Eagle-eyed readers might recall that I wrote a World War Two Christmas Miscellany post some years ago, examining the experiences of Christmas on the home front during that conflict – and since I have also been writing a series of posts on the First World War, I thought it would be interesting to try the same for 1914-1918 too.
This post mainly focuses on the wartime Christmas experiences of Londoners (mostly because I am a Londoner and I have posted about this city, its history and my fascination with it on many previous occasions), but I am sure those resident in other British towns, cities, and even smaller settlements would have had similar festive seasons and felt similar emotions during the war years to those living and working in the capital – these were, as you will see, difficult times for everybody, both at home and on the front line. Indeed, I was particularly interested to note just how bleak and, quite frankly, how depressing wartime Christmases became as the conflict progressed.
For more information on the subject, see the ‘Further reading, listening and sources’ section at the end of the post – and I would also be interested to hear from you if you have any further details of World War One home front Christmases in London, or from elsewhere in the country. You can leave a comment here or get hold of me on Twitter.
By December 1914, the oft-voiced view that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’ had already proved to be sadly mistaken – although it was unlikely that anyone preparing for the festive season that year could have possibly imagined there would actually be another three wartime Christmases yet to come before the return of peace.
In London, bad weather did not stop people from thronging the shops, despite many feeling that the Christmas celebrations were inappropriate whilst so many were already fighting overseas (the London Hospital, for example, cancelled its traditional seasonal celebrations on the wards that year). The doctor and Liberal MP Christopher Addison noted that when he went to buy Christmas presents for his children, he was:
[S]urprised at the crush of people shopping. One would never have thought there was a war on. (White, p.45)
Indeed, children were the sole focus of many Christmases that year. London diarist Georgina Lee wrote:
We are doing practically nothing in the way of Christmas presents, only for the children… No family presents. (White, p.46)
Seasonal entertainments, too, were mostly aimed at the children, it being seen as more appropriate for West End theatres to host child-friendly pantomimes, for example, than the usual more adult productions – although stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’ works were acceptable, popular and comforting for many that Christmas.
Alcohol, too, was popular and comforting that Christmas – too comforting for some, it seems. In North London, twice as many cases of drunkenness came before the magistrates during the 1914 festive season as had done the year before. But it wasn’t always easy (or even possible) to get hold of a Christmas drink in an increasingly blacked-out city due to government legislation. The social reformer Beatrice Webb was rather unimpressed:
Our government seems to think that what our people want is increased anxiety and seriousness: they certainly have helped to create a consciousness of personal peril by absence of light and absence of liquor. (White, p.46)
London may have been blacked out and still in fear of Zeppelin raids by Christmas 1915, but the predominant colour on the streets that year was khaki. The majority of those who served on the Western Front came through London in transit, turning the city into what was basically one great big military camp. Thousands of soldiers were also home on leave that Christmas, or back in Blighty recovering from wounds sustained on the front line – particular efforts were made to create an atmosphere of good cheer for those wounded who were recuperating in hospitals in London and elsewhere.
Those still out in France (or heading that way) could expect to be sent all sorts of festive goodies by their families – if they could afford it, of course – and other groups, with many London shops jumping on the bandwagon to advertise ready-made packages of treats that could be quickly (and sometimes cheaply) purchased and easily sent out to soldier relatives abroad, although it seems the sending of Christmas cards was not particularly popular in 1915.
1915 was also the year in which the war really struck home for many people on a personal level; for some, the knowledge that conscription was due to begin in the New Year put a dampener on their festive season, but others, like the writer and wartime nurse Vera Brittain, who was expecting her fiancé Roland Leighton home on leave, ended up remembering that Christmas for the worst possible reasons:
The next morning I had just finished dressing … when the expected message came to say that I was wanted on the telephone. Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from Clare [his sister]; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd. (White, pp.135-6)
By most accounts, Christmas 1916 was a pretty miserable celebration. The blackout in London had become dangerous during the long winter nights, resulting in a statistical increase in fatal accidents on the city’s streets (exacerbated by the foggy weather), and restrictions on food were beginning to be introduced by the government. Many London hotels and restaurants cancelled their festivities as a result, and more Londoners were working allotments in order to have a basic food supply for the season. The journalist Michael McDonagh wrote with a sigh:
To wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ is almost a mockery. Of such is the prevailing gloom. (White, p.176)
The effects of the war were biting hard now, especially after the horrific losses during the Battle of the Somme, which had only ended a month or so before the Christmas of 1916. Many on the home front had lost fathers, brothers, husbands, lovers, friends to the all-engulfing industrial warfare over the Channel – and this bleakness hung over the festive season in London that year, as the historian Caroline Playne observed:
Everyone looked sad & depressed over the Christmas time [sic] in the tubes and streets, with very few exceptions. Only some young people were sometimes happy. The soldiers coming & going look sad, just those who have evidently been met by wife and children had glad expressions. Some dressed up, dissolute couples – soldiers, officers and got up ladies were enjoying pleasure of a kind. (White, p.176)
And it didn’t get any better. Christmas 1917 was the last Christmas of the war, and, in many ways it was the worst for those on the home front. Food was in short supply and there were long queues in the shops for such basics as sugar, bacon, tea, cheese and butter. Naturally, these shortages had a disproportionate impact on the poorer areas of London, unsurprisingly leading to anti-profiteering agitation in some districts. The possibility of going hungry over Christmas (or at any time, in some cases) was a very real one for many less well-off Londoners.
This was to be a mournful, exhausted Christmas all told, lacking in seasonal sparkle for everyone, as the Observer wrote on 23rd December 1917:
It is the fourth Christmas of the war, and for many it is going to be a very quiet, if not a sad one. For the first time, though we are all making the best of things, Christmas has lost its festive air… (White, p. 223)
There would be another eleven months before the war was finally over and London, like the rest of the country, could begin to breathe again after four years of conflict at home and abroad. For those whose loved ones returned from the battlefield, the joy of having them back was often tempered by the fact that many of these men were never the same again as a result of their experiences. For those whose loved ones never returned, there was very little joy at all. Wartime Christmases were stark Christmases – and for many it took a long time afterwards before they began to echo the delight of the pre-1914 festive season once more.
As is traditional with my Christmas Miscellany posts, I end by reproducing a seasonal recipe (or two) from the period in question. To reflect the wartime Christmas pud ‘on the ration’ from the World War Two post, I found some World War One-vintage pudding recipes which take a similarly thrifty approach to the food shortages of the time. Note the very basic instructions – the assumption is clearly made that one would already know how to prepare a pudding mixture and, of course, what to serve it with! These recipes are taken from the archive of The Bystander magazine, and you can find more seasonal treats from its pages here.
Cheap Christmas Pudding:
½lb finely chopped suet
¾lb raisins and currents
½lb brown sugar
2oz candied peel
A little salt
A little cinnamon
Grate the potatoes and carrots raw, and add them last. It is an improvement to use half flour and half breadcrumbs. This quantity makes two large puddings, which must be steamed nine hours.
A Poor Man’s Plum Pudding:
¼lb candied lemon peel
2 tablespoons sugar
Moisten with a little milk, and add enough treacle to make a nice brown. Boil for two hours. This recipe makes a delicious pudding.
Further reading, listening and sources:
White, Jerry – Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 2014)