R: “As Christmas time approaches…”: Memories of Christmas 1915

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

As Christmas time approaches, do you ever think of the first Christmas Day we spend in Flanders? Two of our Companies were in the front line, the M & N trenches, while the other two companies were in reserve at Ridgewood and Veerstraat[iii] [sic] which were about a half mile apart. Both places where less than a mile from the front line.

On Christmas Day, Jimmie Cork[iv] and I got up early as planned, dressed, and left the Dugout quietly. When we got outside, we found the day to be bright and clear, with very little wind. It was still chilly. We both notice there was no shelling and very little rifle fire which was unusual. We then started walking along the Ridgewood road, and when we came to Dickebush[v] [sic] swamp, we noticed it was covered by a low lying fog which gave it a white appearance and made it look much larger than it was. We walked to the junction of Dickebush [sic], but did not cross, as there was an M.P.[vi] on duty directing traffic. We then started back and noticed that some of the camp were starting to come to life. When we got back to Ridgewood, old Davy Campbell[vii] and Bert Silk[viii], the Company cooks, were just starting breakfast. We wished them a Merry Christmas, and Davy wanted to know if we had been out all night.

After breakfast, most of us washed and shaved and got cleaned up. We visited around the camp as there was no place else to go. After dinner, we played an awful lot of cribbage, and just before dusk, we heard the members of the British Battery, whose gun emplacements were on our left, singing Christmas Carols. It was the only Christmas music we heard. After supper, a group of us went over to the “Y” at Veerstraat [sic], where we bought some chocolate, cigarettes, cookies, and other things we needed. We then talked with some of the fellows who we knew that were in the other Company. About nine o’clock we decided to go over and visit Jack Richardson[ix], who was then acting as C.S.M. Jack was a member of our Platoon from the beginning. He was glad to see us and made some tea. We then opened some of the cookies we had just bought, and sat gabbing for a while.

Near midnight, some one suggested we should return, so we decided to go back by the La Brasserie. This road was usually under fire (Sergt. Spooner[x] was killed there) but tonight both sides were honouring an unofficial cease-fire.

As we passed the La Brasserie, there were three ambulances taking out the sick and wounded. When we got back to the dugout there was some more gabbing until someone snuffed out the candle.

As I lay in the darkness, I knew that some of the others were wondering, as I, how many more Christmas Days we would spend away from home.

It was a long, long, day and very dull.

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Photograph of Dikkebus Lake, August 2018. Source: pullxin via deskogram.org.

The Story

The unidentified author relates in the first-person his experiences during December 25, 1915, the first Christmas the 18th Battalion experienced overseas. He gets up with Private Cork and goes for a walk very early in the morning, before the cooks even get up, and then returns to the Battalion reserve area for breakfast. Then they go to the Y.M.C.A. facility at Vierstraat for some food purchased. They return to camp and visit about, play some cribbage and visit the Company Sergeant Major. Very late into the night they return to their dugout, talk some more and then go to sleep as the author ruminates as to how many Christmas Days will the Battalion experience from home.

Discussion

The perspective of the story is valuable because it relates to the experiences of the Battalion Companies that were in reserve and the activities of two of the soldiers while serving in this capacity.

A battalion was made up of four companies and other sections, such as headquarters, transport, machine gun. The companies were the fighting component of the battalion and the sections were mostly administrative and services required for the effective mobilization and service of a battalion. Some sections, like the machine gun section, were combat oriented. The sharp end of the battalion were the soldiers that comprised its companies.

At this stage in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces tactics two companies would serve in the front-line and two would be in reserve. In some cases there was a reserve line of trenches and redoubts close behind the front-line and in other cases, such as this, the reserve companies were farther back and lived under protective cover (dugouts) while not being adjacent to any trench works and had some independence of action while in reserve duty as this story depicts soldiers going for walks and to the Y.M.C.A for the purchase of foodstuffs.

As has been related in other “memories” two companies were on duty in the front-line, and two were in reserve. This story offers the experiences of the author, and Private James William Cork as they experience their first Christmas at the front. They walk from their dugout in the Ridgewood area, or what is now known as the Ridge Wood Military Cemetery. It appears that the adoption of this name is a wholly English appellation and is independent of any attempt to Anglicize a local Belgian place name (such as Dickenbusch for Dikkebus). They walk some distance and to the east, their right-side, they can see the expanse of the Dikkebus Lake. It is approximately 1 kilometer long by 600 metres wide and is a significant geographical feature. It theses soldiers followed the shortest route from the Ridge Wood area to Dikkebus by following roads they would have hiked approximately 4 kilometers there and 4 back before breakfast, illustrating that they got up very early before the rest of the companies stirred, reveille typically being at 6:00 p.m.

Map of route from Ridgewood to Dickebush

Map of route from “Ridgewood” to “Dickebush”. The blue line indicates the most likely route. The large flat area in the center is Dikkebus Lake.

The soldiers of our story do venture past the cross-roads as a military policeman is directing traffic. This may have been because they did not have permission in the form of passes to be outside a designated area of the reserve area and, if so, they could be subject to charge(s) under military regulations and punishment for being absent without leave. The presence of the MP motivates them to return to the camp and two of the Company cooks are busy preparing for breakfast. The cook’s inquiry into if they had been out all-night hints that the soldiers that went for the walk were involved in unauthorized behaviour as the Battalion Companies were in reserve and could be called on to “stand to” or to move into positions at any time.

With breakfast over “most” of the men visited about the camp and played cribbage and then the caroling from the “British Battery” is heard from their positions. It is the only Christmas heard by the members of the Battalion and is indicative that the Battalion had not organized any special activities to commemorate this holy day. The Battalion priest, Major Carlisle, gave holy communion for the Companies in the front-line but it appears from this “memory” that the reserve Companies were left to their own devices and no effort was made to make this day special in any way. The lament that the carols from the British Battery were, “…the only Christmas music we heard,” indicates the frustration from this private soldier to the higher authority in the Battalion that made no effort for the other ranks. The Battalion had a Band Section and could have put on a concert or other demonstration of music for the soldiers in reserve. This longing speaks to the expectations of these young men to experience some semblance of the Christmas traditions they had shared before their enlistment. Private Cork was 20-years old on Christmas Day and his father was living (at time of his enlistment) in Norwich, England. Perhaps this was the case for the author, that his family was just a short boat ride across the Channel, thereby accentuating his loneliness and longing for hearth and home.

Map of route from Ridgewood to Vierstraat

Map of route from “Ridgewood” to “Veerstraat”. The blue line indicates the fastest route by car in 2018.

After dinner a “group” of 18th Battalion men went to the Y.M.C.A. facilities at Vierstraat (approximately a 2 kilometre walk by road) to purchase food and other comfort items. Perhaps some of the men of the Battalion that had not received parcels from home wanted to treat themselves. They return to camp and meet with their Company Sergeant Major, John James Richardson. He is 25-years old, a little older and wiser, but also, as a C.S.M. he is a senior non-commissioned officer that these men may have looked to for comfort and guidance as the strain of being removed from their loved ones was accentuated by the lack of organized celebratory demonstrations by the Battalion. They sit and talk with a comforting, and ubiquitous, cup of tea.

Late, “near midnight”, the soldiers move off back to their billet and pass and estaminent called “La Brasserie” (The Brewery) by a road that has some risk for them as it can be under fire by German artillery and they lost Sergeant Spooner a month prior on that road. Some ambulances are seen, reminding them of the risks and possible outcomes of their involvement in the conflict.

Once at the dugout the author ends anti-climatically. The soldiers talk a bit, a candle is extinguished and they lie in the darkness wondering’ “…how many more Christmas Days we would have to spend away from home.”

For some of them it would be three more Christmases, 1916, 1917, and 1918[xi], before the men would experience a home Christmas.

Conclusion

The “memory” is bitter-sweet but points to several behaviour that may have presented themselves that indicate a touch of rebellion for the author and Private Cork. It is possible that they were effectively absent without leave very early that Christmas morning in 1915 in Flanders. They may have risen very early in the morning for their walk. Sunrise at this latitude for December appears to be at 9:50 am with 8 hours of daylight (sunset at 5:46 p.m. local time). The timing of the walk to Dikkebus is such that they can see the fog over the lake but on their return to the camp the camp cooks are starting to get ready to cook breakfast. It is their avoidance of the military policeman and the questioning by the cooks about if they were out all night that lends credence to this theory. The cooks know that if the author and Cork were not in their dugout while not in active duty they were possible A.W.L.

We should not forget the age of the soldiers. For the Canadian born men this was their first trip out of Canada and they were far from home, and for the British born men they were tantalizingly close to home and its comforts and familiarity. The Battalion was also not whole. Two companies were at the front and two companies were in reserve, and unlike Christmas Day 1914 were the London Chapter of the Women’s Canadian Club hosted a dinner for the entire Battalion, the men were bored and cold in a rear-area with nothing to do but wait to be assigned into the trenches. The Battalion had been in active front-line service since late September with their rotations becoming familiar and deadly to them.

This “memory” shows us that in their boredom soldiers will create their own activities that are outside the bounds of military discipline, in part to relieve that boredom, but also to actively protest through these actions, their frustration for being restricted in their movements and activities. Perhaps the estaminent was “out-of-bounds” while they were in reserve, further adding insult to injury.

[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] Vierstraat.

[iv] Cork, James William:  Service no. 54310.

[v] Dikkebus.

[vi] Military Policeman. They probably were absent from their unit without proper authority. They may have entered a restricted area.

[vii] Campbell, David:  Service no. 53002. This soldier was 39-years old when he enlisted.

[viii] Silk, Henry Hebert:  Service no. 53848.

[ix] Richardson, John James:  Service no. 53882 (Distinguished Service Order).

[x] Spooner, Joseph:  Service no. 53878. He was killed on November 14, 1915.

[xi] This blog post also relates details of the first Christmas Dinner at London, Ontario in 1914.

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