‘And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised’: Christmas on an Ambulance Train

With thanks to Tim Luard

We all hope to spend Christmas having an enjoyable time with family and friends but, of course, that is not always to be.

100 years ago, millions of people were away from home, swept up in the First World War. Perhaps the best-known Christmas story of the Western Front is the Christmas Truce of 1914, when peace briefly invaded some parts of the battlefields of the Western Front. Any let up was, however, only very temporary, as is shown through the letters sent home over Christmas 1914 by Sister Kate Luard.

Kate served as a nurse throughout the First World War, and was at this time working on Ambulance Trains in Northern France. These special trains were kitted out with bunk beds to transport sick and wounded troops from the front to base hospitals, or to ports from which they would be evacuated back to England.

The letters below are all included in Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, which was published anonymously during the war. A copy is available in the ERO library.

Wednesday 23rd December, 1914

We loaded up at Lillers late on Monday night with one of the worst loads we’ve ever taken, all wounded, half Indians and half British.

You will see by Tuesday’s French communiqués that some of our trenches had been lost, and these had been retaken by the H.L.I. [Highlight Light Infantry], Manchesters, and 7th D.G.’s [Dragoon Guards].

It was a dark wet night, and the loading people were half-way up to their knees in black mud, and we didn’t finish loading till 2 a.m., and were hard at it trying to stop hæmorrhage, &c., till we got them off the train at 11 yesterday morning; the J.J.’s [lice] were swarming, but a large khaki pinny tying over my collar, and with elastic wristbands, saved me this time. One little Gurkha with his arm just amputated, and a wounded leg, could only be pacified by having acid drops put into his mouth and being allowed to hug the tin.

Interior of Ambulance Train at Boulogne. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205249852

Another was sent on as a sitting-up case. Half-way through the night I found him gasping with double pneumonia; it was no joke nursing him with seven others in the compartment. He only just lived to go off the train.

Another one I found dead about 5.30 a.m. We were to have been sent on to Rouen, but the O.C. Train reported too many serious cases, and so they were taken off at B. It was a particularly bad engine-driver too.

I got some bath water from a friendly engine, and went to bed at 12 next day.

We were off again the same evening, and got to B. this morning, train full, but not such bad cases, and are on our way back again now: expect to be sent on to Rouen. Now we are three instead of four Sisters, it makes the night work heavier, but we can manage all right in the day. In the last journey some of the worst cases got put into the top bunks, in the darkness and rush, and one only had candles to do the dressings by. One of the C.S.’s was on leave, but has come back now. All the trains just then had bad loads: the Clearing Hospitals were overflowing.

The Xmas Cards have come, and I’m going to risk keeping them till Friday, in case we have patients on the train. If not, I shall take them to a Sister I know at one of the B. hospitals.

We have got some H.A.C. [Honourable Artillery Company] on this time, who try to stand up when you come in, as if you were coming into their drawing-room. The Tommies in the same carriage are quite embarrassed. One boy said just now, “We ‘ad a ‘appy Xmas last year.”

“Where?” I said.

“At ‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,” he said, beaming.

 

Christmas Eve, 1914

And no fire and no chauffage, and cotton frocks; funny life, isn’t it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of “‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,”—British, Germans, French, and Russians. We are just up at Chocques going to load up with Indians again. Had more journeys this week than for a long time; you just get time to get what sleep the engine-driver and the cold will allow you on the way up.

8 p.m.—Just nearing Boulogne with another bad load, half Indian, half British; had it in daylight for the most part, thank goodness! Railhead to-day was one station further back than last time, as the —— Headquarters had to be evacuated after the Germans got through on Sunday. The two regiments, Coldstream Guards and Camerons, who drove them back, lost heavily and tell a tragic story. There are two men (only one is a boy) on the train who got wounded on Monday night (both compound fracture of the thigh) and were only taken out of the trench this morning, Thursday, to a Dressing Station and then straight on to our train. (We heard the guns this morning.) Why they are alive I don’t know, but I’m afraid they won’t live long: they are sunken and grey-faced and just strong enough to say, “Anyway, I’m out of the trench now.” They had drinks of water now and then in the field but no dressings, and lay in the slush. Stretcher-bearers are shot down immediately, with or without the wounded, by the German snipers.

Etaples Hospital Siding : a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at night (Art.IWM ART 3089) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19897

And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. By this evening they were most of them revived enough to enjoy Xmas cards; there were such a nice lot that they were able to choose them to send to Mother and My Young Lady and the Missis and the Children, and have one for themselves.

The Indians each had one, and salaamed and said, “God save you,” and “I will pray to God for you,” and “God win your enemies,” and “God kill many Germans,” and “The Indian men too cold, kill more Germans if not too cold.” One with a S.A. [South Africa] ribbon spotted mine and said, “Africa same like you.” [Kate also served as a military nurse in South Africa during the Boer War.]

Midnight.—Just unloaded, going to turn in; we are to go off again at 5 a.m. to-morrow, so there’ll be no going to church. Mail in, but not parcels; there’s a big block of parcels down at the base, and we may get them by Easter.

With superhuman self-control I have not opened my mail to-night so as to have it to-morrow morning.

 

Christmas Day, 1914

11 a.m.—On way up again to Béthune, where we have not been before (about ten miles beyond where we were yesterday), a place I’ve always hoped to see. Sharp white frost, fog becoming denser as we get nearer Belgium. A howling mob of reinforcements stormed the train for smokes. We threw out every cigarette, pipe, pair of socks, mits, hankies, pencils we had left; it was like feeding chickens, but of course we hadn’t nearly enough.

Every one on the train has had a card from the King and Queen in a special envelope with the Royal Arms in red on it. And this is the message (in writing hand)—

With our best wishes for Christmas, 1914.

May God protect you and bring you home safe.

Mary R. George R.I.”

That is something to keep, isn’t it?

A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box. These tins containing small gifts were distributed to all troops as a Christmas present from the royal family. Image from the Imperial War Museum.

An officer has just told us that those men haven’t had a cigarette since they left S’hampton, hard luck. I wish we’d had enough for them. It is the smokes and the rum ration that has helped the British Army to stick it more than anything, after the conviction that they’ve each one got that the Germans have got to be “done in” in the end. A Sergt. of the C.G. [Coldstream Guards] told me a cheering thing yesterday. He said he had a draft of young soldiers of only four months’ service in this week’s business. “Talk of old soldiers,” he said, “you’d have thought these had had years of it. When they were ordered to advance there was no stopping them.”

After all we are not going to Béthune but to Merville again.

This is a very slow journey up, with long indefinite stops; we all got bad headaches by lunch time from the intense cold and a short night following a heavy day. At lunch we had hot bricks for our feet, and hot food inside, which improved matters, and I think by the time we get the patients on there will be chauffage.

The orderlies are to have their Xmas dinner to-morrow, but I believe ours is to be to-night, if the patients are settled up in time.

Do not think from these details that we are at all miserable; we say “For King and Country” at intervals, and have many jokes over it all, and there is the never-failing game of going over what we’ll all do and avoid doing After the War.

7 p.m.— Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature.

This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.—Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [injured] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.

We are wondering what the chances are of getting to bed to-night.

4 a.m.—Very late getting in to B.; not unloading till morning. Just going to turn in now till breakfast time. End of Xmas Day.

Christmas in the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Rightly or wrongly, Christmas is a unique time of the year, imbued with centuries of traditions, celebrated on a mass level across the country – even the world – but also on an individual level. Each person picks and chooses his/her own customs to create traditions that become more sacred with each passing year that they are observed, passed down through generations and adapted as families intertwine.

It has been fun to spend the last few days putting together seasonal recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, as our first ever online audio advent calendar. It provides a chance for you to get a glimpse into the variety of unique recordings in our collection, one day at a time.

What does the selection tell us, without giving away too much about future recordings?

First, it demonstrates the tremendous variety in the Archive. We have plenty of local radio broadcasts – primarily from BBC Essex, but also recordings for specialist broadcasters such as hospital radio, and talking newspaper magazines. These are an excellent source for finding specific information, local responses to significant national events, such as the 1953 floods, or the 1987 hurricane. They also provide snapshots of the county at moments in time, through BBC Essex’s ‘A-Z of Essex Villages’ or ‘Pub of the Week’ series.

We have music, from captivating professional recordings to charmingly amateur ones. Sacred music, carols, folk songs, and fun songs. Music inspired by Essex, and music written on distant shores but performed in Essex. We hope there is something to meet everyone’s taste in our advent collection.


One example of the festive music in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, from Day 5 of our advent calendar (SA 10/1/1/19/1).

We have public talks and information broadcasts, revealing the history of traditional customs, or useful information on how to get through winter.

A large proportion of our recordings are oral history interviews with Essex people. So, secondly, the recordings emphasise the fact that Christmas is a special time of year, by the frequency with which it is mentioned in interviews. Even if the interviewee only speaks for a minute or two, the fact that the interviewer thought to ask about the festive holidays demonstrates its importance.

The ways in which people talk about Christmas when they are asked, particularly memories of childhood celebrations, also demonstrate the holiday’s significance. The sense of wonder and delight at this time of year comes back in the voice of the speaker as they recall these memories, even fifty, sixty, or seventy years later.

But this sense of delight raises an important question that must always be asked of oral history interviews. How far does the account reflect the reality? There are obvious questions about fading memories, particularly of years blurred together – was Christmas in one family celebrated in 1930 the same way as in 1925? But there are also dangers of thinking all was bright and lovely; there was just the right amount of snow; and we were all satisfied with the orange and new penny in our stocking, and wanted nothing more. Did siblings never argue? Did Mother never burn the dinner?

Do Prim Coppin’s memories of playing in the snow mask the bitter cold of the winter of 1947, and how much people suffered to endure it? A clip from an oral history interview from Day 2 of our advent calendar (SA 44/1/12/1).

Most people suggest that Christmas in ‘the past’ (that undefined age) was happier. Children wanted less. There was less pressure to strive for perfection, so parents did not overspend. Families enjoyed spending quality time together without television (or smartphones). Communities came together to enjoy carol singing, or skating on the frozen pond. Is this true? And is Christmas really so bad now? And if it is, do we not each individually have the freedom to decide how we celebrate it? What memories will our children recount in fifty years of their childhood celebrations?

Thirdly, the collection demonstrates the gaps that are still evident in our archive. The recordings were deliberately chosen as representative of the common ways that Christmas is celebrated in Essex. But what about the many other cultures now living in the county that have their own special high days and holy days? Often these minority cultures are not suitably represented in the archive. If you are a member of a community that does not celebrate Christmas, you can help: you can collect recordings about your customs and traditions. Please do get in touch with us if you want to discuss starting up this kind of project.

We hope you enjoy our first advent calendar, and please do let us know if you would like us to do it again in future (resources permitting!).

Click here to subscribe to receive daily notifications as we publish each new day’s recording.

Many of these recordings were digitised as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place.

Document of the Month, December 2017: The Christmases of Essex

Lawrence Barker, Archivist

Our Document of the Month for December is the will of Dorothy Christmas of Chelmsford, dating from 1644 (D/ABW 58/39). Dorothy was the wife of Peter Christmas, an inn-keeper at Chelmsford, whose will of 1639 we also have showing that he left most of his estate to his widow.  The couple seem to have had no children.

‘Christmas’ is very much an Essex surname and indeed Reaney, in his Dictionary of British Surnames (1958), traced the name back to one ‘Ralph Cristemesse’ living in Essex in 1185.  Of course, the name has several variants, such as Chrismas or Crismas, which are scattered across Essex but perhaps with a concentration in the villages around Colchester in the north east.  National newspapers, such as The Daily Mail in December 2014, have already noted the record in a parish register we keep here at Essex Record Office of the burial of ‘Father Christmas’ at Dedham in 1564.

‘the marke of the said Dorothey Christmas’

Not much is known from his will what Peter Christmas left his widow but there is much more detail in Dorothy’s will about what she gave to her relations, her brother and several cousins, as well as some ‘loving friends’.  From it, we get a good idea of what her life was like from the ‘goodes’ and ‘chattells’ described; for example, how comfortable the beds were in her house (or ‘shoppe’), with their feather pillows and bolsters and flaxen sheets and coverlets.

Like most early wills, the opening statement beginning ‘In the name of God Amen’, reflects the piety of a former age.  In particular, references in this will to Jesus Christ, the ‘alsufficient Saviour and Redeemer’ and the assurance of having one’s sins forgiven and being ‘made partaker of his heavenly Kingdom with the Elect’ reflect the beliefs promoted by Luther and Calvin during the Reformation.

In 2017, we look back to the beginning of the Reformation 500 years ago, and in doing so, perhaps we might also reflect upon the religious significance that Christmas had for all those who lived at that time.

Dorothy’s will will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout December 2018.

The Siren

In searching recently for Christmas items in our collection, we came across this curious typescript magazine from Christmas 1939, which is full of humorous poems, stories, articles and puzzles (D/DU 948/1). The tone for the magazine is set by its title page – a play on the double meaning of ‘siren’ as both an air raid warning and an attractive (scantily clad) woman.

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The Siren was put together by the staff of the Civil Defence Control, the part of Essex County Council which was in charge of civil defence during the Second World War.

The Civil Defence Service was charged protecting people and property from injury and damage. Following general schemes laid out by central government, there were three main strands to their work:

  • Preventative – evacuation, air raid shelters
  • Alleviative – rescue
  • Remedial – clearing of debris, first aid, restoring vital services

The nerve centre of the system was the Control Room, based at County Hall in Chelmsford.

Reading The Siren not only gives an insight into the work of the Civil Defence staff, but also shows that they had a strong sense of humour, poking fun at each other in poems, stories and songs.

The magazine opens with ‘The Cuties of the County Control’, a song about the glamour of the young women who staffed the Control Room:

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‘A Disrespectful Ditty’ on one of the following pages begins with a ‘bereavement’ – ‘We’ve lost the deep respect for our betters once we bore’, which has become lost in the blackout.

It goes on to reference various staff members, including the first County Archivist, Frederick Emmison, ‘relentlessly efficient in the middle of the night’, and steadfastly avoiding getting tipsy at the staff party.

Other verses poke fun at two of the Deputy County Controllers – Major J Meikeljohn and Mr H.P. Jamieson – before another verse spares other managers the same treatment: ‘But on these exalted persons may depend our daily bread, So you can’t expect us to rush in where angels fear to tread’.

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Later in the magazine we find a ‘Prefatory Alphabet’, which gives a wonderful insight into what was on people’s minds, such as:

‘G is for Gas-mask. Alas for humanity –

Visibly sign pf social insanity.

K is for Knitting, nocturnal and endless;

Those making the garments will certainly spend less.

M is for Molotov, Soviet minister,

Whose machinations have lately been sinister.

R is for Rota that grimly enmeshes you;

Think of the coffee that nightly refreshes you!

V is the Volume of work that oppresses

The people whose job is to clear up the messes.

W’s the Warden, ensconced in a helmet,

Who moans of the light ‘twixt the curtain and pelmet.’

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Some of the pieces do not relate directly to the war, but provide some escapism, such as this (slightly cheeky) meditation on a day out in Epping Forest:

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Even though the staff of the Civil Defence Service were engaged in serious, vital work during the war, what comes through in The Siren is a strong sense camaraderie amongst the staff. The magazine was clearly supposed to provide some light relief at a dark time; as one of the couplets of the ‘Prefatory Alphabet’ says:

‘U are the reader. We hope this experiment

Will bring you good cheer and the odd spot of merriment’

We have only been able to just begin to lift the lid on these people and their work – if anyone out there has any more information do get in touch.

Season’s eatings: mince pies through the ages

The collections at the Essex Record Office include several historic recipe books, which give us an insight into what our ancestors ate and drank. This includes how our Essex ancestors made that essential Christmas dish, mince pies.

The history of mince pies can be traced back to the 1200s, when European crusaders returned from wars in the Middle East bringing recipes containing meats, fruit and spices with them. Typically, early mince pies contained minced meat, suet, fruit, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and were large oblongs in shape.

The pies were stigmatised by the Puritan government under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s due to perceived associations with Catholicism, but people did not give up their mince pies so easily.

Mince pies began to get sweeter during the 1700s, as cheap sugar arrived in Britain from West Indian slave plantations. By the 1800s, the pies had evolved into the small, round, sweet pies that we recognise today. While suet is still used in many recipes, the inclusion of meat was largely dropped altogether.

For some of us, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a mince pie (or two). The Women’s Own meeting of Stockwell Congregational Chapel in Colchester lamented in December 1947 ‘Another austerity Christmas. No mince pies, only a bit of cake to have with our cup of tea’ (D/NC 42/5/5).

A traditional mince pie recipe which includes boiled ox tongues can be found in the recipe book of Elizabeth Slany, which she began to keep in 1715 (D/DR Z1). Elizabeth was born near Worcester, and in 1723 married Benjamin LeHook, a factor (or agent) in the City of London. Elizabeth lived to the grand age of 93, dying in 1786. The book is catalogued as D/DR Z1, and you can view images of the entire book here by the magic of Seax. Her recipes for pastry for mince pies and the mincemeat filling can be found on images 15 and 16.

Elizabeth Slany's recipe for mince pie pastry (D/DR Z1)

Elizabeth Slany’s recipe for mince pie pastry (D/DR Z1)

To make past [pastry] for Mince Pyes or Tarts

Take a quarter of flower ¾ of a pound of buttor & rub your butter in the flower make it up with boyling water.

Elizabeth Slany's recipe for mince pies, including boiled ox's tongues (D/DR Z1)

Elizabeth Slany’s recipe for mince pies, including boiled ox’s tongues (D/DR Z1)

To make Mince Pyes

Take 2 neats tongues [ox tongues] boyl them till they will peel & weigh to a pound of tongue a pound & ¾ of the best beef suet pickt clean from ye Skins shred the tongue very well by itself then shred your suet very well then take 10 pippins pared & shred fine & mix them all together then take 2 nutmegs & the like quantity of mace cloves cinamon & ginger take a pint or more of wine let ½ be sack & ½ claret so season it to your mind with the spices wine sugar salt & lemon peel shred very fine & the juice or 2, 3 or more Lemons you must put in 4 pounds of Currans & some candid orange peel & Lemon & cirton if you eat them hot you may when they are bak’t heat some sack & sugar & put it in them.

 

A slightly later recipe from the 1770s which doesn’t include meat can be found in the cookery book of Mary Rooke of Langham Hall. Mary’s (fairly alcoholic) recipe for ‘minc’d Pye meat without meat’ calls for a mixture of three pounds of grated apples, two pounds of finely chopped beef suet, two pounds of currants, two pounds of raisins, the rind and pulp of two boiled lemons, half a pint of brandy and half a pint of port wine, the juice of four lemons, sugar to taste, and half a pound of blanched, sliced almonds. The ingredients were to be mixed well then put into small jars and covered with bladder to keep them air tight. When serving the pies Mary recommended small slices candied orange and lemon to be put on top of them, and a mixture of brandy and port wine to slosh over the pies to moisten them. You can view images of Mary’s entire recipe book on our online catalogue Seax here (D/DU 818/1).

Mary Rooke's recipe for mince pie filling (D/DU 818/1)

Mary Rooke’s recipe for mince pie filling (D/DU 818/1)

A rather more modest recipe from the 1930s which omits both meat and suet altogether can be found in The Essex Cookery Book, published in several editions by the Essex Education Committee. This recipe calls for ¼ lb each of apples, raisins, currants, sultanas and sugar, 2 ozs of mixed peel, 2 ozs of margarine, 1 oz of almonds, and ½ a teaspoon each of salt and nutmeg, along with the rind and juice of 1 lemon. The fruit is to be peeled and chopped, and the ingredients mixed well before being stored in jars.

Whether you are a mince pie fan or not, we hope you have some tasty treats over the festive season.

Document of the Month, December: Christmas giving

We’ve cheated slightly in December and chosen two documents: a valuation of gifts to Sir John Bramston, 1636 (D/DEb 8) and ‘Bread and Meat given to the Poor’ at Terling, 1843 (D/P 299/28/6). Both will be on display in the Searchroom throughout December.

The custom of giving presents at Christmas has a long history.  These two documents detail gifts received by those at the extremes of the social scale – the rich and powerful and the poor and needy.

Sir John Bramston was Lord Chief Justice of England and at Christmas 1636 he received many gifts, mainly of meat and poultry, from family, friends and associates.  The list begins with a gift of 20 turkeys from his sister-in-law Mrs Aylmer and her son.  Presents included cattle, pigs, game, oysters, wine, eringoes (candied sea holly roots, a Colchester speciality) and even a silver dish.  Those giving presents included his tenants but also Lord Petre, ‘Mr Dacye the lawyer’ and the town of Chelmsford which presented him with a hogshead of claret.  The gifts were delivered to his manor of Skreens in Roxwell and the list includes sums of money given to each servant or messenger making the deliveries.

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In contrast the list of poor at Terling who were to receive money, bread and meat on Christmas Eve 1843 records the number in each family, with the number of loaves and pounds of meat given in proportion to the size of the family.  Charles Coal who had 10 in his family received 5 shillings, two loaves and 10lbs. of beef.  Notes on the list indicate that some of the poor were not deserving of money or meat.  James Church who had seven in his family was considered ‘Not deserving money or Meat’ and received only two loaves.  There were 142 recipients listed, with a total of 607 family members, who between them shared 183 loaves, 566 pounds of beef and £10 7s. 6d.

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The documents together, though separated by 200 years, provide an interesting insight into social inequalities. We can only hope that Sir John Bramston shared out his gifts and didn’t try to consume all of them himself!