from 'the War Illustrated', 28th December, 1918
'My Four War Christmases'
By Hamilton Fyfe
who, according to Lord Northcliffe, saw more of the war than any other living man


a Britsh Reporter on Foreign Fronts

eat, drink and be merry - ministering angels of mercy


There was a woman in Warsaw at Christmas-time 1914, whose image comes into my mind whenever I recall that period of the war. She was dressed as a Cossack, and had, I believe, been "adopted" into a Cossack regiment. She would come striding into the hall at the Hotel Bristol, which was crowded at all hours of the day or night, the skirts of her riding-coat swinging to her manly step; her astrakhan "Japach" (the high Cossack head-dress) set jauntily upon her curly hair ; a riding-switch in her hand, and a big pistol in her hip-pocket. Everyone knew her by sight.

For me she was typical of the unnatural, hectic life of Warsaw in those days, when the guns could still be heard in the city, although the fear of capture had for the time being been relieved.

Time and time again during the war I have been struck by the contrast between the filth and discomfort, the death and danger of the front, and the exaggerated luxury, the frenzied searching for excitement and diversion in the rear. The only city which did not display these signs of unbalanced mentality was Paris, which never became feverish, was never disagreeably overcrowded like London, or panicky like Petrograd, or furious for pleasure like Warsaw at Christmas, 1914.

Memories of Warsaw

Which seems to me to show that the French are a reflective people. The threat that life may be cut short at any moment sets men thinking how they can enjoy the little of existence which may be left to them and excepting the French, I suppose most seek enjoyment in eating and drinking, in glitter and noise and display in gambling or in making love. (Have you noticed that these passions never meet in one man ?) This was certainly the effect of the war upon the Russians, and the war population of Warsaw, or that part of it, at all events, which filled the hotels and restaurants and theatres, was mainly Russian. "Let us eat of the best," they said, "and drink champagne, lots of it, for to-morrow we may be dead."

Out in the trenches along the little Rivers Bsura and Ravka death was taking heavy toll. It was desperately cold. Any unfortunate who lay wounded in the open was doomed. Even those who were picked up and taken to a field dressing-station had little enough chance. The Russian hospitals were terribly understaffed. I recollect one in this district at this time where the surgeons worked until they actually could not stand or see for weariness ; then they would lie down in a corner and sleep for a few hours, and then begin again upon the patients who arrived on stretchers in endless pitiful processions.

They were wonderful patients — the Russian peasant soldiers. When they were really bad they could bear pain stoically. As soon as they began to recover they were like children, crying out before they were hurt, wanting to be humoured and petted. They were comically ignorant as to who their Allies were and what the. war was about, but they saw into the heart of things as often the learned cannot do. I asked one "Have you seen any Germans ? "

"Oh, yes, burin," he said ; "we often see them."

"And what do you think of them ?"

"They are just like us, burin, except that they wear grey overcoats and ours are brown. They are made to fight just as we are."

There was the true Christmas spirit in that.

Suspense in Petrograd

After the blood and horror of the dressing-stations, after the bitter frost and the squalor of the trenches, it was a relief to get back into Warsaw. One could better understand the "Let us eat and drink" attitude. One became more attuned to the garishness and the violent music and the popping of champagne corks, and to the Lady Cossack who played so prominent a part in that wild extravaganza.

Christmas in Petrograd the next year was tame by comparison. There was the usual display of Christmas-trees on the big square in front of St. Isaac's Cathedral. The flower shops managed to fill their windows with roses at ruinous prices, and with the plants in pots, of which Russians are so fond, but which never seem to thrive in their overheated rooms. The sweet-shops were crowded as usual, and the church bells rang all day their curious peal beginning with deep notes and passing on to the craziest jangle in the treble, a kind of lunatic joy.

The sleighs dashed about over the frozen surface, and the lights of the Nevski Prospekt glittered warmly in an atmosphere of twenty below zero. But somehow there was a lack of reality about Christmas that year. Things had gone badly for Russia. The Emperor and Empress were being spoken against with a freedom which pointed to developments of a disquieting character. The ascendancy of Rasputin weighed painfully upon all minds. At the opera and the ballet there were the customary rows of bejewelled women and gorgeous officers, but they talked in whispers of scandals and blunders ; they asked despairingly, "How can we go on like this ?"

Under the Censor in Rumania

Not a word, of course, could be sent to England or to France about the turn events were taking. Censorship at each end took care that no hint of the true state of Russia should reach the peoples who were her Allies.

This has been the bitter lot of the war correspondent all through, to see dangers ahead and not be allowed to warn his countrymen. Just about that time I made the eight days' journey to England and returned after staying only a week, for the purpose of telling responsible men that it was useless to look to Russia for further sustained effort. I even hinted at this in an article which I called "Our War." If only I could have made people understand.

In Rumania, where I was at Christmas 1917, we were muzzled again. I tried in the early autumn to warn England. that disaster threatened our latest ally. The Censor, who was also Minister of Education, said in a tone of wounded pride, "I cannot allow that to be said of my country." Two months later the larger part of his country was in enemy hands.

By Christmas the Rumanian Army had been reduced from twenty-three divisions to six. I had seen the tragedy begin and develop and culminate. There was nothing left to do. Jassy, the temporary capital after the fall of Bukarest, was a detestable little place, very dirty, grotesquely dear. I suggested that I should leave. On December 23rd I got a cable saying "Yes." On Christmas Eve, therefore, I left, in a Red Cross train, which agreed to take me to the frontier.

Next morning, Christmas Day, I woke up in the buffet of the frontier station, Ungeni, rather stiff from sleeping on my trunk and thirsting for coffee, which had all been drunk by earlier risers than I. The Red Cross train had dumped me on to the platform about midnight. There was no train in until 8 a.m. It did not actually start until about eleven, and then it was only by hard talking that I got a place aboard it. I was acting as King's Messenger, and I combined with a French officer and a Rumanian, who were also carrying diplomatic letter-bags, to force the stationmaster to allot us a compartment. There we ate our Christmas meal, pooling the contents of our haversacks.

Christmas Queues a Year Ago

Just six days we took to reach Petrograd, a journey which in ordinary times was finished in forty- eight hours. But delays are sometimes useful. At Moghileff, the Tsar's Headquarters, I learned that the Army leaders had decided to support the Revolution, and that plans were made for changing the autocracy into a constitutional monarchy. In Petrograd, half an hour after I arrived, I heard of Rasputin's removal.

Last Christmas I spent in London, on short leave between returning from the United States and going to the British front. What sticks in my memory most persistently from that period is queues. I had seen the approach of hunger from the first. In Warsaw it was only the poor who had difficulty in getting food. In Petrograd a year later scarcity had just become noticeable. In Rumania at Christmas, 1916, everyone was going short, not excepting the Queen and her children, who would have been ashamed to store up supplies as the German Imperial Family meanly did, while their "subjects" were in sore straits. Now, at last, in 1917, England was feeling the pinch. But measures were soon adopted which made the queues unnecessary.

As I look back over the past four and a half years I see how little of the hardships of war people in this country have had to endure. I shall never forget a Rumanian Minister saying to me plaintively, "How lucky you English are to live on an island !"

"And to have a Navy to protect our island," I added. Without that we should have a very different tale to tell.

see also another reporter's war-tim Christmas experiences : A Reporter's Three War Christmases


Back to Index