100 Years Ago: Christmas from the Front

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100 Years Ago: Christmas from the Front

 

The following are some of the many examples of letters on file from Norfolk’s own writing home to their loved ones during the Christmas season.

“Gunner Pursel gives an interesting account of life in France.  We are grateful to have the privilege of reproducing it for our readers, and will be pardoned for using conventional initials where we considered it best.”

“Belgium, Feb. 15th, 1916 Gun G. Pursel, No. 83464, 13th Bty. 4th Bdge. C.F.A., Second Canadian Contingent Army, PO London, England.

Mrs. Isaac McInally:

Dear Cousin: I received your welcome letter, dated Jan. 10th, on the 12 of February, and you cannot imagine how pleased I was to hear from you and to know you are well this winter.

Out here in this muddy, damp, rainy country if a good hard frost could come, it would improve the condition of things to some great extent.  It never rains real hard, but is a continual mist and fine rain, and the place is nearly knee deep in mud, and worst where the infantry are in the trench.  The worst in this war is sleeping with all our clothes on, that is so we are always ready if we have to stand too in the night: a stand too is to stand by the gun to fire if the infantry are in trouble, which they very often are.  We certainly do send over a few deadly souvenirs to Fritz.

   We have moved to a different part of the firing line and it is a good thing, we have a little more activity now and it helps to break the monotony of this mad plain we are in.  The German Aeroplanes are a little more active now, and it is great to see such huge birds in the air.  A few days ago there were seventeen British and ten German Aeroplanes in the air at once and it was a great sight to see them, the British were driving them back to the German lines again.  We could hear the purr of the machine guns, which are in them and the hum of their motors spurned like a huge motorcycle or a number of them.

   You spoke about Walter Forse, well he was in England the last I heard of him with a reserve battalion, and they are sent to the front in drafts to the different battalions.  It is volunteered for, that is to say, when a draft is wanted they are asked who will go to the front tonight, or some other stated time. But for Art Cross I have not seen or heard of him since we have been on active service.

   Well, I spent a dull of quiet Christmas this year, I can tell you, and I hope you had a better time than I did, although we never fired a shot, but not so New Year’s, we sent Fritz souvenirs in plenty then, and did some splendid shooting, as many direct hits were registered.  What a change of things, just think, of the romps we used to have at your house.  I wish one or the other would start an attack and finish this thing up quick.  I am homesick to get back at your home, but we cannot now things will not be the same.  I am glad to hear that May is enjoying the skating season.   I would like to be there with her.

   Received a letter from X Y, about a month, again I did not answer as I had no address, but I have been writing to Miss R……… I met her at Mr. Brock’s, she used to work in the shop and she says she will send me K S’ address.  I wrote to her shortly after I had been over to the firing line and had a periscope, and saw a working party blown up by the 25th Battery, they are in the 4th brigade.  It was a horrifying thing at first, but we get hardened to these things, as we see it nearly every day.  We had one signaler killed.  A shell splinter cut the top of his head off.  He never knew what hit him, and one other signaler with him was buried, but was soon rescued.

   Belgium will never be of any use after this.  There are shell holes twenty feet across and from that down to a rifle bullet hole.  This is a hellish business and I have not seen near what many have seen. Now I will close as it is getting near my hour of guard, and half an hour means a good deal in the sleep line.

Good-bye, love to all.

GEORGE

  1. PS. –Bruce Cameron is somewhere in the same district as we are in. His brigade has just been here nearly three weeks. I will try and see him before we go to Berlin.  Tell May many thanks for the photo, which she is sending, and that I will find out more definitely about nursing here.  I might as well state that the nurses here do not have to run so many risks as was run in the start, but during an attack or a bombardment, they are sometimes called for to go to the danger zone, which is in range of the guns.  I mean by guns, the artillery.  I was in a Canadian hospital for three weeks and then in a R.A.M.C. and it is as poor an excuse for a hospital as I know. {The British Canadian, April 12th 1916} 

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LETTER FROM WILFRED WILSON

Dear Mother:

I received your letter of Dec. 2nd a few days ago and have just got time to write.  Sorry to know that Angus has rheumatism, but hope he will soon be well.  I got a letter from Mrs. Hambly a few days ago.  I shall be looking for that fruit some time.  It is impossible to get any fruit here except canned stuff.  What few apples there are sour as crab apples.

We pulled into this joint about nine o’clock last Wednesday night from the trenches and will be here for six days.  We had a bath and change of clothes this morning and so are rid of crumbs for a while.  It is still wet and muddy, with rain nearly every day.  I guess this is all the winter they ever have here.

We had our first sniff of gas last Sunday morning, when the Germans made an attack about two miles on our left.  We were back of the firing line at the time and about three miles from the scrap, but the stuff made our eyes smart and we could smell it strong, but couldn’t see anything.  They got a good trimming in spite of all their gas.

Fritz nearly put one over me a few days ago, but missed me by a couple of inches.  The Germans have been very quiet up here and we got in the habit of shooting over the parapet during the daytime.  Well one day I was looking over watching their lines when a sniper took a pot at me and put a bullet through the collar of my cape.  He was in the ruins of an old barn that is right in their trenches and could shoot in the back of a section of our trench.  One fellow got killed about three feet away from me, and a stretcher-bearer in the next bay also got it.  The stretcher-bearer was only a kid of seventeen.  Well we couldn’t reach Fritz with rifle fire as he was behind a steel plate, but the artillery put a couple dozen of Lloyd George’s specials into the ruins and the trench, and we have never been troubled since from that quarter.

The grub is good as ever, the last three days we were in the trenches we had steak, potatoes and onions and tea for dinner, instead of the usual mulligan or “Donovon’s special”, as we call it.  Donovon is our cook and his favorite dish is mulligan, which is nearly the same as skilly, and that’s why we call it Donovan’s special.  I’m putting a German bullet in this letter, though I don’t know if it will go, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t.

I got a letter from John, day before yesterday, saying he was over in the mud at last, and not very far away.  So yesterday after the rifle inspection in the morning I wrote out a pass and took it to the major to get it signed, and then set out to look for John.  Started at twelve o’clock along the main road behind the firing line and was about seven miles away before I could find anyone who knew where his bunch are stationed, and that was about three miles farther out in a field.  Well I went on down the road and then turned off and struck across the fields.  After inquiring the way several times I found the camp and in about half an hour found out he wasn’t there, but his draft was expected any day so had to turn around and start for home and had some time.  It was dark and raining half the time and I was plumb lost out in the fields.  Met a Belgian at last and he directed me to the road so by keeping in the direction he gave me I got to the roads and made my way back to the first village about eight miles from camp.  Got something to eat there and started along the road for a way and then stopped to talk to a sentry of the R.M.A.S. and wait for a ferry or transport to come along.  Well in about half an hour a Red Cross supply car came along and I got a lift right to camp rather tired and ready for bed.  Guess I must have gone nearly twenty miles altogether.

We had a Christmas dinner today of Donovon’s special, greasy as tallow plum pudding, steak and tea.  There were a lot of homesick boys in camp to day I tell you and most of them have gone out to the estimates to drown their homesickness-in champagne.  This is the first Christmas I’ve spent away from home and I guess I wasn’t much better than the other boys, anyway I hope we’re not here next year at this time.  Butler and I were to a moving picture and vaudeville show a few nights ago and had a right good time.  It’s run by the soldiers of the 3rd Division and they put on a good performance.  There were several songs and one fellow gave a demonstration of a whiz-bang face, which was very interesting.  We had to leave before it was over, as we have to be in by 8:15 every night and had two miles to walk in the usual rain.  Butler’s name is Harry, but we both go by the name of “John,” at least that’s what we call each other.  “No grouching” is the rule between us.  If either gets finding fault with anything, such as fatigues, the other says, “Well, even so, John, we can do it”.  The answer generally is, “Even so, that’s no reason,” and then we say no more about it.  There’s no use grouching at all, as it never gets a fellow anywhere, except on extra fatigues.

I expected we’d be in the trenches today, but the powers that be changed the dates around so that we would be back here instead.  However, we go into the firing line on New Year’s eve and Fritz will sure catch it at midnight when we shoot the New Year in, instead of ringing it in with the church bells.  I guess the only bells that will be ringing will be for the Fritzers that get in the way of a 303 or bomb.  I don’t know what the artillery boys will be doing, but I hope they start the New Year right, give Fritz a good shelling.

Well I guess this will be all this time.

With best wishes for the New Year, I remain,

Your son, WILFRED  {The Waterford Star, Jan. 20th 1916}

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LETTER FROM FRANCE – WILLIAM HARRIS SYMINGTON {The Waterford Star, Jan. 27th 1916}

Somewhere in France

Dear Friend:

Just a few lines to let you know that I am all right and in good health and hope you all the same.

Well Lina, I spent Xmas in the trenches this year and it is not a very nice place to spend Christmas, but it was very quiet.  The Germans were hollering across to us and waving their arms for us to come over, but there was nothing doing, we waved back to them to get down and then we fired a few shots in the air to let them know what we meant, and they soon got down for we let drive at them, but the troops on the right and left of us were standing on top of their trenches and talking to them.  Some of them went out and traded buttons, gave them cigarettes and shook hands with them.  One fellow went over to their trenches and had a good look at it.  When he came back he said they were in the same fix we were, lots of mud and water.  You can guess what it is when we have had rain for three months, and we have to wear hip boots all the time.  We were shelling the Germans this morning and some of our aeroplanes are over our heads directing the gun fire, but as soon as they go away the Germans will open up on us so we can look for it this afternoon.  Well I guess I will close for this time hoping to hear from you soon.

I remain yours as ever,

WILLIAM HARRIS SYMINGTON

{The Waterford Star, Jan. 27th 1916}

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A LETTER FROM THE TRENCHES

The following letter will be of  special interest to readers around Willsonville who know Pte. Speechley

France, December 27th 1915

Dear Sister:

Just a few lines to say that I received the parcel Kate and you sent also your letter and thank you very much for them.  The parcel came in fine shape, the gloves and Balaclave cap are dandy.  I am sure it has taken a lot of time and work to make them so neatly.  I can assure you they are much appreciated.  I sleep with the Balaclave cap on wherever I am, and when in the trenches have it on all the time.  It is fine when on sentry, which we do most of the time when in the trenches, so again I thank all who helped make them.

I will now try to tell you a little about how we spent Christmas.  We came out of the trenches on the evening of the 24th, and are staying out for five days, which is one day longer than usual.  The reason for this is to enable those at present in the trenches to have the New Year out.  Christmas day was unusually quiet owing to the lack of rifle and artillery fire from either side.  There was no communication of any kind between the lines this Xmas, like there was last year.  It was attempted, but forbidden by our side.

There has been a great amount of work to do lately.  For the past four days we have been up at 3 a.m., and have not laid down until seven or eight p.m., so you can understand we have not felt like writing.

The weather has been bad and sometimes-sleeping quarters are not good.  The work consists of pumping water out of the trenches and also building up the trench to keep it somewhat decent.  So there are times when a rest is very acceptable.

Christmas day we had a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding: it was fine considering circumstances.  We also had little parcels containing sweets and cigarettes, from societies at home.  We had a small piece of cake from our Captain, which his wife had made and sent over.  It was a little remembrance and conveyed good wish-to his company.

On Sunday we had our Christmas service, which was well worth attending.

There is not much mail coming thru at present.  I expect there will be a bumper soon.

We are staying at a farm at time of writing.  Our quarters are in a hayloft: the cows and chickens are under us.  Are we downhearted?  No.  My candle is just about burnt out, so will close hoping this will find you and all the folks in the best of health, as it leaves me.

Your loving brother, Charlie.

PTE. CHARLES SPEECHLEY,

No. 406171, B Company, 5th Platoon, 1st Battalion, 1st Canadians, B.C.F. France, Army Post Office, London, England. {The Waterford Star, Jan. 27th 1916}

LETTER FROM

CLARENCE MASSECAR

We are pleased to print the following letter from Clarence Massecar and his many friends in this section will be pleased to know he is well and making the best of everything.

My Darling Wife:

We are still on the warpath with the best of luck, and everything is noisy.  We are now with our battalion, which is in billets for about [?] weeks, and we are sure seeing life.

We are about fifteen miles from the firing line and can occasionally hear reports from heavy guns.  But for all the soldiers around, one would never guess there was a war on here.

Our battalion had only one man slightly wounded in its last turn in the trenches.  That’s not too bad, is it?  One of our Waterford boys, who came out in the first draft, Frank Groat, got a little bang in the back of the neck with a piece of shrapnel, and it only stung a little and did no injury.

We are lucky to have our old captain from Shorncliffe, Captain Price, as our company commander, and we are tickled to death over it.  He is a dandy fellow.

Oh, yes, Sammy Mansley was in the trenches and I had a good laugh as he told me how it felt.  He takes it all in good part and very matter of fact and is quite unconcerned about it.

Mac and I put our names down for the machine gun section, so may go into that.

We are among the French folk right here.  Last nights twelve of us were billeted with a French family and lady of the house and her four daughters made hot coffee for us before we turned in and then again in the morning.  They sure treat us great.  Now eighteen of us are billeted up in the loft over a cottage and we can see daylight most anywhere we look.  But the roof is of tile and doesn’t leak.  It was fearfully dirty and dusty, but we don’t mind.  We have some straw strewn around on the floor and we have made ourselves quite comfortable.  The people in the house are fine to us.  We sit downstairs with them and they give us all the hot water we want and can’t do enough for us.  There are two grown up daughters and a grandma.

There are none of us that can talk French, but with what little French we know and the English they know, we make ourselves understood.

When I see you I have something awfully funny to tell you.  I haven’t got over laughing yet.  I can’t tell you on paper.  But have this and remind me of it when I get home.  It concerns Mike Matthews.  He’s with us.  We have had a pile of fun these last few days.  Of course our course has been pretty rough and we have had many hardships to endure, but we have made the best of everything and had all the fun there was out of everything.

The people out here have some queer costume, some of which I will tell you of when I see you.  Mac and I nearly died laughing at some things we saw.  I can’t tell you now.

Well this is the next night, Xmas eve, and tomorrow is Xmas.  I expected we would get our mail today, but we haven’t yet.  But I guess we will get it tomorrow.  I’ll hold this letter over anyway and see if we do.

Well had church parade to day and went to a large theatre for service.  It was an English church service.  That was all we did.  This afternoon we walked around and saw the town.  Oh yea!  I might just mention that while we were lined up on a street, having roll call, a German aeroplane came over and dropped a couple of bombs about a hundred yards from us and made us jump.  We could see the dirt fly from one of them.  A brush of our machines soon chased it away, however, and we didn’t see any more of it.  I don’t think any damage much was done.  Some one said a dog, was killed.

Tonight we could hear big gunfire quite plainly.

Well I changed my home today.  I am in the machine gun section now, and am living in a barn.  We have lots of good soft straw to lie on and are not badly off.  I have always wanted in the machine gun section, but this is the first chance I have had and I didn’t hesitate.  There is some stir to it and lots of excitement.  Well I guess I’ll make my bed now and hit the straw.  Will write more tomorrow.  Next morning: I got froze out so went down to my old billet and crawled in with Mac and Mike.  I had a good warm sleep there.  Say there must have been something doing up the lines last night.  From eleven o’clock till about three this morning the guns were simply roaring.  There must have been a good many tons of lead thrown away.

This morning an officer came around with a present for each of us of a handkerchief and a box of chocolates from the Canadian Red Cross and an issue of rum.  I assure you we all appreciated it all.  I don’t know what kind of a dinner we will get, but I guess it will be all right.

Say, I had a dream last night.  I thought I came home from the war and the first thing I ran into was you and my mother and you were suing for a divorce.  You had received a letter addressed to me from some girl and it was totally filled up with kisses and “darlings” etc.  I thought mother was most anxious for the separation, but I persuaded you that there was an awful mistake somewhere and then all was fine and dandy.  Some dream, eh!  Oh, I must not forget to wish you a Merry Christmas, darling, as to me it is Christmas, although it won’t be when you get this.  It isn’t a very bright Xmas here as it is raining and quite nasty out.  I hope it is fine where you are, however.

Well there isn’t anything further to tell you just now so will write more later.

Tuesday:  Well, I had a great dinner Christmas.  Four of us went to a little restaurant and had all we could put away.  No turkey or plum pudding, but two different kinds of meats, some kind of vegetables, potatoes, soup, swell cake—all we could eat, swell wine and champagne.  I liked the wine all right, but not the champagne.  We didn’t have anything special from the army to eat as the papers said we were going to have.

When any of the boys get parcels from home with anything to eat, they divide up with the rest.  Believe me, things taste good from home.  We haven’t seen a sign of mail yet, so I will close this letter and get it away.  It is pretty tough not to be able to get any word, but still I suppose it is not so bad for us.  I can rest quite assured that you are all right, but with you it is different.  But you can bet your boots I will be all right.  Well sweetheart, I’ll just finish up now and have it ready for the orderly when he comes.

We are all going to be paraded to the theatre tonight.  This afternoon we have off.  I don’t know yet what I will do.

Well give my best to everyone and keep on writing anyway.  I’ll get them sometime.  I guess.  With love and kisses for Sammy Boy and your self.

From your loving hubby,

BILLY

No. 797508, Pte. W. C. Massecar, 14th Can. Batt.,  1st Div. France. {The Waterford Star, Jan 25h 1917}

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LETTER FROM

PTE. WILLIAM H. CRAPPER With the 133rd Battalion

West Sandling Camp, Shorncliffe,

Kent, England, December 31st 1916

Dear Friends:

Today is Sunday and it is the last day of the old year, and I thought I would make it a good day by writing to you.  I haven’t received an answer to my other letter yet, but there is such a rush in the mail just now.  I am hoping to get it soon.  It certainly cheers one up to get a letter from the “Old Folks at Home.”

I will tell you a little but about the Camp here.  We were first in Upper Dibgate Camp with the 23rd Battalion, which was a French Battalion, but we did not feel altogether at home with them, and I can tell you that I think a lot more of our OC, Col. A. C. Pratt than I ever did before, for he gave all the officers of that Battalion a combing down to the King’s taste for using us “rotten” and he got us away from them, and now we are in West Sanding with an Ontario bunch, the old 39th Norfolk Reserves Battalion, and we now feel more at home.  The 12th Battalion, is here too, but we don’t know how soon we may be moved so always address my mail thru the army P.O., London, England, and I will be sure of getting it, for we don’t know how soon we will be at the front in France, but the Army P.O. always knows where to forward mail to us.

We Sanding Camp is a very good Camp, but there is heaps of mud up to our knees at times, for it rains nearly every day, and the soil is a heavy clay so you can tell what the mud is like.  We are sleeping in tents just now, and some of them leak.  I went to bed the first night we were here, and wakened up and found that my kit bag had gone for a swim.  Oh, it’s nothing to wake up and find one’s shoes half full of water.  I am going to buy a hook and line and then I won’t have to get out in the mud after my things.  Altho we have lots of hardships, “We’re not down-hearted”.  We wouldn’t be Canadians if we were, would we?

Well I was lucky enough to get your much appreciated Christmas box, which I was tickled to death to get.  I can assure you that it puts new spirits in one to know that he is not forgotten by old “Friends at Home”.  I got it the 29th of December, so you see it was one month and nine day coming.  It was the long expected arrived at last.  Thank you ever so much.  The tobacco was a real treat to what we get here, and we have to pay more and get less.  You don’t know how good those date cookies tasted.  I could imagine I was home again, the four of us sitting around the table the same as the last time I was on pass, but when I got thru eating them, I found myself sitting on my blankets in my tent alone.

I have lots of dreams like that, but I was not homesick until on Christmas night.  I was coming back from Hythe and I could peer into the windows of different homes and see the children around the fire and Christmas trees laughing and romping, and it made me a little homesick when I thought of the good times I was missing at home.  I remembered that it was just a year ago that night I sang at the Christmas Tree at Windham Centre, but consoled myself with the thought that it was “Duty” that called me away, but would that God will spare me to be home by next Christmas.  The apples, which you sent, kept well.  There was only one little spot on one, and they were luscious.  I also got a box from another friend filled with lots of good things, and among the rest was a highly prized photo of the sender.

Well my letter is getting long, but I want to mention one thing more.  My assigned pay, do you get it regularly?  If so, please keep my insurance up for me.  I think you put the insurance papers in the sideboard drawer.  Kindly remember me to all friends, and tell them to write.  We like to get lots of letters from home.  Goodbye for this time.

I am, Yours as ever,

PTE. WILLIAM H. CRAPPER

No. 797516, 133rd Battalion, C.E.F., Army P.O., London, England