Christmas past on the front line

Makeshift dinners in the trenches, a piper sent out to face the enemy armed only with bagpipes, and a surprise feast in the jungle. Some of the most heart-warming Christmases are in war. David Randall reports
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The Independent Online

Today, the final window of an advent calendar will be opened by a young man's finger that, yesterday, pulled the trigger of a rifle. The calendar, with its prettily incongruous pictures of angels and snowmen and sugar-plum fairies, will be taped to a makeshift locker beside a bed which sits in a tent pitched somewhere in Basra, Kandahar or Kabul. Peace on Earth actually means something in such dangerous places

Christmas on the frontline seems at once so meaningful, and yet so far away; which is why those back home always make such special efforts to reach out to those serving there. On Christmas Day 1914, at the instigation of Princess Mary, soldiers were given a brass box monogrammed with an "M". It contained cigarettes or pipes for smokers, sweets for abstainers, spices and sweets for Indian troops, and chocolate for nurses.

Some of the first recipients of those Princess Mary's boxes did not keep the treats to themselves. At several places along the line, they stepped from their trenches, as did their German enemy, and the smokes and sweets were shared and swapped in no man's land. Lieutenant E Hulse of the Scots Guards later wrote of how a number of Germans came over to greet the men who had been firing at them shortly before. "We sang everything from 'Good King Wenceslas' to the ordinary Tommy's songs, and ended up with 'Auld Lang Syne'. We all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussian, Wurtemburgers etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematographic film I should have sworn that it was faked."

And John Wedderburn-Maxwell, an officer with the Royal Field Artillery, recalled: "We walked about for around half an hour in no-man's land. And then we shook hands, wished each other good luck, and one fellow said: 'Will you send this off to my girlfriend in Manchester?' I sent it when I got back."

That 1914 Christmas truce was never to be repeated. But its legend, and the determination of all but the most fatigued of frontline soldiers to cleave to some semblance of homely happiness, meant, at subsequent wartimes, the spirit of Christmas flickered in the unlikeliest of settings.

On the troopship Stratheden, a stunning Atlantic sunset lit up the pipes and drums of the Cameronians "Beating the Retreat" on Christmas Eve 1942, and then the ship sailed on in the blackout darkness. At a village in Tunis in 1943, as Private Charles Carnt of the Royal Army Service Corps later recalled: "Christmas Day came. When we spotted six chickens roaming around, we decided they weren't doing much for the war effort, so they were rounded up and dealt with - plucked, gutted and in the cook house in under an hour." In Italy, Christmas 1944, Captain (later Lt-Col) Brian Clark MC sent one of his Irish Brigade pipers out to play in the snow. German paratroops opposite applauded and sang "Stille Nacht" in return. And in Korea in 1952, British troops lit fires with the propaganda Christmas cards the Korean People's Army had dropped behind their lines.

Even troops in captivity could squeeze some cheer from the day. At a Japanese prisoner of war camp which held Alfred Baker and his comrades, the commandant allowed the troops some cigarettes and even a little medicine, and missionaries sent over a horse's head for their dinner. It is a measure of conditions in the camp that the men were grateful. And, in Stalag Luft VI, "Jack" Oldfield, later a policeman in Doncaster, remembered that "after a month of skimping and scraping and almost literally starving", enough food had been secreted for a day of, by POW standards, feasting. "Tins were opened and our Christmas pud (made from crusts of black bread) was put on the stove... What a meal: four ounces of bacon, two and a half of Spam, a little scrambled egg, potatoes and swede... Then came the pud." Then the cake, with a frill made from toilet paper.

And warmth in modern times, too. In Bosnia, 1992, the Cheshires brought presents and chocolate to children at an orphanage on Christmas Day. There was football, children clambering over the tanks with the soldiers' blue United Nations berets on their little heads, piggyback rides and a lot of laughter. As they left, Emira Tatarevic, who worked at the orphanage, said: "We would like all of you as staff because you make the children so happy."

A year later, the colonel of the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards played Cinderella's wicked stepmother in a show in their bunker-like mess in former Yugoslavia. In Kabul 2001, back in the days when the "war on terror" seemed so straightforward, British and American soldiers fashioned a Christmas tree out of green mosquito netting.

But not all who enjoyed previous Christmases in Iraq and Afghanistan will be there for this one. Men, for instance, such as Craig O'Donnell of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, killed by a Taliban suicide bomb in Kabul in September. When he died, his girlfriend was expecting their baby. The child is due at Christmas: such symbolism, even in a season as laden with it as this one.

The Western Front, 1916

Christmas dinner for the men was:

"Soup; roast meat with potato, carrot, turnip and onion; plum pudding; an apple or orange, and nuts. The sergeants had whisky, port and cigars."

Dinner for the officers was: "Paté de foie gras, julienne, curried prawns, roast goose, potato and cauliflower, plum pudding, anchovy on toast, dessert; Veuve Clicquot, port, cognac, Benedictine; coffee."

Taken from 'The War the Infantry Knew: 1914-19' by Captain JC Dunn

A hospital in France, 1917

The men had a wonderful Christmas Day. They were like a happy lot of children. We decorated the wards with flags, holly, mistletoe and paper flowers that the men made, and a tree in each ward.

You cannot imagine how pretty they were. Each patient began the day with a sock that was hung at the foot of their bed by the night nurses.

In each was an orange, a small bag of sweets, nuts and raisins, a handkerchief, pencil, tooth brush, pocket comb and a small toy that pleased them almost more than anything else, and which they at once passed on to their children.

They had a fine dinner: jam, stewed rabbit, peas, plum pudding, fruit, nuts, raisins and sweets. The plum puddings were sent by the sister of one of the nurses.

Nurse Agnes Warner, a Canadian girl caring for the wounded in France, 1 January 1917

The Middle East, 1943

My Dearest Mummy... On the 23rd, the 104th held a dinner, the idea being to give the cooks Xmas Day off... We had assembled a certain amount of beer by means of great self-sacrifice over a long period and also by raiding other units' Naafis. After a snifter or two, we adjourned to the mess and sat down to be served by the sergeants and officers, turkey, chicken, sausages, pork, spuds, cauliflower, pudding, mince pies, oranges and, of course, unlimited beer. Following a sing-song, there was a mild riot during which I was given a shampoo with a couple of oranges. We collected our party and went back to the tent where we waded into the rest of the drinks and began singing, mainly, if I remember right, a dirge about robins. We were a sorry sight at reveille next morning.

DVR I/C Bill Appleyard, Middlesex Yomanry, attached to 104th Regiment RHA in the Middle East, 2nd January 1943

Dimapur, India, 1943

It was Christmas Day 1943, and the Gurkhas, ever resourceful, went out and shot some deer - jungle deer - the day before and cooked it over open fires. Smoked it. And they gave it all to the British troops as a Christmas present. It was lovely. I never tasted anything like it. Smoked venison, a bit of a change from bully beef and biscuits, and we managed to get a few bottles of beer from the Naafi. So that was our Christmas dinner - and it was most acceptable.

Peter Roylance Noakes, officer with 1st Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, recalling his time in the jungle at Dimapur