I. A Quiet Christmas in 1915

18th Battalion Association[i]
Windsor and Detroit Branch
*MEMORIES[ii]*

How good in your memory? Do you remember the first Christmas Day (1915) we spent in Flanders?

Two of our Companies were in M. & N. front line trenches while the other two companies were in reserve at Ridgewood and Vierstraat, which were about a half mile apart. Both places were about a mile from the front line.

On Christmas morning, Jimmy Cork[iii] and I[iv] got up early as planned, dressed and left the dug-out quietly. When we got outside we found the day to be bright and clear but a little on the chilly side. We then went for a walk along the Ridgewood road and when we came to the Dickiebush swamp, we noticed it was covered by a low lying fog which gave it a white appearance and made it look larger than it was. We walked to the junction of Dickiebush[v] but did not cross as there was an M.P.[vi] on duty there directing traffic.

When we returned to Ridgewood, old Davy Campbell[vii] and Bert Silk[viii], the Company[ix] cooks, were just starting breakfast. We wished them both a Merry Christmas, Corkie then suggested to old Davy that the nicest Christmas present he cold give the troops was to show some improvement in his cooking. Davy told him where to go. After breakfast, most of us shaved and got cleaned up. We then visited around the camp. There was no place else to go.

We were later told that early that morning, our Chaplain, Capt. Carlisle[x], and his batman[xi] had gone into the Front Line to hold a Communion Service for the officers and men who wished to attend. It was quite a setting for less than a hundred yards of No Man’s Land separated us from a powerful enemy who knew he was also facing a powerful foe. On this day, however, both sides were honouring an unofficial cease fire[xii] as the Germans, like ourselves, and the rest of the Christian world, were celebrating the birth of an infant in a stable at Bethlehem.

After supper, some of us decided to go over to the small “Y” at Vierstraat. We went over by the path behind the woods which was quite muddy. We bought some chocolate, cookies, cigarettes, and other things we needed and then visited with some of the fellows who were in the other Company. Someone then suggested we should go over and see Jack Richardson[xiii] who was then acting as C.S.M.. Jack was in our platoon from the beginning so we all knew him well. He was glad to see us. Jack made some tea and we opened up some of the shortbread cookies we had just bought and sat gabbing until after midnight. We then decided to return by the La Brasserie. This road was usually under fire but the unofficial cease fire was still being observed. As we passed the La Brasserie, there were two ambulances taking out the sick and the wounded. When we got back to the dug-out, there was more gabbing, until someone suggested we should turn it in and snuffed out the candle. As I lay in the darkness, I knew that some of the others were wondering as I was how many more Christmas days, we would spend away from home. It was a long, long day.

 

The Story

An unidentified story-teller relates the events he experienced during Christmas Day. The 18th Battalion War Diary for Christmas Day details with excessive brevity that day’s experience as: “Battn as yesterday – Everything very quiet tonight and all day. Very little firing but no liberties where taken by either side.” “A” and “C” Companies were assigned to the Front-Line trenches on December 22, 1915 and “B” and “D” Companies are in reserve. From the description of area, the author and Private Cork walked it appears that the Battalion companies that were in the line at trenches facing Bois Quarante just south-west of St. Elois. The reserve companies were located close to Ridgewood (see map).

It is interesting to note that they could go for a walk. Being in reserve may have allowed soldier’s more leeway in personal activities but they were, effectively, on duty in a combat area. They author makes no mention of asking permission of an officer or his sergeant to go for this walk. Their avoidance of the military policeman stationed at some cross-roads near Dikkebus.

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Cooking behind the lines (8th Infantry Battalion). May, 1916. MIKAN no. 3395456. LAC.

Their walk must have started early as, on their return to Ridgewood, the cooks, Privates Campbell, and Silk are just starting breakfast. They engage these men in good-natured banter, complain, as age-old as armies have existed, about the quality of their food. With that they visit about the camp as there is no where else to go.

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Map of the area of interest in the memory. Note Dickebusch Ridgewood, Viertraat, and the dotted line indicated the front line. The Battalion may have been in the line across from the Bois Quarante.

A very interesting event is related about the Communion Service given by Captain Carlisle in the front-lines. There is not very much in the way of detail as to how the service was conducted but one may imagine a chaplain congregating troops together, perhaps several platoons at a time in one geographic space in the trenches. It would be hard to imagine an outdoor service as any troop concentrations would be a tempting target for German artillery, but this cannot be discounted as the activities of the soldiers in the reserve area indicates a low level of diligence towards being on guard for any aggressive German action. A later “memory” relates this event but elucidated no more detail leaving one to wonder just how he conducted the service. Approximately 400 men were in the line at the time and no estimate is given to the number that attended this service. It certainly shows the importance of religious observance for the soldiers of the 18th and perhaps it was the nature of this act that encouraged the Germans not to take advantage of the situation.

The story ends with a description of the soldiers taking advantage of the canteen at the Y.M.C.A. and, perhaps due to this being the first Christmas away from home as soldiers, they linger and talk late into the night until it is decided that it is time to go to bed.

 

Discussion

This is a wonderful story that gives one some idea of the loneliness of soldiering.

The men are restless. They have been in the line since their first exposure to combat in the latter part of September 1915. During that time the Battalion has had its first soldier and officer killed. Nineteen comrades perished from September to the end of November. Not proportionately high compared to the size of the Battalion of 1,000 soldiers, but still reminders of the cost and the potential fate to some of the men. The men in reserve are bored and decide to take a walk, probably at some risk if they are caught as it appears they have not permission. The early hour of there walk and their avoidance of the M.P. at the crossroads indicate that this walk may not have been sanctioned by higher authority.

Later, they return, tease their cooks, and then proceed to go to the “Y” for some food. Perhaps some fo the packages from Canada had not arrived for these men or they had no family to send these treats. Mostly, it feels that they are board and looking for something to do. Upon return to the camp they talk late into the night until drowsiness overtakes them, and they decide to finally get some sleep.

This story, however, is at odds with the experience of some of the front-line troops. Sergeant Fred Young relates a story in some detail the adventures of Private Charles H. Dickson[xiv]. He foolishly exposes himself on top of the parapet of the trench and for his foolishness is shot by a German sniper. This story does not relate the time of this occurrence. The story is related with no reference to time so one does not know when it happened, but the bullet wound ended the military service of Private Dickson and was not completely removed until 15-years later.

The War Diary is not much value to the reader. It is perfunctory with it short entries leaving it to these documents to fill in some of the experiences of the soldier of the 18th Battalion on this important day in their history.

 

Conclusion

This is not the first story discovered relating the Battalion’s first Christmas in the field. Because of this it is evident that this experience was a memorable and indelible moment in time for many of the men of the Battalion. They were a long way from home, especially the Canadians. The British born were temptingly close to home but their service and low expectation of leave so early in their service at the front precluded any man of the Battalion a chance to enjoy a Christmas more in keeping with a peace-time experience. They were in the cold of Flanders at some risk to their lives. And for some it was worse that that: they were bored. This boredom was further exacerbated by a lack of opportunity to find activities that would occupy them and help them pass the time as they waited their next assignment.

In addition, there would have been some policy change since the first Christmas of the war in 1914. The “truce” that existed between the soldiers of that year was officially discouraged by the High Command and units were expected to act accordingly and not to repeat the incidents between British and German units a year prior.

The “memory” introduces several soldiers giving context to their service that would have lain undiscovered if not for the memories of the men of the “Fighting 18th”.

[i] The blog has come into the possession of an exciting and valuable series of documents care of Dan Moat, a member of the 18th Battalion Facebook Group. His Great Grand-Father, Lance-Corporal Charles Henry Rogers, reg. no. 123682 was an active member in the 18th Battalion Association and the Royal Canadian Legion. With is interest in the post-war Association a series of “MEMORIES” in the form of one-page stories relate many of the Battalion’s experiences from the “other ranks” soldiers’ point-of-view.

It appears that the documents were written in the early 1970s, a full 50-years after the end of The Great War and are a valuable social history of soldiers’ experiences as told in their own words about the events that happened a half-century ago to them, and now a full century for us.

[ii] The transcription and research of these “memories” is an attempt to connect and identify the people mentioned in the stories with some accuracy. This is, in no way, a definitive identification of the people in the stories but there is high confidence that these are the men mentioned in the “memories”. In some cases, the story may identify people, places, dates, times, and details inaccurately and, where possible, these details are noted. Given that the men relating these memories would be in there late 70s, at the minimum, their errors can be forgiven. The stories related stand on their own as a social history of the experiences of the men of the 18th Battalion.

[iii] Private James William Cork, reg. no. 54310. Previously noted in the memory of Private Atkinsons head injury.

[iv] The identity of the author is unknown.

[v] Anglicized spelling of the Flemish place-name Dikkebus. Also spelled “Dickenbusch” and other iterations.

[vi] Military Police.

[vii] Private Anthony Campbell, reg. no. 53553. Listed occupation as a cook on attestation form and was the relative “old” age of 36-years when he enlisted.

[viii] Private Henry Herbert Silk, reg. no. 53848.

[ix] This would be “D” Company.

[x] Captain Arthur Carlisle.

[xi] Batman, or also known as a “soldier’s servant” was a non-commissioned soldier assigned to an officer as a personal aid/valet.

[xii] See blog entry “Stuff of Legend: The Wounding of Private Dickson on Christmas Day 1915” for more information.

[xiii] Sergeant, later Major, John James Richardson, reg. no. 53882. He was promoted to Company Sergeant Major on December 23, 1915.

[xiv] Private Charles H. Dickson, reg. no. 53098.

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