from ‘the War Illustrated' 23nd December, 1917

My Three War Christmases
In Flanders, Denmark, and Old England

by Basil Clarke


Memory Pictures by Our War Correspondent

Christmas in the trenches - illustrations from 'the War Illustrated'


Flanders with moonlight pouring over the quiet countryside, and absolute stillness ! It was ten minutes to the midnight hour that was to usher in the first War Christmas. I was walking along 1914 the Nieuport Road with a friend. His mood matched mine, and we strode along in silence. There was a nip of frost in the air. It had been enough just to dry the surface of the road. A heavy gun had passed along and the even ridges left behind by its wide tractor wheels were hardening under foot. The moon lighted to an inky blackness the still waters of the canal on our left. Tall trees, slightly tilted by years of westerly winds, fringed the bank at intervals, their over-hanging branches adding blackness to the water's shadows. Their trunks to a height of several feet were stripped of bark by the thousands of hungry mules that had toiled along that busy road, and gleamed in the moonlight.

"I suppose if you were at home," said my friend, "you would be playing Santa Claus ?"

"No doubt," I answered, and my mind harked back to home and Christmas memory awoke and meandered pleasantly among the jolly Christmases I had spent in days before war had come along to sow red hate in place of goodwill towards men.

Surely the Germans would not keep it up through Christmas ? Surely they would not keep it op through Christmas Day ?

Christmas Bells on the Yser

On the stillness of the night there floated over the moonlit beet-fields the silvery notes of distant bells, now clear and near, now distant and dim, as though the sky, with mysterious hands, bandied their elfin music from side to side. Yes, far off the bells of Dunkirk Cathedral, chiming in beautiful harmonies, were playing the "Hymn of Jean Bart" — Dunkirk's immortal song to a hero.

Then the solemn tolling of the bell. Midnight.

"Happy Christmas to yon and yours," said my friend.

"And to you and yours," I replied.

"And a quiet one to both of us," he added significantly, "and to our lads yonder." He nodded towards the trenches. The bell finished tolling. Not a sound. It seemed as though Christmas was to be Christ's Day, after all.

Then boom ! boom ! boom—m—m—m ! The still air was split with the sound. The earth shook. The black waters of the canal split like a shivered glass into a million tiny dancing facets. The sky danced, with lights — the white flashes of field-guns, the pink flashes of howitzers, the red- yellow belch of exploding shell. Right through the night it lasted. Then came day — Christmas Day, one unending day of strife. Such was Christ's Mass that year in Flanders.


Her name was Flora or Dora or Stella or Bella, and she was the horriblest, nastiest, beastliest little boat I ever sailed in. First we were kept in dock for thirty-six hours after "sailing day," and not allowed to leave the ship. Then, after hauling out of the dock, she lay tumbling off the coast for twenty-four hours waiting for her sailing signal before she turned her bosom to the sea and shaped "a course round the North Sea mine-field and hit the port of Copenhagen.

What a voyage ! They say we were only seven days on board. We rolled, then we pitched, then we pitched and rolled, then we rolled and pitched. The wind blew, and the rain fell. Once we passed within twenty feet of a great red mine rolling sleepily in the angry seas. Our Dutch skipper nearly "threw a fit" on the bridge — as a Tyneside steward expressed it — in dodging his craft to the starboard of it. He cursed the sea and the wind and the war and his luck in life. The gale had caused that mine to drift from its charted ground, and he had all but run into it.

Danish Hospitality

Bad as the sea was, bad as the boat was, bad as the world seemed, Christmas was in the air. Passengers began to emerge from their cabins. The saloon piano began to tinkle. The weather picked up one night and the moon shone. A party of us younger folk dragged out the saloon piano to the deck. First they sang Danish songs. Then I played while they danced on the tarpaulin covers of the after hatch ; then I danced while someone else played. We danced and sang till 3 a.m., when the moon sank into the sea.

Among themselves that night those delightful Danes hatched a little conspiracy. It reached me in my hotel in Copenhagen next day in the form of an invitation from some half-dozen of them to spend the following day in their company. They had arranged a little Christmas-party together, men and girls, and made me their guest. The day after Christmas, 1915, I began my round of investigations in Scandinavia as to how Germany was getting food and supplies through neutral countries. But that is another story.

My Christmas Day was the one bright spot in .that journey.


Two good ideas struck me at once. The first was to see and to write just how a wounded soldier is sent home from the front-line trenches. The second was to have a War Christmas at home. And with strategic ingenuity, prompted thus by desire, I contrived to make one purpose helpful and fulfill the other. I would see a wounded soldier from trench to home, and by so doing arrive home myself for Christmas. Bound for "Blighty"

I bade good-bye to colleagues in the War Correspondents' Camp, hitched on my shrapnel helmet and gas-mask, and made my way to the front-line trenches. It was at a grim spot on the Ancre tributary of the Somme, called Beaumont-Hamel. Little more than a month earlier this battered heap of stones and bricks and homesteads had been the scene of one of the most desperate fights in all the Somme battles. Now, the lines lay beyond it, just over the crest of a hill.

I waited by the stretcher-bearers' dug-out in the front-line trench. Fritz was sending over shrapnel and "heavy stuff," which whined piteously through the air, ' while occasionally a sniper's rifle brought a new note into the rumble of sounds.

"Stretcher-bearers ! " The call came from along the trench, away to the right. Off went the boys from the dug-out, as I trailed behind as best I could over the mud and the shell-holes. A sniper's bullet had caught one poor fellow in the thigh. He had been crossing an open space where no trench existed. The bearers, with great labour — and much danger to themselves — carried him down to the regimental Aid-post, in a dug-out in the village below. And from that point began the joint journey home of Private J. C. H. Oldham, who was wounded and pining for "Blighty," and of myself, war correspondent, anxious to fulfill an interesting mission which would, land me home for Christmas.

I forget what the date was, but at the outset it promised to give me ample time to achieve my personal purpose. But at the aid-post Private Oldham was kept some two hours before passing on to the advanced dressing-station. At the A-D-S. he was kept about four hours before going on to the main dressing-station. And at the M.D.S. he spent, if I remember rightly, a day and a half before going on to the casualty clearing-station. His stay there was four and a half days. I saw the prospect of reaching "Blighty" by Christmas becoming poorer and poorer.

Joyous Home-Coming

He got away at last, and I with him. With five hundred wounded, weary souls I made the journey from the battle zone to the coast. We stopped in sidings and restarted, stopped again and again, and did not land till the small hours of the following morning. Again Oldham was whisked off on a stretcher — this time to a base hospital. How long would they keep him ? I spent some days with nothing better to do than hunt round the shops of Boulogne, choosing little presents that should be in keeping with the season, if only I could arrive home in time. Day followed day without seeing Private Oldham ready for transport. I must give up the Christmas idea.

One dull December morning out came his stretcher. Off he was driven to a ship at the quay, I in the same motor-ambulance. I saw him placed in a hospital ship, painted a bright apple-green ; I saw him landed at a southern English port in the grey of a drizzly morning, and I saw him set quietly down on the snow-white bed of a London hospital — with tears in his eyes born of weakness and sheer joy at being back in "Blighty."

I too, had my own joy of home-coming. Alice was radiant ; the little fellows swarmed around me, an avalanche of excited humanity. And they hung up their stockings that night, and Santa Claus put in them unusual little presents, some of them marked " Boulogne-sur-Mer."

That was my Christmas of 1916, a great Christmas, something like an old-time Christmas.

And 1917 ? What sort of a Christmas will that bring ? Well, here's to a merry one for us all, anyway.


Christmas in the trenches - illustrations from 'the War Illustrated'


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