Xmas Day (1917)

Here it is at last.  A curious sort of Yuletide for us.  It has been raining and snowing and the ground is horribly sloppy and greasy.  Last night was fairly quiet save for a number of revellers who have skinned the canteen out of beer.  We had a flash breakfast of fried steak, bacon and mashed spuds and are now getting up an appetite for the great event.

A right royal spread, the festival lasting from 2 to 4 p.m. fed on turkey and ham with several kinds of vegetables, sauces, stuffing etc., followed by hot duff, stewed fruit and custard; plenty of French wine and beer, cigarettes, cigars, nuts, muscatels etc.  Various toasts and a few humorous speeches were followed by an impromptu smoke concert.  Some of the items were most funny.  The Padre sang “Somerset” starting off egregiously out of tune, but the crowning effort was that of a negro visitor from the West Indies, who piped “Darling I am growing old” in a weedy childish treble.  After it all we were rushed through with watering and feeding the dismal donks, during which I saw our West Indian guest and a bibulous bombardier careering up and down the slushy paddocks in a bareback Derby.  We are now in our tent drinking beer and bellowing choruses.  We had the snow after all and the ground was white when we came out from our feasting.  I must confess to a very replete feeling about the “bhingy” for some hours after that dinner.  The revellers are now all sleeping peacefully; only W. and I sit up writing, with candles balanced in uneasy attitudes, the only sounds being the distant boom of the heavies (busy, alas, even on this night), the muffled choruses of distant wassailers and the hissing of stray snowflakes on our tin chimney.  We should feel thankful that we are not in action or up in the trenches and shell holes with the poor old infantry.

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Image: New Zealand soldiers at the counter of an army canteen in France during World War One, eating pieces of Christmas cake and drinking coffee distributed free by the New Zealand YMCA on Christmas Day, 1917. Behind the counter, one soldier is handing out what looks to be chocolate (or a cigar) from a box labelled “Fry’s Chocolate cakes”. Photograph by Henry Armytage Sanders.  National Library, ref. 10×8-1764-G.

Note:  Lieutenant J. R. Byrne, in New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-1918 (Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1922, Auckland, p.213), describes Christmas Day for the NZ Artillery thus:

Warning was issued from Divisional Headquarters that all ranks were to be specially prepared for attacks from the enemy on Christmas Day, but nothing of this nature followed, though the infantry sent up an S.O.S. at 2.45 a.m. Batteries at once opened fire, but after fifteen minutes the situation was reported clear, and firing ceased. During the remainder of the day the enemy’s artillery activity was slightly above normal, while the New Zealand batteries contented themselves with firing two concentrations—one at 8 a.m. and another at 5 p.m. Snow fell during the day, just sufficient to lightly cover the ground and give the traditional setting for an Old World Christmas. All did their best to spend the day as suitably as circumstances permitted, and at the waggon lines at any rate the dinners which had been prepared were of a kind and quantity sufficient to tire the appetite of even such trenchermen as sat round the tables that day. The C.R.A. paid brief visits to the waggon lines about mid-day, and spoke a few words to the assembled men.”

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