Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas Eve at The Front

Second  Lieutenant John Walcote  Gamble (D/DLI 7/238/4(1))
D/DLI 7/238/4(1) Second
Lieutenant John Walcote
John Walcote Gamble was a Second Lieutenant in the 14th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry.  In our collections we have a typescript book of the letters (D/DLI 7/238/4) he wrote, likely to his mother, from 9 October 1915 to 17 May 1916.  Well educated, his letters are evocative of the ups and down of a soldier’s life, and are not without a sense of humour.  

Xmas Eve 1915.
It is not the pleasantest of Xmas Eves, but it might be a lot worse, and we are all sitting chatting in a dug-out now, and keeping as cheery as possible.

Everyone is in a fairly good humour, inspite of the wet, the strafing, and the effects of that horrid gas attack, from which we have not all properly recovered.

Yes, most of the Officers are in a good humour - absolutely must be - because one of them, who possesses a fountain-pen, which he guards like a priceless treasure, and which he will rarely allow anyone but himself to use, has offered me the loan of it whilst scribbling this!

The Bosche is not so wicked to-night as he has been recently, and we are taking advantage of it to try and get our Xmas Eve Dinner.  We are just waiting for it to appear now, and the cook is working manfully to give us something like a spread.

His greatest difficulty is to keep a fire going, for there is water in the trench (it is raining) and whenever Fritz sees a cloud of smoke he invariably sends a whiz-bang into it.

We are well supplied with good things thanks to you and other friends, and to the other 4 Officers' "yous" and other friends, and don't we just appreciate them?  We shall be compelled to eat most things cold, both to-day and to-morrow, but we shall not enjoy them any the less.

The poultry is coming in now, and it does look splendid. (Adjournment for Grub).

The Bosche's quietness rather puzzles us tonight.  Whether it means he is trying to be festive and enjoy himself for a little time, or whether he is working up for a "strafe big" to-morrow is the question, but it does not really matter what his idea is, because we are going to give him a little present to put in his stocking in return for the gas he presented us with last Sunday.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Festive Fridays - Christmas Dinner

Menu card for the 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, Christmas dinner 1917.  The Battalion was in reserve at Ecurie, France, at this time. (D/DLI 2/662/2(133))
D/DLI 2/662/2(133) Menu card for the 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, Christmas dinner 1917.  The Battalion was in reserve at Ecurie, France, at this time.
Samuel Warwick was a Lieutenant Colonel, born in Houghton-le-Spring in 1897.  He enlisted in the 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry at just under 17 years old, by Christmas 1916, he was a Lance Corporal serving with the 8th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment and took it upon himself to make Christmas dinner.  He recounted the experiences of this event 60 years later (D/DLI 7/748/3).

“We moved up to the front line from Zillebeke through Sanctuary Wood…The temperature was well below zero but if you were not sweating you were a sick man.  The language was pungent, repetitive, and far from Christmassy…

“This was the battalion’s second Christmas in the trenches and Christmas Eve was dead quiet.  But – just after midnight on the Christmas morning a battery of our field guns opened up on the German trench in front of us…

“About 2 o’clock [am] I…thought I would prepare a meal for the four of us sharing a dugout…[finding a water source] I had an ex-petrol can, now a water can and to fill it I used my steel helmet.  The water could not hurt it, it was already wet with sweat.  I did not know how revolting this liquid looked until I got it into the candle light of the dugout and poured some out into a mess tin…My squad were all asleep with their feet wrapped in sandbags so I…started to make the Christmas meal.  The method was as follows:-

Empty a tin of bully beef into a mess tin.  Half fill the empty tin with candle grease.  There is always plenty where a candle burns day and night.

Using a piece of four-by-two (which is the flannelette used for pulling through a rifle) as a wick, you have got yourself a first class cooking stove albeit it looks like a miniature bonfire when lit.

Next take some hard biscuits, break them up with the handle of a bayonet and soak them in water until they are mush.

Drain off the surplus water and mix this biscuit mush with shredded bully and add some bacon fat which you have saved in a Woodbine tin.

To this savoury platter add a good doze [sic.] of Curry powder (which every good soldier carries to camouflage any sort of rotten taste).

On each side of the bonfire place a full tin of bully.  On these rests the loaded canteen and let cooking commence exactly the right distance from the flame.

My hands were now perfectly clean.  There is nothing like squeezing wet biscuit for getting dirt of the hands.

The smell, or should I say aroma woke the sleepers and they were soon sitting up with canteen lids and spoons ready. 

For afters I knocked up a little something with ‘burgoo’ which is army porridge and tastes like wall plaster when unadorned.  Smother with condensed milk and add a sauce of neat rum (plenty)  with sugar.  If you have saved the rum from yesterday in an old sauce bottle the added flavour is superb…

“The Company Sergeant Major lifted the ragged canvas door of the dugout and spoiled everything just as we were going in to ‘While shepherds watched’ with the vulgar remark ‘What’s all this bloody row about.  The Bosche can hear the flaming noise’  We had forgotten all about the Bosche.  The next morning when dawn broke we ‘stood to’ in the trench, a bird twittered, a rat nuzzled an empty tin in no-man’s land, but from the enemy trench we could hear a German playing a flute.”

Friday, 13 December 2013

Festive Fridays - Christmas Cards

Company Christmas card (D/DLI 2/9/374)
D/DLI 2/9/374 Company Christmas card
In last week’s blog post I wrote about the embroidered postcards.  At Christmas time, some companies, battalions, or even brigades, produced their own Christmas cards.  Sometimes these were of a basic design with just the relevant insignia printed on the front, or they might have featured a serious image of a soldier.  Other times, they were humorous ones. 

Many soldiers passed the time by drawing.  As well as sketches in letters and diaries, the Durham Light Infantry collection has several sketchbooks by soldiers such as Private Thomas McCree and Captain Robert Mauchlen.  Two army chaplains, Reverend C. Lomax and Reverend J.A.G. Birch, also produced drawings and sketches both prior and during the war.

The two examples of Christmas cards here were drawn by Second Lieutenant Gerald Palmer, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, who had been an art student.  The card of B Company, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry has faded a lot but shows 1915 represented by the old soldier, his back bent and his beard long, leaving the trench while the one representing 1916 comes in upright and fresh-faced.  This is under the glare of a sun wearing a German Pickelhaube, the sentiment wishes the recipient a ‘D.L.I. (t) ful Xmas’.  The card of the 151st Infantry Brigade (of with 9th Battalion, DLI were part of) shows a German soldier being chased over fields by a British soldier and wishes the recipient ‘a good run for your money in the new year’.  

Brigade Christmas card (D/DLI 7/776/36)
D/DLI 7/776/36 Brigade Christmas card
Both cards were for Christmas 1915 and wishing a good 1916, however, the new year did not bring happiness for Second Lieutenant Gerald Palmer, on 8 February 1916, under German attack, he had his jaw broken in several places by flying shrapnel.  He did survive the war though, relinquishing his commission in 1919 due to ill health caused by injuries.  

Friday, 6 December 2013

Festive Fridays - Silks

Embroidered postcard showing a design incorporating  the Allied flags and mistletoe (D/DLI 7/652/31)

D/DLI 7/652/31 Embroidered postcard showing a design incorporating 

the Allied flags and mistletoe

One of the most popular items that soldiers bought to send home were embroidered postcards, also called silks.  These consisted of a strip of silk that was either factory made or embroidered by women in France and Belgium.  Perhaps surprisingly, not a lot more is known about their production.

The most common subjects were flowers, regimental insignia, and flags.  However, as might be expected, around the festive period, other motifs were made or, in the case of the card at the top, incorporated with some of the more usual themes.

Embroidered postcard showing a snowy scene with pine cones and flowers (D/DLI 7/913/419)
D/DLI 7/913/419  Embroidered postcard showing a snowy scene with 
pine cones and flowers
The cards were popular because they were something pretty, and easy, to send home to loved ones from the frequently grim conditions of France and Belgium, especially at a time of year when home would be at the front of their minds.