On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers of the British, French and German armies were hunkered down in trenches on the Western Front, their thoughts on their loved ones at home. As night fell, the sound of German soldiers singing carols drifted across no man’s land, and small fir trees and lanterns appeared on the tops of their trenches. Messages were shouted between the two sides, and some soldiers ventured out to meet and exchange gifts. The momentum for goodwill gained pace, and on Christmas Day more men met to talk, take photographs, and even play football.
Christmas and war are not compatible, but too often they are thrust together. The Christmas truce of 1914 – a series of unofficial ceasefires – was a statement of peace and humanity amid one of history’s most brutal wars. These ceasefires were permitted by some officers to allow the men a chance to improve living conditions in the trenches. But not all troops took part: in some areas, time was given only to recover and bury the dead; in other sectors, there were casualties as fighting continued. The following year, strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides were issued in the lead-up to Christmas warning against further fraternisation. A small number of ceasefires were declared, but they were not nearly as widespread as in 1914.
By the time Australians experienced Christmas on the Western Front, the British command saw the date as an opportunity to wreak even more havoc on the enemy. Australian official historian Charles Bean records that on 25 December 1916, “at the hour when it was thought probable that the Germans would be sitting down to their midday feast, every gun of the [British] Fourth and Fifth Armies fired two rounds at the points where the enemy’s troops and staffs might be foregathering”. Bean notes that the order was considered “ruthless” and “repugnant” by many of the British troops, who were “by no means opposed to ‘disgracing’ Christmas by exhibitions of brotherliness and good humour”.
Hundreds of thousands of Australians have spent Christmas at war: freezing in First World War trenches, as prisoners of war of the Japanese, or on reconnaissance and ambush operations in Vietnam. Even today Australian soldiers find themselves spending Christmas far from home, on operations in Afghanistan.
Soldiers are not forgotten at this time of year, and efforts have always been made to bring a little joy – and a decent meal – to those serving, or those recovering from wounds. For Christmas 1915, the Australian Comforts Fund Committee distributed 20,000 boxes containing handkerchiefs, cigars, cigarettes and matches to men in camp in Egypt. Many had just returned from Gallipoli. In a letter home in early January 1916, Sister Lettitia Moreton of the Australian Army Nursing Service described the efforts that had been made for wounded men recovering at the 2nd Australian General Hospital in Egypt:
We gave our patients out at Ma’adi Hospital a very nice little Xmas. A very nice dinner, roast turkey, chicken, ham, plenty vegetables, plum pudding, claret cup, beer, soft drinks, sweets, etc. They did enjoy it, poor things. The Drs helped us with it too, one carved the turkey and ham while the other gave out the drinks. The place was rather nicely decorated and everyone enjoyed the day.
Sadly, that was Sister Moreton’s last Christmas: the following year she was posted to India for service, and died there of enteric fever in November.
Christmas is often a marker of time for a soldier at war. They count their service by each one that comes and goes, and are optimistic that it will be the last spent away from home. In 1918, Private William Lewis of the 17th Battalion sent a pretty Christmas card from Belgium to his mother and younger brother Charlie, wishing all the best and “hoping to be with you all for the next, 1919”. Fortunately, he was.
The freezing cold Christmases of the Western Front gave way to tropical heat and humidity during the Second World War, as most Australian servicemen spent at least one festive season in the Pacific. But that did not necessarily mean an end to the traditional hot Christmas lunch: in his book The hard slog, Karl James writes that on Bougainville for Christmas 1944, the senior command of the Australian II Corps sat down to “turkey, ham, fresh potatoes peas and onions, followed by plum pudding and sauce”. The 26th Battalion held a Christmas Eve concert party that included a jazz performance, and went swimming on Christmas Day; and the 27th Battalion ate fresh fish and roast pork from wild pigs.
Some prisoners of war even managed to rustle up a decent meal for Christmas. Jock Mathieson was interred at a camp on Banka Island for Christmas 1943. On 24 December he wrote to a friend, Captain Wilma Oram of the 2/13th Australian General Hospital, who was interred at the nearby women’s camp:
Great preparations are being made for tomorrow’s food. I believe we will be eating throughout the day. Three pigs have been slaughtered – they are being prepared just now for the cooking pot. The local authorities have contributed a great deal towards tomorrow’s food. There will be Church services and carol singing.
Other prisoners of war were grateful to the Red Cross for providing food parcels that made Christmas a little bit special – but they would have much preferred their freedom. WJ Wood was a British pilot who was captured after the Fall of Singapore and was sent to Japan. In 1944, he wrote this poem:
This is but a memory
Of a Christmas one of three
I’m trusting God I don’t see four
As a Prisoner-of-War.
It was no doubt the best of three
Thanks to Red Cross Society
But let us hope in Him above
We spend the next with those we love.
Christmas for those who served in the Vietnam War may have featured festive concerts by Australian entertainers, and parcels provided by the Australian Forces Overseas Fund. In Fighting to the finish, the final volume of the official history of the Vietnam war, Ashley Ekins records the diary entry of Captain David Wilkins of C Company, 5RAR, who wrote that his company’s officers and sergeants began Christmas Day 1969 by “serving coffee royale [coffee laced with rum] to the diggers IN BED. Later we continued our duties and served the diggers Xmas dinner, much to their delight. Will have to knock ’em back to size tomorrow.” They had earned it, having spent the previous ten days on reconnaissance and ambush operations in rugged, jungle-covered territory west of Binh Ba.
However, Ekins writes that the soldiers of 8RAR were not so lucky, and found themselves continuing to fight in spite of a so-called Christmas Day truce. Second Lieutenant Neil Smith of 8RAR, who was stationed at a remote fire support base, wrote: “Christmas Day was just another day to us. The battalion had four contacts on Christmas Day and killed two VC [Viet Cong].”
Across the world, and through the ages, diggers have always yearned to “be home by Christmas”.