It was the second Christmas for the 18th Battalion in the front lines. The first Christmas in 1915 found the Battalion blooded in its first actions in Belgium and suffered 26 deaths from the Battalion’s arrival on the Continent in mid-September 1915 until the end of December. The feelings on isolation from family and friends must have been accentuated by the fact that the Battalion served in the line on that day of Christian celebration. The British subjects and Canadians that made up the “originals” of the Battalion were demonstrably Christian in their believes and this religious expression was a dominant influence in their lives
As the War Diary states as it maintained its positions at Vierstraat: “Battn as yesterday – Everything very quiet tonight and all day. Very little firing but no liberties where taken by either side.” A very Christian Christmas for the first Christmas experienced on the Western Front.
A year passed. The 18th Battalion’s War Diary is not particularly illuminating as to its experiences during that day 100 years ago – It had the duty along with the 20th and 21s Battalions. It was engaged in action in the front lines in the Calonne Sector in France: “Position same. LIEUT. P.G. MIGHT admitted to hospital. Enemy seems to have much water in his trenches. Patrol reports all quiet.”
This terse entry reflects the third-party observatory role of the War Diary but imparts none of the emotions or ethos that the men of the 18th must have felt after loosing 284 members of the Battalion from January 1916 until November[i], with a significant proportion of those losses (111 men) taking place in September of that year. The Battalion was changing. The original draft from October to March 1914 were being replaced through “wastage” as they fell in battle or became wounded. Or the vagaries of cold and dampness made men prematurely old and unfit for combat. Or the percussive feel of the shelling and the horror of death and maiming in the trenches in battle led to the mental collapse of a man.
The geographic make-up of the Battalion was shifting as new members from reinforcing battalions came from places other than south-western Ontario. The homogeneity of the men from Windsor, Chatham, St. Thomas, London, Woodstock, Bruce and Waterloo counties began to fracture, just as their bodies and minds were fractured by the experiences of the war. New men replaced the “Originals” sharing the youth and hope of that generation.
Looking further afield to get a better sense of that Christmas 100 years ago, the sister Battalions of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade all shared varying experiences during that day.
The 19th Battalion was off the line in Brigade Reserve from December 22 to 27 and simply records their experience for those 5 days as: “Bathing and Clothing Parades. Battalion, Company & platoon Drill. Musketry practice at Brigade range. On the 26th the Divisional Commander passed through the Battalion area. On the 27th the Battalion was inspected by Brigadier General R. RENNIE M.V.O. D.S.O. Cmdg. 4th Cdn. Inf. Bde.”[ii]
The 20th Battalions experience was in the line with the 18th Battalion and recorded the weather and enemy activity on that day. For some reason, things were not so quiet on that Battalion’s front: Cloudy during day, showery throughout the night + towards midnight the enemy opened up a heavy artillery and trench mortar bombardment of our right Brigade front to which our artillery and T.M.’s replied vigorously. Casualties – Nil.”[iii]
For the 21st Battalion the 25th was an active one as it was engaged in the front line: “Our Artillery very active firing at working Party at M.21.C.89 and at M.20.a.85.20. 14 Stokes shells were fired into enemy line between M.15.b.6.1 and M.15.B.8.4. Enemy retaliates by firing 35 H.E.’s[iv] at points between trenches 212 and 214. Our observers report seeing large bodies of troops behind enemy Front Line, these were dispersed by our artillery.”[v]
The war was now experiencing its third Christmas. There was no “Christmas Truce” as that experienced by the British troops in Ypres in 1914 and the 1916 brought an even more subdued outlook to Christmas than in 1915. The 20th Battalion relates on Christmas Day 1915 that day was: “…Rest Day. No fatigues or work parties. Celebrated in a very quiet manner with plenty of Xmas puddings.” The 21st Battalion shares that, though they buried “3 of their best men” on that day, Christmas was made more bearable by the “…kindness of our friends at home has helped to make our Xmas as merry as possible.”
One can see the way the tone of the war diaries reflects the experiences of the men of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade. There is no mention of religious services and the activity on the front is not at all quiet, as related by the 18th Battalion. The war is moving inexorably on, forever forward consuming men and material at a rate that will eventually deplete the ready recruits from Canada and require the imposition of conscription. The diarists make no sentimental mention or remembrance of home but relate, as tersely as possible, the minimal information required to maintain the diary.
Perhaps it is good not to be able to conceive and realize the soldiers’ experiences on this day 100 years ago? They fought and sacrificed so we would not have to.
[i] With a further three soldiers that perished during December 1916.
[iv] High explosive shells.