from ‘the War Budget’, December 16th, 1915
'Christmas in the Trenches'
by Ignatius Phayre

How the Strain of War Relaxes on the Festive Day

 

The bitter conflict rages right up to the sacred eve itself. No Sunday bells but the boom of guns, no truce at night, but terrible toll of young life by the light of ghostly flares. Yet slowly, and by quickening degrees, Christmas steals upon the horrid "No Man's Land" between the warring foes. Lighted candles appear on the Saxon parapet. Little trees, decked in the childish way, reckless wreaths of festive smoke telling of orgies with the parcels from home.

Briton and German exchange loud greetings, caustic enough at first, less brusque as the shots die down, and men show themselves with Christmas confidence. There's talk of a "truce" — of hob-nobbing and hand-shaking, of photos that will show the Hun in khaki cap, and our cockneys in pickelhauben. And later of carols sung together, and strange football matches with a comforter stuffed with straw.

 

No Fraternising This Year

But this year will see no truce, no fraternising or swapping fags and sweets with a foe who cheered the awful crime of the Lusitania and the slaughter of London babies in their beds. At the same time there will be a relaxing, a resolve to keep Christmas as home folks would have their dear ones keep it, in so far as any festivity is possible at all.

In point of comfort the War Office and Headquarters Staff have wrought miracles, comparing this year's conditions with last Christmas, when our lads stood knee deep in freezing slime, and frost-bite disabled many, or sent them to Colonel Bate's famous "home from home" where the slightly wounded, or “knocked out" are nursed back to fitness on quite new military lines.

Tommy spends this Christmas in trenches well drained and floored with boards. His earthy fortress is now lit with electric light and heated with stoves of a new type, designed and made in Birmingham, which is now a vast arsenal of war supplies.

Our Thoughtful War Office

In the heat of summer, when fly-papers were put in all the parcels, our War Office had Christmas in mind. Wool was bespoke on great pastoral stations of Australia and New Zealand. Canadian skins for the "Teddy-bear" coats; American and Argentine hides for stout boots by the million pairs; and Malayan rubber for trench waders — snow and rain will settle in shell-craters, and there are spots which resist the most powerful pumps of our engineers.

The soldier, then, is left little enough to grouse about in the matter of warm clothing; and as for fuel, charcoal is being sent out in tons for the trench braziers, thus reviving an old Sussex industry. Thick woollen vest and drawers, heavy shirt and body-belt, tunic and trousers, Cardigan waistcoat, fur or leather jacket lined with flannel, greatcoat and waterproof cape, stout socks, puttees and boots, winter service cap, fingerless snow gloves and cap comforter, make up quite an Asiatic output of matchless quality and proved worth.

Trench Comfort

I mention these things to ease the mind of loved ones sitting round the home fire after a turkey dinner that may be marred by anxiety over absent members of the family. All that science can suggest in the way of preventive hygiene, ample food and lavish woollens comfort our armies this Christmas. That we spare no money on their equipment is a fact known alike to friend and foe and neutral.

"Government supply," indeed, leaves little beyond mitts and mufflers for Sister Susie's busy fingers, and those innumerable funds and private efforts which Sir Edward Ward has undertaken to co-ordinate so as to prevent overlapping and needless waste. We know that for weeks past the big stores ot our cities have buzzed with "parcel" activities; with the wrapping of comforts of all sorts, from corkscrews to safety razors, and from rat poison to Christmas puddings.

Never were these last so recklessly stirred, heedless alike of economy and the backsliding of Greece, which supplies all the currants of our kitchen table.

The Women's Emergency Corps have been making 1,000 puddings a month. Wives of Commanding Officers have ordered hundreds for each battalion, and there are Government orders on a truly Imperial scale. One firm has a contract on hand for 24,000 plum puddings, and thousands of tons of cake.

Gargantuan Puddings

Whiteley's are mixing monster puddings of 664 lb. each. Ten quarts of eggs are shot into this colossal Christmas comfort, 18 quarts of milk, 80 lbs. of suet, and 100 lbs. of raisins. The mixing will be recorded on the film and shown in 400 cinemas at home and abroad. The rich raw material is put in 8 lb. tins and steamed in huge retorts for five hours. Then the tins are packed in crates and loaded on to lorries at War Office disposal.

So you see Tommy's Christmas pudding is a serious business, involving thousands of pounds in money and the labour of domestic armies. It may well be that the soldier has no great love for Yuletide crackers, having tragic specimens of his own in the trench. Still, crackers do go out in the parcels — gorgeous things in gold and silver, full of sweets and sentimental mottoes, regimental colours, with curios and charms, queer head-dresses, comic masks and artificial flowers.

Tommy loves to "play the kid" on Christmas morning. To read letters from school children, who've worked for him, and have babes about him in French or Flemish billet where he talks the lingo with all the fluency of a year's war.

Britain’s Festive Warriors

There's no mistaking the Christmas atmosphere in the British "sphere of influence," from overseas base to railhead, and thence to all headquarters — those of the C.-in- C. himself, as well as those of army corps, division, and brigade. There falls a lull with something festive in it. Berried holly appears on the staff cars, sounds of music come from ruined barns, and snowball matches are played between orderlies and stretcher bearers of the R.A.M.C., who to-day have "good things" for burden, and handle none but the playfullest "munitions."

To-day, German advances are of the friendly sort — to be ignored or politely refused. Anyone who has spoken with our men in France, or even with the wounded here in home hospitals, will realise Tommy’s downright shrinking from further social contact with a foe who has outraged every law of war and common humanity.

Our lads are especially tender towards the civilians — old men, women and children — who cling with sombre desperation to villages in the war-zone and run the farms of the firing line. In Loos itself, torn with seismic fire that drove the Germans mad, our soldiers found women and babes in cellars under smoking heaps of brick. No; this Christmas will see no Anglo-German armistice; and the "kindly invited" flags hoisted on enemy parapets will this year flutter in vain, or get the bullet of contempt.

Too many of our men have seen their mates gassed—a tragedy that tries the veteran doctor and turns the nurse away from the bedside in helpless tears. "But here's Christmas," says Tommy, and puts all horror away to give himself to gentler thoughts as the frosty moon of the sacred eve glances along wire jungles to silver the dread litter of war.

Mistletoe in its Own Home

"Get a bully beef tin, and put the pudding in it." Here's work for the amateur cook of our advanced line. Hoist the flag en tent or parados, hang out a spray of mistletoe. Why. the famous Bough is in its own home here, and brings 12,000 a year to the peasant farmers of Normandy, who get 7 a ton for the ancient symbol in the British markets.

All Christmas Day the trenches are strangely hushed, clear skies are free from craft that pry and prey, whilst hidden "Archies" cough ominous puffs up at them into the wintry blue. Even the airmen are keeping Christmas. The gunners crouch over a big trench stove, swapping yarns behind the sandbags, and looking forward with quenchless hope to a brighter day. "Now, this time next Christmas!“

"They're thinking of us to-day," says the sentimental soldier with homeward heart and mind full of wonder over his changed life. Last year he was haply in the shop, like Sergeant Belcher, V.C., or in a mine, like young Dolby Fuller, who entered a den of lions at Fishguard when at home on leave. "I thought 't would be good for recruiting. "Here are the Y.M.C.A." Snap-shots from Home," amateur photos of mother, and wife, sister, and sweetheart and babe. Old familiar scenes, domestic pets and posed "interiors" that hit the hushed trench harder than any hostile shell. It is etiquette to ignore the broken voice to-day, and too obvious tears in stern warrior eyes. "That's a picture o' my youngest, an' he's sent a fluffy cat I'm to stroke ev'ry night for good luck." The whole trench strokes the furry mascot.

 

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