded. No reason was vouchsafed, and we retired for the night, with curiosity unsatisfied. The immense responsibility of merchant captains, R.N.R., in those hectic days has been fittingly recognized by others, but I cannot forbear to add the recognition of nursing-sisters. We seldom saw them; in the danger zone they rarely left the bridge. A dark figure in oil skins against the sky was all the glimpse the troops got of the man whose calm control and instant decision the safety of all depended. The incessant strain aged these men long before their time, but till the Armistice was signed, and a year after, they brought their ships into the world's ports with colours flying, and if a torpedo sealed its fate, they remained at their posts to the last, averting panic, and upholding the honour of the British name.
Dawn found us to our surprise steaming up the Clyde, to dock at Glasgow. The waterway and its shores were silent, as the New Year's Eve holiday had begun, but crowds of people came running out, cheering and waving as soon as they saw troops on board. The Mauretania and other great ships were embarking stores, or refitting, and their camouflage was really wonderful, another clever idea which proved useful. We then heard that an enemy submarine had been waiting for convoys in the Irish Sea. Failing of their object, by discovery and change of port, they had blown up a pilot boat and seventeen pilots coming to meet us and a South African convoy, before being sunk themselves. After much delay, the men were mustered, and marked off, singing "Tipperary . . . . a long way . . . ." and thinking they already knew something about that part of it. We boarded an unheated train about 9 P.M., on one of the coldest New Year's Eves Britain remembered. At some station about 4 a.m. a cold pork pie was obtained for sustenance. We were in need of unlimbering on arrival in London at six. The hotels were overwhelmed with soldiers on leave and their relatives, and it was some time before one was found with a bed to spare. I for one slept the clock round.
By 1918, Christmas meant the first reunion for four years to many a family, but to more it meant the loss of either hope or fear. A large number had died from 'Flu before they could get furlough, among them unfortunate prisoners. Other ex-prisoners were lucky enough to have that horrible experience behind them. The detachments of the Allied forces on the Rhine were celebrating in Germany for a change. On the various fronts people had almost forgotten a peace Christmas. No. 4 C.C.S., the Canadian hospital unit in Mons, decorated their section of the Ursuline Convent, and held a banquet in the evening for officers and sisters. The other personnel were not forgotten and the patients had a good dinner, but we had several dying of pneumonia, and the day was devoid of any joyous demonstration. Carols were sung in the evening, and a red and white motto adorned the wall: 'Good-bye Belgium, Good-bye France." On New Year's Eve, Sir David Watson, commanding the 4th. Canadian Division, gave a ball in the Hotel de Ville of Brussels, which was honoured by the presence of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. Allowing for the fact that it was after instead of before battle, and differences in circumstances of this century, it was quite in the Waterloo tradition. . . .