After the storm that tore the last breath from the Gallipoli campaign there was a long spell of fine weather. The sun shone, there were chilly breezes but they were gentle and the tideless sea that lapped the beaches was mercifully calm. Without good weather the evacuation would have been infinitely more difficult.
It was a difficult operation, later regarded as one of the triumphs of the war, and until it was safely accomplished the Turks had no idea that it was underway. It had taken nerve and cunning and discipline. For only disciplined troops could have padded silently with muffled feet along tortuous pathways from the trenches to the beaches, first from Suvla, then from Anzac, and maintained their silence on the beaches, waiting to board the lighters that glided in from the darkened sea to carry them off. It took nerve for the men waiting their turn in the emptying trenches, seeing their luckier comrades depart, working all the while to do the work of ten, twenty, a hundred men, rushing from point to point to send up flares and to fire the fixed rifles that would delude the enemy, knowing that it would be all up if they were attacked. And it had taken cunning and Machiavellian ingenuity to invent the devices that would send up the flares, explode the mines, keep up the rifle-fire, and keep the Turks guessing and on their toes for hours after the last of them was safely away.
It was some satisfaction, particularly to the Anzacs, that they had at long last succeeded in putting one over Johnny Turk. They bore him no ill will. The Turks had been clean fighters and worthy adversaries, and although at the last moment the main supply dumps were blown up or set on fire, where battalion rations and even prized possessions like gramophones had to be left in dug-outs, notes were sometimes found fixed to the wall with a nail or a spent bullet: ‘So long, Johnny. It’s all yours. Love from Australia.’ One Turkish officer in charge of a cautious reconnoitring party kept such a note as a souvenir for the rest of his life.
The evacuation went like clockwork. General Monro’s estimate of 30 to 40 per cent casualties was wildly wrong. By the combined efforts of the Army and the Royal Navy not a single man was lost and by 20 December all the troops on Gallipoli had been evacuated – with the exception of the unfortunate 29th Division who were ordered to stay for seventeen more days to garrison Cape Helles.
Christmas on Gallipoli was not something to look forward to with unalloyed pleasure. Months ago, before the failure of the August battles, supplies of the 29th Division Christmas card (designed and printed in Egypt) had arrived on the peninsula, and the soldiers had bought them by the dozen to send to friends and families at home. They depicted a British bulldog clinging grimly to the toe of the peninsula. It was strangely appropriate.
The delivery of Christmas mail in the eastern Mediterranean was a headache, for the troops evacuated from the peninsula were scattered far and wide – many in Egypt, some en route to Salonika, some still on the Aegean islands – but the Royal Navy had turned up trumps, and with its assistance most of the soldiers’ mail was delivered before Christmas. The Australians on Lemnos received a large consignment on Christmas Eve. There were letters and cards and parcels from home, and every man received a billy-can from the people of Australia packed with acceptable goodies – smokes, and pipes, and razors and sweets and socks and handkerchiefs. Some of the billy-cans were decorated with a cartoon of a victorious kangaroo, feet firmly planted on the peninsula, with the caption ‘Thispart o’ the world belongs to US!’ That hurt.
Even the delivery of mail to the western front had stretched the resources of the Army Postal Service to the limit. There were hundreds of tons of mail, mostly parcels containing Christmas gifts and this year there were some interesting novelties. Manufacturers who had been caught on the hop by the speed of events last year had taken pains to design and produce goods to tempt shoppers looking for suitable gifts for men in the forces. Even firms like Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Ltd, who had always supplied their affluent clients with luxury goods – gold cigarette cases, rings, watches and lockets, silver-backed brushes and so on – now offered a range of items designed for more practical use. An officer’s whistle in solid silver, which ingeniously combined a detachable compass and silver indelible pencil; a collapsible drinking cup, also in silver and enclosed in a leather case; a luminous wrist watch in silver or gold; silver hip-flasks, matchboxes and tinder cigarette lighters whose discreet glow was guaranteed not to attract the attention of the enemy if lit in the trenches.
Lance-Corporal Jim Keddie of the 48th Highlanders of Canada had recently received a present, of a sort, from a grateful Government – and it was not before time. It was more than six months since his foot was shattered at Ypres and then amputated in hospital at Huddersfield. Later he went to convalescent camp at Shorncliffe and his stump was healed, but he was still hobbling on crutches, waiting wearily for his turn to be fitted with an artificial limb at Queen Mary’s Hospital at Roehampton. The hospital was working flat out but there was a long, long list of maimed soldiers awaiting admission, and it took all the efforts of Jim Keddie’s mother, who took it up with her Member of Parliament, and an irate correspondence in the newspapers to shift him up the queue.
The question put by Sir John Jardine in the House of Commons last week brought out into clear relief the treatment to which this young man has been subjected by the military hospital authorities. Lance-Corporal James Keddie was one of the heroic Canadian contingent which hastened homewards as soon as the cry reached the Far West that the Mother country needed them. He had the misfortune to be severely wounded at Ypres in May last, and as a consequence a foot had to be amputated. One would have thought that with the least possible delay an artificial foot would have been fitted in the hospital at Shorncliffe. But, no! Month after month has passed and James Keddie has been compelled to limp about on crutches, a very trying and depressing experience for a young man. He appears to have been referred to one authority after the other and all his appeals to have the limb replaced before he returned to Canada, disregarded. Obviously the advantage to him lay in having this completed in this country, so that he might be able to spend a time in his own home at Jedburgh before setting sail for Canada. Lance-Corporal Keddie has not been well treated by the home authorities, in fact very badly. An incident like this is bound to do harm to the call of patriotic duty, and there may be other cases of a similar nature. It is devoutly to be hoped Sir John’s question will lead to prompt reparation.
A Border Canvasser.
In late November, and somewhat ahead of his turn, Keddie was sent to Roehampton to be fitted with his new foot and to learn to walk again. Now he fully expected to be home in Jedburgh for Christmas and better still to bring in the New Year in Scotland in the knowledge that he was out of the war for good.
William Cushing was just as certain that he would be spending Christmas at the front, for his first home leave expired on 19 December.
2nd Lt. W. Cushing.
I don’t know who it was who suggested that I should bring back with me a turkey, a Norfolk turkey, for the officers’ mess Christmas dinner, or whether I made the suggestion myself. At all events I went to a shop in Prince of Wales Road, Norwich. As soon as these good people heard that I wanted to take a turkey to France, they offered me one at cost price. Rashly, I said that in that case I would take two! ‘And what about some sausages?’ ‘A good idea,’ said I. ‘We’ll put you those in free,’ they said. I thanked them, and some days later just before catching the train at Norwich Thorpe Station, I called to fetch the packages. The turkeys, each weighing some twenty-four pounds, and several pounds of sausages, were beautifully packed in two hampers with handles, and once more thanking these kind people, I set down Prince of Wales Road for the station. Those two hampers! By the time I arrived even at Thorpe Station my arms were aching, and by the time I got back to the battalion, out at rest in the Poperinghe woods, those birds seemed to have increased in weight to about half a ton each! However, they and I were welcomed and acclaimed!
Next day the turkeys were cooked for an early Christmas dinner in the officers’ mess and Cushing’s health was drunk with glowing appreciation. Two days before Christmas the 9th Norfolks marched back to the line. The war had to go on, and to make sure that it did GHQ had sent an edict to every Division.
140th Infantry Brigade
The G.O.C. directs me to remind you of the unauthorised truce which occurred on Christmas Day at one or two places in the line last year, and to impress upon you that nothing of the kind is to be allowed on the Divisional front this year.
The Artillery will maintain a slow gun fire on the enemy’s trenches commencing at dawn, and every opportunity will as usual be taken to inflict casualties upon any of the enemy exposing themselves.
(Signed) B. BURNETT HITCHCOCK,
47th (London) Division
19th Decr. 1915.
Just before Christmas the War Office produced a long and detailed memorandum on the future conduct of the war based on a realistic analysis of the events of the past year. They made it clear that the war would not be won by improvisation, and the muddled inception of the Gallipoli campaign proved it, just as the debacle at Suvla Bay demonstrated that determined, experienced leadership was vital to success. No longer would commanders be appointed on the basis of seniority in the army hierarchy. It was plain to the General Staff that Egypt and the Suez Canal must always be defended, but other commitments in the eastern Mediterranean were not desirable, nor was it desirable to disperse the strength of the Royal Navy, so vital to the defence of Britain’s far-flung sea routes as well as her island shores. Germany could not be defeated through the back door. As for Serbia and Russia, they could best be helped by a successful offensive on the western front, and the breakthrough at Loos had shown that it could be achieved and that complete success had been within their grasp.
The Staff detailed the lessons that must be learned. The wire had not been sufficiently cut – more heavy guns and shells were needed, more men were needed, more careful planning by a well-trained Staff and less dependence on a single factor like the use of gas to compensate for other deficiencies. They could not rely on luck alone.
There was no criticism of the troops. The Staff, like the senior officers in the field, had been astonished by the prowess and endurance of the soldiers of the New Army, were lavish in their praise of the Territorials, and confident that with more preparation, more experience, more materials, more backing, they would stand ‘a fair chance of success’. ‘But,’ the authors wisely reminded, ‘there is no certainty in war.’
Nevertheless the message was clear. Come next year new brooms would sweep aside the debris of the setbacks that littered the chronicle of 1915 and sweep the New Armies to victory in the year ahead.
Sir Douglas Haig was already installed as Commander-in-Chief and on Christmas Eve Sir John French motored for the last time to Calais and boarded a destroyer en route for England to take up his new post in command of the Home Forces. Officially, the Government had ‘reluctantly accepted his resignation’. Privately they thanked him profusely for his valuable services and assured him that no criticism was implied in their desire for a change. He was endowed with a peerage and also with the promise of a suitable pecuniary reward at the end of the war. The deposed Commander-in-Chief, newly ennobled, had given some thought to the choice of a title and decided on ‘Viscount French of Ypres’ – perhaps with a very natural desire to remind the nation down succeeding generations that his services had been thought to be of value when they were most needed.
Fifteen months of the strain and responsibility of command in a war waged on a scale which had never before been encountered, with anxieties and disappointments at every turn, would have taxed the capacities of a much younger and fitter man. French was now in his sixty-fourth year. He was bitterly aggrieved and indignant, but in his heart of hearts he could not have been sorry to be going home, even if he was not much in the mood to celebrate Christmas.
It was a stormy crossing, for the weather was filthy. At Ypres the rain had turned to sleet and it was bitterly cold. The 9th Norfolks were in wet trenches at Wieltje and B Company was in the front line where even the sandbags were disintegrating into slush and the duckboards were under water. Just before they left camp, Cushing had received a mammoth package of woollens from his Aunt Laura who was headmistress of the Girls’ Primary School at Swaffham. It represented months of work by the staff, the girls, and their relatives and it contained enough jerseys and mufflers and helmets and socks and gloves to kit out every member of No. 1 Platoon with at least one additional warm garment. They sorely needed them now and Cushing was sorry for them, for several were new to the platoon and were finding their initiation into trench life a spartan experience. Two inventive spirits thought to improve matters and, spotting some abandoned corrugated iron behind the trench, crawled out at night to retrieve it and propped it over their firebay to make a slightly weatherproof shelter. They were quite proud of their handiwork and actually went to fetch their platoon officer to admire it, feeling quite obviously that what the Army had lacked before their own arrival was brains. Cushing was forced to point out that the purpose of a firing bay was to fire from, and that their splendid roof entirely defeated that purpose. But he told them kindly and without undue blustering. Although he was several years their senior and had been a schoolmaster in civil life, it was not so very long ago that he himself had arrived, green and ignorant, to join the Battalion.
Even in that short time there were new faces in the ranks and in the mess, and every day there were more casualties.
2nd Lt. W. Cushing.
On the morning of Christmas Eve a man in B Company on our right was hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet, and died a few minutes later. The new Second-in-Command of the Battalion was in the line on a visit of inspection. He was an energetic and efficient officer but he was also a fire-eater. He made both platoons file past the dead man, saying to each, ‘You must avenge this. You must kill two Germans for every one of our dead.’ I said nothing, but I felt outraged. The men evidently thought he was mad. The object of war, the aim of a battle, is not primarily to kill numbers of the enemy, but to defeat his forces in battle. The men resented the Major’s tactless tactics. It was the mistaken psychology of fire-eating blimps and it made the bloodshed of war evilly bloodier.
In the line at Loos a battalion of the Camerons had a Christmas visit from a Staff Officer.
Lt. G. Barber, 1st Bn., Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 1st Brig., 1stDiv.
On the morning of the 24th I was sent to D Company, to take command while Gordon went on leave. This time D Company was in a support trench about a hundred and fifty yards from the front line. This trench was in poor condition – narrow, too seldom traversed, and not nearly deep enough. As I had to send two platoons up to the front line every night, it was rather difficult to improve the trench, especially as no work was possible by day owing to the fact that the Hun on Hill 70 could look down and shoot right along it. This fact was not fully appreciated by the Powers That Be who wear Red Hats, until one of them arrived about eleven o’clock in the morning on Christmas Eve and shouted down the steps of my dug-out for me. I went up and found an irate Staff Officer who wanted to know why the devil my men were not doing any work! I pointed out to him, respectfully but firmly, that unless he wanted half the men blotted out it was an impossibility. While arguing the point, he started along the trench and when he was about thirty yards away from the dug-out the Huns put over a covey of ‘pip-squeaks’. I’ve never seen a staff officer hurry so fast in all my life! He bolted into my dug-out like a rabbit, head first. He then stayed so long talking about the impossibility of working by day, that I very nearly had to offer him lunch! Christmastime did not reduce the daily hate on both sides.
But in some parts of the line at least the ‘hate’ tailed away in the evening of Christmas Eve. It was the Germans’ Weihnachtsabend, the traditional night of celebration, but there was not much sign of celebration in the trenches. From time to time there was a plaintive attempt at a carol and once in the trenches close to Plugstreet Wood a tremendous voice entertained the trenches of both sides with a selection from La Traviata, stopping abruptly in mid-aria as if a door had been slammed shut. Near Wulverghem a Christmas tree ablaze with candles appeared on the parapet of the German front trench. For a few moments the tiny pinpoints of flame flickered uncertainly in the dark until a British officer ordered rapid fire and the Tommies shot it down.
In the first chill light of Christmas morning the guns boomed out.
Cpl. D. A. Pankhurst, Royal Field Artillery, 56 Div.
We hailed the smiling morn with five rounds fired fast, and we kept up slow fire all day. Those were our orders. Some batteries sent over as many as three hundred shells. It was a Christmas present to Fritz, they said. But I do believe myself that it was intended to discourage fraternising.
The 7th Green Howards did not parade until ten o’clock on Christmas morning, and they richly deserved a lie-in for the whole battalion had been out until the early hours working in the rain and the dark filling sandbags with liquid mud and had returned dead beat and chilled to the marrow. A rum ration on their return and a hot breakfast when they woke up restored their spirits and they looked forward to a lazy day with a few festivities to enliven it. Later the Chaplain came over to hold a Christmas carol service in a field near the camp – the third he had conducted that morning – and it was lustily enjoyed by everyone but the Sergeant-Major. There was no music, but the Sergeant-Major was the proud possessor of a fine tenor voice and he volunteered to act as precentor and lead the singing. It was very cold so the service was a short one, but there was time for a number of old favourites before disaster struck. The Colonel saw it coming.
Lt. Col. R. Fife, DSO, 7th Bn., Green Howards.
It went pretty well until the Sergeant-Major started the hymn, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, to the tune of ‘Hark, the Herald Angels’. I saw the awful pitfall yawning at the end of the first verse – and so did the Sergeant-Major when it was too late. The cold beads broke out on his brow. When the last two lines of the verse had been sung and the tune required them to be sung again, there was a brave effort, but it failed, and for the remaining verses the congregation sang any tune each happened to know, with remarkable effect!
We celebrate the glad Yule Tide by moving this evening to the ramparts for three days’ cave life before returning to the trenches, also by getting no letters, parcels or newspapers for days.
The fact that it was Christmas scarcely disturbed the routine business of the war. It was a ‘normal’ day in the trenches, with the normal amount of sniping and shelling, but the ‘normal’ casualties that were usually accepted with stoic resignation seemed especially poignant in the season of peace on earth and goodwill to men.
2nd Lt. W. Cushing.
Private Wilkerson was killed on Christmas Day. A shell fragment severed the femoral artery. Stretcher-bearers attempted to deal with this mortal wound by using a tourniquet but this caused the poor chap pain, and the MO told us on the field telephone to remove it and let him die in peace. Only immediate surgical intervention could have saved him and that was impossible. All the same, the MO was about to risk his own life by coming to us across the open – there were no communications trenches left – but the C.O. ordered him to stay where he was at battalion HQ. It was just as well. We couldn’t afford to lose a Medical Officer in a fruitless effort to save life. He couldn’t possibly have arrived in time.
The soldiers who were out of danger and lucky enough to be out of the line and off duty kept Christmas as far as possible in traditional style. Regimental funds had been ransacked and in many battalions they were subsidised by officers to ensure that the Tommies had a good Christmas dinner. Turkeys were scarce and only for the fortunate few, but pigs were slaughtered wholesale and they were more than happy with roast pork. There were nuts and sweets and apples and almost a surfeit of plum pudding. So many had been sent by public benefactors as well as families and friends that some soldiers were eating them for days. In some quiet sectors quarter-masters even managed to send Christmas pudding with the rations to the trenches (one actually managed brandy butter) and even if it was none too warm and a touch dry without the traditional custard sauce, there was rum at hand to set it alight – and a sergeant-major might be sufficiently moved by the Christmas spirit to issue enough of it to flame each individual portion.
Even cold Christmas pudding would have been welcomed by the 6th South Staffs, munching the eternal bully beef and washing it down with water in a train chugging towards Marseilles. Conversation was desultory for they had speculated on their ultimate destination until there was no more to be said and most of them were thinking back rather than looking forward. Occasionally someone would say, ‘Remember this time last year?’ How could they forget it! Last year at Saffron Walden they had wined and dined like kings, for due to a fortunate accident, the battalion had received a double allocation of turkeys. The birds ordered by the comforts fund were delayed in transit and were finally delivered on Christmas Eve just as the quartermaster returned from Smithfield Market with a fresh consignment to replace them. Seated on the floor of the railway wagons, jolting and shuddering to the south, they thought longingly of Christmas past.
The soldiers nearing the end of their training at home were having a whale of a time.
Pte. J. Bowles, 2/16th Queen’s Westminster Rifles.
Our grand dinner came off at four o’clock. And it was a spread too! Turkey and ham, sprouts and potatoes. Christmas pudding of first-class quality – beer, ginger beer, and port wine ad lib, oranges, nuts, bananas and smokes – and all provided by the Colonel. It was a glorious feast and one that I shall never forget. The King’s Christmas greeting was then read and we all drank his health amidst a terrific din. Then the Brigadier spoke a few words, and told us what the future held in store for us. He himself was going to France on Tuesday with the Colonels of our Brigade to learn a little of the work we should soon be called upon to undertake. On their return we were going off –probably to Salisbury Plain for a few weeks’ final training, and then off for France. The cheering when he told us we were going was enough to loosen the rafters. He paid very high tribute to our Brigade, and although I am in it myself and perhaps should not say so, I do not think that any finer body of men exists. The pity of it is that men of such physique and training should go to this human slaughter-house, and leave beneath the soil of France the product of so many years of toil. Is what they are fighting for worth it? I’m sure the answer is yes.
The Brigadier left amid cheers, and we set to work upon the remaining turkey. Beer was brought round in buckets and some drank more than was good for them and consequently there was a great deal of merriment. One fellow, noted for his camel-like propensities, was about full when he started, and before dinner was over, he insisted on standing on the table and making a speech. He was not very firm on his feet and several times subsided into the arms of those sitting near him. When he did get up he was met with a regular fusillade of bread, potatoes and bones, but somehow they all missed him and did damage to the innocent. His speech was not a success, but he caused great sport.
Not being fond of beer, I specialised in port. To one unused to it, port plays havoc and for the rest of the evening I was quite happy. After dinner we had a concert given entirely by our own fellows and it was jolly good. I left at nine o’clock and spent the rest of the night at the billet where we again made merry.
There was another concert many hundreds of miles away in the heart of Germany at the prisoner of war camp where Harry Crask had been imprisoned since his capture on the Westhoek Ridge on 8 May. Christmas there was an abstemious affair but, with the help of Red Cross parcels and many parcels from home, there was plenty to eat and even a few luxuries, for the five shilling parcels that relatives were able to send through the good offices of the Daily Mail contained plum cake and sardines and potted meat and chocolate, as well as tea, milk powder and sixty cigarettes. A few braver souls had attempted to make a vicious alcoholic brew from fermented potato peelings, others had managed to bribe a guard to smuggle in a bottle or two of beer, but most were content to munch on chocolate as they watched the entertainment and the mess hall was thick with the fumes of precious cigarettes recklessly chain-smoked in honour of Christmas. It was a good concert and it was a pleasant break in the frustrating monotony of life as a prisoner in Germany.
Life as a prisoner in Holland where a brigade of the Royal Naval Division was interned was hardly less monotonous, but in the camp at Groeningen they did better than prisoners in Germany. The Dutch were more kindly, food was more plentiful and there was no shortage of beer on Christmas Day. News was still scarce for Holland was meticulous in observing the rules of neutrality and there was strict censorship, but Arthus Agius had found a way of getting round it. He was spending his own Christmas on a Greek island, having arrived on Gallipoli as a newly commissioned officer of the Royal Naval Division just in time for the evacuation, but before his departure he had organised a dinner in London for sixteen escapees from Groeningen. There was an embargo on news of those who had succeeded in reaching home, but the Dutch authorities had not thought to censor a formal report of the dinner which Agius sent to the editor of the camp magazine. It appeared in the Christmas edition and, since it concluded with a list of the guests who attended the ‘escapees dinner’, it was of great interest to the men who were left behind.
In Great Britain, since Christmas Day happened to fall on Saturday, Boxing Day was officially postponed until Monday. On Sunday it was business as usual, and business as usual meant Church Parade. The Padre had recently returned from the front, where volunteer clergymen often did a three-month stint, and he undoubtedly meant well, but although the topic he chose for his address was close to his own heart it did not do much for soldiers on the point of embarking for France.
Pte. J. Bowles.
He was a cheerful brute. He told us of the sufferings of the wounded, and the administering of the last sacrament. He went on to show us how difficult a task he had when men who were past all earthly aid were brought to him and confessed that they were not communicants. He was in a painful position and was seeking a solution from a higher source. He also spoke of men too ill to receive the sacrament. What could he do for them? In the Epistle of St James he has discovered that the pouring of oil on the heads of the sick would cleanse them of their sins. It would make them await death without fear, and would give them strength to withstand pain. Such a thing had not been done yet, but would the men think it over, and then when the time came they would know what to ask of the priest who attended them, or know the meaning of it if it were done without their being able to ask for it.
I wonder what Christ thinks of it all, and whether his death has accomplished all he thought it would accomplish. But I am wading out of my depth so will return to things of the moment. One of them is – dinner today. Our landlady has given us a pressing invitation to dinner, so we are getting off dinner parade and going to enjoy Christmas dinner number two.
The Boxing Day festivities and the hospitality of more than one generous landlady quickly dissipated the gloom cast by the sermon of the day before. Everyone was determined to give the Tommies a good time on their last Christmas, before they went off to the front, and even more anxious to spoil the thousands of men in hospitals who had come back maimed or wounded.
In the War Hospital at Epsom Bill Worrell had difficulty in eating his Christmas dinner. He had lost most of his teeth and those that remained were so damaged that as soon as his jaw healed and he was able to ‘open wide’ they would have to come out. Meanwhile a kindly nurse minced his share of the turkey and mixed it into a slop with gravy and mashed potato. He was able to eat a good deal of it and when the pudding came round he was given a taste of the brandy sauce with a jelly set in a cup to give it the shape of a small Christmas pudding. Someone had popped a sprig of holly on top and Sister herself brought him a glass of champagne.
Every wounded soldier found a stocking at the foot of his bed, which the nurses had filled with sweets, cigarettes, even small toys, purchased from the hospital comforts fund. There was a bottle of beer or stout for each man to drink with his Christmas dinner, and sometimes a glass of wine. Hospitals were showered with gifts of claret and port and champagne, often by the case, and although strictly speaking they were intended for medicinal purposes to build up the strength of the most feeble invalids, in the glow of the festive spirit all but the starchiest of matrons generally decreed that all the patients should be given a Christmas drink. Every ward was decorated, every ward had its Christmas tree, often groaning under the weight of gifts sent by local civilians. There were seldom personal visitors, for not many soldiers were lucky enough to be sent to a hospital near their homes, but the locals came in droves. Carol singers toured the wards, there were lavish teas with Christmas cake and cream buns provided by generous bakery shops, there were concerts got up by school children and plays performed by amateur dramatic societies, there were games and sing-songs. A good time was had by all – except in wards where celebration was necessarily low-key and the nurses serving the turkey placed the plates in front of their patients with particular care, for men stunned by shell-shock would start at the slightest noise. They too had their Christmas tree and presents, but the worst cases lying dumb or staring blankly at the wall paid no attention.
There had been over a quarter of a million casualties on the western front alone and for every two men who had been wounded, one was killed or reported missing (which amounted in most.instances to much the same thing). There were half as many again in Gallipoli. In the streets of Edinburgh and Oldham, Toronto and Montreal, Sidney and Melbourne, black ties, black armbands and the sweeping black garb of sad women were becoming a common-place sight. It had been a bad year, and as it drew to a close everyone was sadder. Some were wiser.
A letter from Lord Sydenham was published prominently in The Times and if its message hardly rated applause in Government circles it struck a chord in the minds of many others.
The immense efforts and sacrifices of the Allies have not been in vain, and must tell heavily in the coming year.
It is when we reflect upon the conduct of the war in all its branches that we find subject for regret and lessons to be learned. We were forced into conflict, not only with armed nations, but with the most powerful machine of government that the world has ever known. Government had become dependent upon the electorate, which was not interested in preparations for war. We had none of the memories which crowded darkly upon the French nation in August, 1914, and served to unloose a flood of burning patriotism by which France was transfigured. The British people, when at length ‘the day’ dawned, had the direst need of leadership and found it not. To political conditions, methods, and habits of thought we owe the mistakes and the delays, the wavering and the incertitude which have marked the conduct of affairs in the greatest crisis the country has ever known.
Decisions waited until outside pressure was brought to bear, and the coordination of the work of departments accustomed to independence was slowly and imperfectly effected. Even in the case of far-reaching military operations, our methods of arriving at conclusions, judging from the revelations made public, were ill-conceived and unlikely to result in wise counsels.
The main sources of past weakness are plain, and they can be removed if we earnestly undertake the task. For the whole nation there is only one object, compared with which all others are trivial and irrelevant. For the sake of the many thousands of gallant lives that have fallen, and of the bitter sorrows and suffering that remains, we must enter on the New Year with resolutions strongly forged in the fierce fires of war. Heavy sacrifices have come to us in 1915, but also inspiring memories of devotion, cheerful endurance, and true patriotism. If only real organised methods are forthcoming in 1916, we and our true Allies, in growing strength, may fight on with calm confidence ‘until the day break and the shadows flee away’ in the light of victory and peace.
Hard questions were beginning to be asked and it was not always easy to come up with the answers.
Questions were also being asked in France and, of all people, Lord Cavan was on the mat. GHQ was up in arms. In defiance of the stern edict which forbade any contact with the enemy, fraternisation had occurred and it was the Guards themselves who had flouted the order. Only a few guardsmen left the trenches and in less than forty minutes a horrified senior officer ordered the soldiers back. The junior officer who condoned the meeting in No Man’s Land was sent home in disgrace, Lord Cavan grovelled in apology, but still First Army headquarters thundered its determination to get the to bottom of the sorry episode and threatened dire retribution.
= = = = = =
1st Army No. C/497. 28/12/15
1. With reference to your C/197, dated 10.15 p.m. 26/12/15, regarding the fraternising with the enemy on Xmas day, will you please forward at once, for the information of the Army Commander, evidence on the following points:
(a) (i) What exactly were the orders issued by Lord Cavan?
(a) (ii) How were they made known to the Brigades?
(b) (i) What exactly were the orders issued by the Brigadiers of the 2nd and 3rd Guards Brigades?
(b) (ii) How were they made known to the Battalions?
(c) (i) What exactly were the orders issued by the Officers Commanding 1st Scots Guards, 2nd Scots Guards, and 1st Coldstream Guards?
(c) (ii) How were they made known to the Companies and by them to the men?
2. As the orders appear to have been verbal, some corroboration of the orders is desirable.
3. It is not necessary to hold a Court of Inquiry, but merely to obtain statements from officers who can throw light on these points.
4. The matter is urgent.
(Signed) A. M. Henderson Scoles.
D.A.A.G., 1st Army.
The Christmas truce initiated by the Guards was hushed up. No reports of it appeared in the newspapers and they would hardly have been appreciated in the present mood. The comical Germans of the year before were now the hated Boche, progenitors of all the horrors and misery that had dashed the hopes and expectations of a long and harrowing year.
It was the pantomime season again and, like last year, the traditional fairy-tales, the corny jokes and japes, had a topical wartime slant. At Christmas 1914 the crowds had left the theatres happily humming ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers…’
Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers
Such skill at sewing shirts our shy young sister Susie shows
Some soldiers send epistles,
say they’d rather sleep on thistles
Than the saucy, soft, short shirts for soldiers sister Susie sews.
They were already familiar with the words, for they had appeared on a screen lowered from the flies and the pantomime dame had led a dozen jolly choruses in traditional style, dividing the theatre into sections, setting stalls against circle, pit against gallery, ladies against gentlemen, children against adults, and urging each to outdo another, first in volume then in speed. It was great fun, children took special delight in mastering the tongue-twister, and long after the pantomimes ended the sale of sheet music and gramophone records was still earning a fortune for the publishers and the composer.
This Christmas, the pantomime song of the year did not lend itself to jolly entertainment – but it struck home and went straight to the heart:
Keep the Home Fires burning
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of Home
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining
Turn the dark clouds inside out
Till the Boys come Home.
It reflected the sombre undercurrent beneath the determined gaiety of the second Christmas of the war. Last year there had been hope – and there still was, but it was no longer the hope of innocent optimism. If the agony of loss and the pain of disappointment had caused iron to enter the soul of the nation they had also put steel into its backbone. No one doubted that the war would be won. But no one now doubted that it would be a long hard haul – that it was up to the Boys – and that it might be a long, long time before they did come home.
Marching to Newtonards station, 2 July 1915, 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles en route to France
On 18 June, Waterloo Day, Sir Evelyn Wood VC inspected the Inns of Court Battalion on Kitchener’s Field at Berkhamsted to mark the fact that 2,000 of its members had been commissioned since the outbreak of war (Imperial War Museum)
The 7th Battalion Royal Scots at their last pre-war camp – many were to lose their lives in the troop train disaster of May 1915
The 6th South Staffordshires solved the bath shortage by lining a farm cart with a tarpaulin and filling it with water from the farmyard pump (Imperial War Museum)
‘Training, training, training, always bally-well training…’ Kitchener’s army were of the opinion that they had dug more trenches at home than there were in France. The hill behind the bridge is covered in them (Imperial War Museum)
‘They took us through Ypres to Vlamertinghe and when we got there, the whole street as far as your eye could see was nothing but stretchers and blankets and walking wounded with blankets over their shoulders and half a dozen doctors working flat out.’ Private J. Vaughan, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Imperial War Museum)
Sun-dappled trenches at Sanctuary Wood, much visited by tourists – but, according to veterans, approximating the front line of 1915
Memorial on the Bellewaerde Ridge and behind it the ground on which Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry made their stand
Three types of early machine-gun photographed before the war. Left Gardner, centre Maxim and on the right the Nordenfeldt, which so captivated the Kaiser (Imperial War Museum)
Spring 1915. Well-constructed front line dug-outs in the ‘quiet’ sector near Tlugstreet’ Wood (Imperial War Museum)
Winter in Flanders. Men of the London Rifle Brigade behind the breastworks at Tlugstreet’ Wood (Imperial War Museum)
Neuve Chapelle. Front line trench at Mauquissart looking towards Aubers Ridge (Imperial War Museum)
Neuve Chapelle. ‘I can’t tell you what it’s like to have these shells whistling over one’s head and bursting nearer and nearer. The noise is terrific and the shock of the explosions is terrible.’ Captain George Hawes, 3rd (City of London) Bttn. German bombardment falling behind British line (Imperial War Museum)
The pre-war 5 inch breech-loading gun the 11th Howitzer Battery took to France. On left Major ‘Steinthal’ who was suspended from command while his German antecedents were investigated and who returned as Major Petrie.
Artist Norman Tennant’s drawing of the episode when the ‘nasty little short-arsed’ Major who took Steinthal’s place put him on a charge for ‘cruelty to a horse’
An artist’s impression of the battlefield of Neuve Chapelle
Neuve Chapelle. For want of anything better haystacks were burrowed out to serve as makeshift observation posts and also, as in the photo, Divisional or Brigade headquarters (Imperial War Museum)
Memorial to Arthur Agius’s friend Cyril Crichton erected on the spot where he was killed at Port Arthur, Neuve Chapelle
Neuve Chapelle. The German machine-gun post that decimated the Scottish Rifles, photographed after its capture… (Imperial War Museum)
… and the bodies of the men mown down by its lethal fire (Imperial War Museum)
Site of the once-infamous Layes Bridge redoubt
This was the shell-scarred crucifix from Neuve Chapelle churchyard, now inside the church
A German dug-out later erected on the site of the strongpoint that thwarted the troops at Neuve Chapelle. The village is in the background
German ‘stinkpioneren’ experimenting with gas before the attack at Ypres on 23 April (Imperial War Museum)
British gas equipment similar to that used at Loos, ready for discharge in 1916 (Imperial War Museum)
The Regular Army. Troops of the 2nd Lancashires in a mine crater blown during the battle for Aubers Ridge (Imperial War Museum)
Kitchener’s Army. Officers in the making (Imperial War Museum)
Panorama of Ypres from the German lines, marked with artillery ranges (Imperial War Museum)
Ypres, April 1915. ‘There were empty spaces in the streets, and heaps of rubble where a house once stood. The central tower of the great Cloth Hall blackened by fire, lacked two of its four spires…’(Imperial War Museum)
Ypres, July 1915. The safest billets for miles. The soldiers live like troglodytes in the casemates and passages in the old ramparts (Imperial War Museum)
Ypres, 1915. ‘All of us are deeply dispirited. After battling for six months against all these adversities, we must now resign ourselves to abandoning all our belongings. What will be left when we return?’ Aimé van Nieuwenhove (Imperial War Museum)
Ypres, 1915. Dead horses in the Cloth Hall Square. ‘I have got permission to stay with ten men burying the dead, interring horses. We are virtually alone.’ Father Camille Dalaere (Imperial War Museum)
Ypres, April 1915. The rue de Lille, The gable of Aimé van Nieuwenhove’s house is on the right. The photograph is taken from the Post Office (Imperial War Museum)
Ypres, rue de Lille. ‘It was a dreadful sorrow to find nothing but burnt-out shells and charred walls. The gable end of our house was still standing, as well as some of the inner walls.’ Aimé van Nieuwenhove, July 1915. The ruins of his house are on the right of the photograph (Imperial War Museum)
Ypres. In the shadow of the new Cathedral the remnants of statuary from the old church still stand in the cloister garden
Ypres, 1915. The altar still stands inside the ruined cathedral (Imperial War Museum)
April 1915. The bombarded cathedral (Imperial War Museum)
Seventy years on, Ralph Langley at the grave of his brother Charlie, Lovencourt Military Cemetery France
Ralph Langley: ‘I joined up when I was seventeen. Everyone thought we were great lads, but when my brother was killed a few months later, my Mother fetched me out…’
2nd Lieutenant Jock Macleod on the eve of leaving for France
‘Being Orderly Corporal I was carrying dispatches with these four armed men round me. One old girl shouted out, “Yon little lad’s off to prison!’” Corporal A. Wilson, 1/5th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment
Ed’s brother, Sergeant Harry Hall, who served with the Canadians at Ypres
Lance-Corporal Ed Hall who served as a British stretcher bearer at Neuve Chapelle
Norman Tennant. Off to battle, 1915
Norman Tennant. On the old battlefront seventy years on
Douglas Pankhurst RFA. ‘My Father said, “I know you’ll do your duty, but don’t forget Mother will be worrying about You”. So I had to do my duty, if only for him – and my Mother’
2nd Lieutenant Bryden McKinnell, Liverpool Scottish, killed at Bellewaerde Ridge, 16 June 1915
The troop train disaster. ‘We were eight to a compartment and the doors locked. Suddenly there was a terrific crash. The carriage rose up and sank down again listing dangerously. The cries and screams and hiss of steam escaping was deafening.’ Private A. Thomson, l/7th Royal Scots
The troop train disaster. ‘The shrieks and moans of the men as they were being slowly roasted to death was terrible to hear.’ Sergeant J. Combe, l/7th Royal Scots
The troop train disaster. It was afternoon before we’d rescued everyone we could. Fifty-seven of us answered our names out of nearly five hundred who left Larbert that morning.’ Private A. Thomson, l/7th Royal Scots
The troop train crashed into a local train; two express crashed into them both minutes later the London express crashed into them both
The plaque on the memorial to the Royal Scots on their mass grave (W. Paterson)
Private Duff’s 25-year-old widow was photographed with her two children a month after the disaster. The photographer framed the sitters carefully, leaving a gap in which to insert the photograph of the dead father of the family
Frank Quiller, one of the few men of the signal section who survived badly wounded
Gallipoli. The landing from the River Clyde at V Beach. Painting by Charles Dixon RI
‘Lighters blocked with dead and dying… fire immediately concentrates any attempt to land.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Williams GHQ (Imperial War Museum)
Gallipoli. The Anzac HO dug-outs beneath Plugges Plateau (Imperial War Museum)
‘Dick got a bullet through his head and fell at our feet. We think an enemy sniper must have been just out in front. I made sure I got that sniper later on.’ Corporal G. Gilbert, A. Squadron, 13 Australian Light Horse (Imperial War Museum)
Walking wounded at Gully Beach. ‘The MO said to the orderly, “This man’s dressing seems to be OK, so if he thinks he can hop, he can do so.’” Private William Begbie, 7th Battalion Royal Scots (Imperial War Museum)
The ruins of Hooge Chateau in the early stages of the Second Battle of Ypres (Imperial War Museum)
Seventy years on. The modest modern chateau rebuilt on the margin of the mine crater, scene of bitter fighting, now landscaped as a sunken lawn and lake
The flammenwerfer. German experiment with liquid fire which later decimated the troops at Hooge (Imperial War Museum)
A ration dump in Sanctuary Wood. The notice board reads, ‘No road by daylight’ (Imperial War Museum)
Part of the line in Sanctuary Wood, known as the appendix, where it jutted towards the German line (Imperial War Museum)
Alex Rule of U Company, 4th Gordon Highlanders, lay wounded in a dug-out much like this one after the fight for the crater at Hooge
Captain Agius’s reconnaissance report and sketch of the infamous ‘Duck’s Bill’ prior to the subsidiary attack on 25 September
Loos. British bombardment on the German line beyond the newly dug assembly trenches. The long lines of glistening white chalk gave the enemy ample warning of the attack (Imperial War Museum)
The Loos battlefield from the British front line (Imperial War Museum)
Loos. Looking across from the British line the most prominent landmark on the front was the pithead at Loos. The troops nicknamed it Tower Bridge (seen here before the battle with the Loos Crassier in front and the village below) (Imperial War Museum)
Loos. During the battle. ‘Tower Bridge had caught it badly: loose iron girders creaked and clanked above the heads of the Northumberland Fusiliers shivering in a field not far away’ (Imperial War Museum)
Carnage on the Loos road. ‘I can’t describe it! It was just a mass of holes, and debris and dead men and horses lying everywhere. Our transport had been shelled – knocked out!’ Harry Fellowes, 12th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (Imperial War Museum)
An appeal to laggards