The Spirit of Christmas Past

by Brigadier General (ret) Greg Young OMM, MSM, CD
Chairman, 15th Battalion CEF Memorial Project

“ We go into the front line on Sunday night for the last time before we come out for Christmas. That certainly won’t make any of us mad to get away from this mess.”

Lieutenant Maurice “Mike’ Malone December 3, 1915

As Highlanders and readers of The Falcon prepare to celebrate Christmas and enjoy time with family and friends, it is fitting to look back and reflect on what Christmas was like for the men of the 15th Battalion during the Great War 1914-1918.

Where a unit happened to be at Christmas or New Years was something well beyond it’s ability to influence. Generally speaking, although the weather at that time of year made offensive operations difficult, the deadly routine of trench tours continued uninterrupted. The normal trench tour rotation SOP for Canadian infantry battalions was four days in the front line, four days in reserve and four days in rear billets. Of course this could easily change depending on the nature of operations. For example, units might be ‘out-of-the-line’ for much longer periods of time as they prepared/trained for future operations or ‘in-the-line’ for longer periods as they reacted to enemy actions. Usually Brigade HQs tried to see to it that if a unit was in the line for Christmas that where possible it would be out-of-the-line for New Years and vice versa. Many units created their own Christmas cards for the men to send home and in this regard the 15th Battalion was no exception with many examples having survived. Many current units, including the 48th Highlanders continue the Regimental Christmas card tradition to this day. And of course Christmas saw an understandably significant increase in parcels and letters from home.

The origin of the Christmas dinner tradition with role reversals that see Officers and Senior NCOs serving the Enlisted Men cannot be traced to a specific event or time period but there is little doubt that by the time of The Great War 1914-1918 it was an established practice in the British Army and by extension to the units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

When a unit did find itself out-of-the-line over the Holidays, Christmas dinners for the men with the Officers and Senior NCOs serving was common practice and a much anticipated occasion with units securing additional rations and ‘treats’ to bolster morale. As poultry was always scarce, the main course was almost always pork. Christmas dinners remain to this day in the units of the Canadian Army and certainly all Highlanders are familiar with this unbroken tradition. Where possible and the situation allowed, men might even be given Christmas or New Year’s leave although it would be strictly controlled to insure that the battalion always remained operational in terms of its strength.

The 15th Battalion was fortunate in that between 1914 and 1918 the ‘luck-of-the-rotation’ saw it spend every Christmas out-of-the line. Christmas and New Year’s 1914 and 1919 were exceptions to the years of Christmas ‘in the trenches’ in that during the former the battalion was still in the UK while the later happened after The Armistice.

Christmas 1914: Just before Christmas in 1914 the battalion moved from the muddy tent encampment on Salisbury Plain at West Down Camp South where it had been since its arrival in the UK in October to barrack buildings at Larkhill Camp not far from Stonehedge. Leave was granted for the entire battalion with half the strength going for Christmas Day and the other half for New Year’s. Officer’s had Christmas dinner with their companies: the football team travelled to Glasgow for a New Year’s Day match against The Highland Light Infantry which they lost:  the rowing team went to the Boxing Day boat races Richmond on the Thames and rowed for Canada vs. England and on New Year’s Day unit personnel who had been members of the Argonaut Rowing Club competed against a Winnipeg team at Putney.

“Got into London Tuesday night…there are over 10 of our officers there…and took a midnight train to Glasgow for Christmas…..then to Ediburgh..back to London tomorrow and back to Salisbury Tuesday ..we will have a merry gathering in our hut for New Years.”

Lieutenant Frank Gibson, December27, 1914

“I received seven days Christmas leave and visited Manchester..I enjoyed my leave very much, it was such a pleasure to get away from the mud and rain of Salisbury Plain.

Sergeant Claude Ashling, December 30, 1914

Christmas 1915: It had been a rough year with 2nd Ypres and Festubert and heavy trench tours mainly in Belgium and much of the original battalion was gone. In December the battalion was in the Ploegsteert sector of the Ypres salient area in trenches 138-141 along the Messines Road in familiar forward locations like King Edward Terrace, Fort Osborne and Ration Farm. The rotation schedule saw the unit at various rear area billets in Courte Dreve, Locre, Kemmel, Kortepyp and Neuve Eglise. In Brigade reserve, it was a very wet out-of-the-line Christmas that year but there were extra rations of beer and rum and a pork dinner with all the ‘fixings’ served by the Officers and Senior NCOs. The pork had been acquired from the nearby ‘Piggeries’ where the battalion mascot Bruno had originated earlier that year. Packages and letters from Canada arrived  and the Officers were hosted by hosted by the Senior NCOs for dinner with the Company Officers purchasing chickens and ducks for the main course. Unlike Christmas 1914, there was no truce or exchange of greetings with the opposing Germans. In fact when the battalion rotated back into the forward line for New Year’s, the Germans and Canadians exchanged reciprocal artillery bombardments at midnight to ring the New Year

“We got back to reserve billets on Christmas Eve……Christmas parcels were waiting for us and that

     helped a lot…we bought a whopping big pig for the men…..at twelve o’clock the boys started singing          

       Christmas carols…..we had our Christmas dinner the next day at seven o’clock and thought of you all 

       just about coming home from Church…we certainly had some feed.”

Lieutenant Maurice “Mike’ Malone, December 27, 1915

However, for many Officers and Men of the 15th Battalion who were captured at 2nd Ypres in April, that first Christmas ‘in Prisoner of War camps was a very different experience. Yet even in captivity Christmas traditions continued as parcels and ‘treats’ came from home and Christmas day was observed with trees and dinners, even if they were somewhat more sparse than normal.

“We received wonderful parcels from friends and relatives, they contained all the usual things of the Festive season. We decorated a little and for the time being were able to forget where we were…a small Christmas tree was placed in each hut, we decorated it with fish bones and lumps of black bread.”

Sergeant Claude Ashling, December 25, 1915

15th Battalion Senior NCO POWs Gottingen, Germany Christmas 1915

Christmas 1916: It was another hard year with Mount Sorrel and The Somme plus numerous trench tours in both France and Belgium. The 1st Division left The Somme on December 21st and was put into reserve for a month out-of-the-line. On December 22nd the 15th Battalion left Gouy Servins and marched 20 miles to billets in Haillicourt for what was recorded as a memorable Christmas. There was an extra 20 francs pay for every man. The City of Toronto sent a $1500 gift and the home Regiment sent an additional $500. A Regimental Christmas card was produced and sent home by the hundreds. The Officers and Senior NCOs of each company even produced their own cards. There were many letters and parcels from home and greetings from The King and the Canadian Command. A marquis tent was erected in a muddy field for the Officers and Senior NCO’s dinner which was attended by Brigade staff and senior officers & COs from other battalions. Purchasing parties went to Bruay for local purchases to augment the Men’s Christmas dinner which was held at Company level in separate locations. The Officers dined with their companies and the CO and Adjutant visited them all. Training was conducted between Christmas and New Years and resumed again after New Year’s Day.

“I received the box you sent me and everything was in good shape ….the fellows wanted to know who made the candy for they said to tell her to send some more for it was the best we have had We fared pretty well at Christmas. Mrs. Cutts, …sent me a nice pair of mitts her little girl knitted at school and a Christmas card …and we got some Santa Clause stockings from Hamilton.”

Private David Mclean, December 31, 1916

 Christmas 1917: It had been another heavy year with Vimy, Hill 70 and Passchendaele as well as trench ours again in Belgium and France. On December 23rd the 49th Battalion relieved the 15th in the front lines and battalion returned to Gouy Servins Chateau and prepared to  march to Lozinghem for Christmas. Advance parties had gone ahead to purchase Christmas ‘fixings’ but orders changed and the battalion remained at The Chateau forcing the advance parties to return empty handed. Rotating detail and Company dinners were held in the Church Army hut and a shed behind the chateau starting at 10:30 AM and completed by late afternoon. The CO, Lieutenant Colonel Bent, attended each one before leaving for leave in Canada on the 29th.

I can hardly realize that Tuesday is Xmas. We were just talking about it today…… but still it did not seem like the time of year it is.

Private L Currell, December 22, 1917

Sketch by Lieutenant J.E. Banton, 15th Battalion

 

Christmas 1918: Trench tours in France dominated the first part of the year but in August the Canadian Corps spearheaded the 100 Days Campaign that saw the battalion engaged at Amiens in August, the D-Q Line and the Canal du Nord in September followed by the pursuit to Mons, the Armistice, the march to and the crossing of The Rhine and the Occupation of Germany. The battalion was in the Cologne bridgehead  with its outpost line positions in and around the town of Engelskirchen. It was a white Christmas with the surrounding area in many ways reminiscent of Canada. The CASC could not get poultry forward for Christmas dinners so the Battalion Officers went locally and purchased pigs.  The men dined by companies in their outpost Line positions and the Officers dined in Engelskirchen at Schloss (castle) Ehreshoven which was captured in a sketch by Lieutenant t JB Banton. Led by the Pipes and Drums, New Year’s Day saw a battalion parade through the streets of the town carrying the home Regiment’s Colours which had arrived from Canada on the 29th.  The Troops started staggered leaves to Cologne on Jan 2nd and on January 4th news arrived that the 1st Canadian Division would to be relieved by 41st British Division and thus the long journey home would begin.

“I have been working on the Officer’s Mess Dinner….went to Cologne and did a lot of shopping..we are in an old Chateau and the dining room is just a picture…we used 200 candles, it was a grand sight and all the pictures decorated with holly and three Christmas trees all lit up. Then the meal started…three pipers came in followed by our cook carrying whole roasted pig on a silver platter. That sure brought the house down.”

Lieutenant Gerald Malone MC, December 26, 1918

Sketch by Lieutenant J.E. Banton, 15th Battalion

 So throughout the war Christmas remained a time in which the customary traditions of the Season, both civil and military, continued regardless of the circumstances or the location and for a time – no matter how brief – soldiers could forget the war and think of better times in the past and hopefully in the future.

“Christmas night I will think of you all.”

Lieutenant Maurice ‘Mike’ Malone