The festive season can be a stressful time with work deadlines looming, last minute dashes to crowded malls and holidaymakers clogging the highways. It can be easy to feel a little overwhelmed, but we have it pretty good really. Most of us are fortunate enough to have a roof over our head, food on the table and if we are lucky maybe even a few people that tolerate our company enough to share it with us for a couple of days. Things weren’t that comfortable one hundred years ago.
In my ephemera collection I have a number of Christmas cards sent home during the two world wars. Most of them I’ve purchased from stamp dealers, who find them tucked away in collections of postcards or covers. They aren’t too difficult to find. Each one is a personal reminder of a long-forgotten Christmas that someone spent away from home.
This year I thought I’d share a card from 1917 – a century ago – sent by a New Zealand serviceman to his family back home.
The middle of the card has a quote from Rudyard Kipling, and a personal message from the sender.
“From Harry. To Maud. Wishing you a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.”
Opposite is an image of soldiers advancing over a foreign field.
There is also a second message, hidden on the reverse of the back page inside the card. One short line that gives some some insight into the time and place that it was sent from.
“Doing as well as can be expected.” 2/11/17
That message sums it all up really. It is likely that Harry had been through a horrific ordeal. The previous month had been one of the most costly for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. You’ll recall from my previous post that 12 October was New Zealand’s ‘darkest day’ of the war. The note on this card was written exactly three weeks later on 2 November. Morale among the troops was low, the weather was getting colder and there was no end in sight. For the fourth year in a row, the war would not be over by Christmas.
I don’t know if Harry survived the war or not. I don’t know his surname, only that Maud was his sister. A month after he sent this card, on 3 December 1917, the New Zealanders were involved in another failed assault, this time at the ruins of Polderhoek Chateau.
There was some good news from the New Zealanders fighting in the Middle East. In December they were part of the Allied force that captured Jerusalem. One of my great great uncles was among them, serving in the Mounted Rifles. The capture of Jerusalem was described by David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, as “a Christmas present for the British people.” I don’t know how many people really wanted Jerusalem for Christmas though. I’m pretty sure that most just wanted to have their their loved ones safely back home.
On the Western Front the New Zealand Expeditionary Force had no respite from the fighting but under the circumstances were doing about as well as can be expected. Six hundred turkeys were imported from Southern France and along with plum pudding were a rare treat for the men.
A band visited the headquarters, playing carols in the morning, and messes and hospitals were decorated. Soldiers opened presents that had been sent from home, some from family and some from orgnisations such as the Women’s Patriotic Society. It had been snowing and the ground was frozen, so many soldiers were likely hoping for a warm pair of socks.
There was no Christmas truce. Throughout the day artillery fired on both sides. At times the barrage was heavier than usual and some New Zealanders were killed. The frozen ground increased the danger of exploding shells, as usually the mud would absorb at least some of the blast. In the afternoon New Zealand machine gunners fired on German soldiers as they went to and from their headquarters carrying what appeared to be their Christmas dinner.
Back at home, the thoughts and prayers of the nation were with those who were putting their lives on the line. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, William Massey shared the following message:
“Another Christmas comes round and finds the British Empire still fighting with inflexible determination against the foes of liberty and civilisation. To the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, I send, on behalf of the citizens of the Dominion, our heartiest greetings and good wishes, and again assure them that our hearts and thoughts are with them wherever their duty calls them. We rejoice with them in their successes and mourn with them in their losses. Although the end of the war is not yet in sight, we look with a just pride on the great deeds that have been done by our soldiers on the battlefields, and from these we take courage for the future, looking forward with calm confidence to the victory which must come. Kia ora!”
Miss Massey, who you might remember from my post about the ball held in Wellington on 12 October 1917, accompanied her mother as part of an official party to Trentham, where the men of the 33rd Reinforcements were preparing for their upcoming departure. They were unable to spend Christmas at home so instead the camp was opened to visitors – and Christmas came to them. A committee organised boxes of treats for the soldiers, so that none should spend the day without knowing that they were appreciated.
“Every sheltered spot was soon in occupation, and women, old and young, might be seen arm-in-arm with sturdy soldiers they were proud to call son, husband, brother, or sweetheart, inspecting the various points of interest.”
New Zealand Times, Volume XLII, Issue 9850, 22 December 1917
On 31 December 1917 the men of the 33rd Reinforcements departed New Zealand on-board the troopship Athenic. Their war was just beginning.
Thanks to all of my readers for your support. This year has been a very busy one for me so I haven’t posted as much as I would’ve liked, but I’ve enjoyed sharing a few snippets of history with you and have plenty more in the works. Wherever you are, in climates warm or cold, I wish you all the very best for the festive season and the new year.
© Lemuel Lyes