It’s politically incorrect to say Happy Holidays these days. We must all say Merry Christmas. No word on the acceptability of Treasons Greetings so I’ll play it safe and stick to Christmas. Religious freedom – it’s a wonderful thing. Just like freedom from religion.
Part of making America great again is that we don’t have to worry about other people’s feelings and just as in ye olden days it’s OK to enjoy Christmas and blithely disrespect others. Once back in the day we see no spurious war on Christmas and life was so much better, easier and uncomplicated. No needless worrying about the feelings and sensibilities of others.
And another good thing – with the season about to be over we won’t have to be waterboarded by compulsory Christmas musak every time we walk into a store.
In terms of freedom, Stephen Colbert expressed it best at the White House Correspondents dinner April 2006.
I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be it Hindu, Jewish or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.
A hundred years ago the poet Edward Thomas was in military camp in Kent. He was old enough to avoid service but chose to enlist partly because of the influence of his friend Robert Frost who had sent him an advance copy of “The Road Not Taken” with its theme of choices and indecision. In response to that poem Thomas wrote:
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
He also needed a steady income. He had joined in the Artists’Rifles in 1915 and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery in November 1916. He volunteered for active service and in December 1916 was awaiting embarkation for France.
Unable to get leave to spend Christmas with his family he included this gift wish list in a letter to his wife Helen:
If you have anybody wanting to give me anything I need the following things: –
An oilskin overcoat
A “lifeguard” periscope
A pocket sextant
Thomas had written Lights Out in the autumn of that year. As with so many of his poems the war looms as something unspoken – a sinister metaphorical background. By late 1916 Thomas and everyone knew that the life expectancy for a junior officer was short. It was quite rational to have thoughts of impending death. His wife Helen feared people would think the poem a suicide note. It is certainly has a dark and ominous tone of foreboding. Reading it now, I wonder whether Frost had his friend Edward Thomas’s poem in mind when he wrote Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.
Wilfred Owen also embarked for France that Christmas 1916. On 29 December, he shipped out to France and spent almost four months with his regiment moving in and out of the front line. After only a few days in the front line, Owen wrote to his mother, “I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it.”
Isaac Rosenberg was already in France with the King’s Own Royal Lancaster regiment. His remarkable poem Break of Day In the Trenches had been published in December. Critic Paul Fussell considered it the finest poem of the war.
Writing poetry got Rosenberg into trouble in the army. But he believed it mattered especially at a time of violence and destruction. As he struggled to finish Break of day in the Trenches he wrote in a letter to Edward Marsh: “If poetry at this time is of no use it certainly won’t be at any other.”
Unlike Thomas, Owen and Rosenberg Edmund Blunden survived the war. He saw active service with the Royal Sussex Regiment at Festubert, Cuinchy and Givenchy, and later in 1916 year he was at the Somme, the Ancre valley, and Thiepval. In November he was awarded the Military Cross for his ‘conspicuous gallantry in action’ when he and a runner completed a reconnaissance mission, an almost suicidal action under constant shelling. He saw further action in Flanders and at the battle of Paschendaele.
In December 1916 his battalion had just moved from France to the Ypres salient. In his 1928 memoir Undertones of War of he described this as a quiet sector at that time. As always he found hope and solace in the natural world even when surrounded by the despair and futility of the war. And characteristically, he also found humor.
Now Winter, throwing aside his sleep and drowse, came out fierce and determined: first there was a heavy snow,then the blue sky of hard frost. To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe to celebrate Christmas. It was a place that retained its loneliness though hundreds were there: it had the suggestion of Teniers. Harrison's Christmas was appreciated by his followers perhaps more than by himself. He held a Church Parade and, while officiating, reading a Lesson or so, was interrupted by the band, which somehow mistook its cue. The Colonel is thought to have said:"Hold your b....y noise" on this contretemps, which did not damp the ardour of the congregation, especially the back part of the room, as they thundered out "While Shepherds Watched." After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas feast. At each hut he was required to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drink- ing some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and "in a mug." He got round, but it was almost as much as intrepidity could accomplish. - Edmund Blunden. Undertones of WaR
Vera Brittain was in Malta serving as a nurse with the V.A.D. Christmas 1916 meant the first anniversary of the death of her fiance Roland Leighton, killed at age 20 by a sniper, four months after she had accepted his marriage proposal.
Her poem of enduring grief Perhaps is dedicated to his memory. It imagines a time when Christmas music might again bring joy. But her outlook that December was bleak. She wrote in her diary – published as Chronicle of Youth:
The anniversary of Roland’s death—and for me farewell to the best thing in my life. I am glad I am far from Keymer–far from London; I could not have borne the associations of either. And now I am in Malta, working hard to try & make other people happy for their Christmas in exile, & in so doing, happier than I have been for months. Yes, even on this foreign service I dreaded so much, on which I told Him I would go if He died. I wonder where He is–and if He is at all; I wonder if He sees me writing this now. It is absurd to say time makes one forget; I miss Him as much now as ever I did. One recovers from the shock, just as one gradually would get used to managing with one’s left hand if one has lost one’s right, but one never gets over the loss, for one is never the same after it. I have got used to facing the long empty years ahead of me if I survive the war, but I have always before me the realisation of how empty they are and will be, since He will never be there again. One can only live through them as fully and as nobly as one can, and pray from the depths of one’s lonely heart that
Hand in hand, just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow.
On this third Christmas of the Great War King George V sent a message to every sick or wounded soldier in every hospital, casualty clearing station, hospital ship or train abroad or at home. Lynn Macdonald’s The Roses of No Man’s Land describes the Christmas message from the King as being embossed on white card with the Windsor Insignia and inscribed in gold letters. It read:
…grateful thanks for hardships endured and unfailing cheeriness. The Queen and I are thinking more than ever of the sick and wounded among my sailors and soldiers. From our hearts we wish them strength to bear their sufferings and a speedy restoration to health.
Macdonald reports that the greetings were well received. The chapter ends with this grim detail.
In London where a thick black fog rolled over the city on Christmas night, seeped into every crevice and clung thick in the air for the next two days, the gassed patients coughed, choked and occasionally died for want of breath.
So in the spirit of cosmopolitan sympathies here are a few images from the world of a century ago
Compliments of the season from an internment camp 1916.
At left is the cover of the magazine produced by British internees. In it they likened their Spandau prison camp to a holiday resort. Ruhlben was a civilian camp for those who happened to live in Germany when the war began or who were survivors from fishing boats were sunk by the German Navy when the conflict broke out. At least 100,000 civilians were interned. This camp held about 5,500 of them.
Two cards from Austria. On the left an Austrian Red Cross card from with a young Santa1916 bearing gifts through the snow separated from the town below by a fence of barbed wire. On the right a group of soldiers in a small room made cosy and homely by candlelit Christmas tree and their focus on a letter – a connection to home.
There’s a melancholy shadow over this Christmas celebration in the Sydney Mail of December 1916.
A woman and her children are on the beach. A bucket Xmas lies half buried in the sand and the children make trenches with dead soldiers on the parapets.
With the disasters of 1916 and particularly Gallipoli there were many Australian families in mourning that Christmas.
In 1916 the Royal Naval Division was incorporated into the land army. It suffered heavy losses at the Somme but nonetheless issued this cheeky Christmas card with the “Up Anchor” punning on a sector – Ancre – where they had been deployed.
Here sailors use their seafaring skills to navigate the waterlogged trenches.
December 25th 1916 was relatively quiet. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 275 deaths. Those who died came from all over the world: Australia, Canada, Germany, India, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, and the UK.