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‘We hope to give the lads a little cheer’: marking Christmas during the First World War

During the First World War, the troops made an effort to mark Christmas, despite the obvious difficulties. Words, objects and images from Imperial War Museums’ collections and elsewhere reveal how the soldiers negotiated some space for family, sharing and festivity.

Acquiring the centrepiece for a festive feast was a frequent goal. John Ramson, a padre with one of the British West Indies Battalion, described in his memoir, Carry On: or Pages from a life of a West Indian Padre in the field (1918), how the men had been busy with preparations for Christmas 1916 ‘including the search for a pig’. It was the habit of Maori troops to invite their families to attend a traditional hangi feast – cooking in a pit oven – and this they had done while in camp in New Zealand in Christmas 1914. During Christmas 1916, they did the same in France, buying pigs and fowl for roasting –  but this time without their families.

20th Hussars with a chicken

Men of the 20th Hussars with a chicken which they have purchased for their Christmas dinner, Bailleul, December 1916. The soldiers each have mistletoe attached to their caps. (c) IWM Q 1627

Italian woman plucking turkeys

An Italian woman helping British troops to pluck turkeys for their Christmas dinner, December 1917. (C) IWM Q 26537

There were official gifts too.  King George V’s daughter, Princess Mary, gave her name to an initiative which – drawing on public donations – provided soldiers a box of cigarettes and tobacco in a specially designed embossed tin, and the contents were varied according to the recipient.

Princess Mary Christmas Box

The cigarette tin presented to the troops at Christmas 1914 by HRH Princess Mary. (c) IWM Q71937

In 1917, the army presented all members of the British West Indies Regiment with cigarette boxes, made of metal and painted black.

BWIR Cigarette Box

Cigarette Box presented to the British West Indies Regiment, Christmas 1917. (C) IWM EPH 42881

Ramson wrote about how they filled these same tins with cigarettes.

‘In addition we hope to give each man a little parcel of chocolate and toffee, nuts and raisins, and possibly some cigars, while we hear the Government Issue of rations is to include a good slice of pudding for the occasion.’

Not all the presents were popular however.  One New Zealander, Herbert Tuck, wrote home to his sister about his present from his government in 1915:

‘I started to write to you on Boxing Day, but I didn’t finish it as I was very much down in the mouth, as a result of the feverish state I was in, and the paltry Christmas present the New Zealanders received, composed of a pair of socks – paltry trash – one packet of the cheapest cigarettes on the market, and a tin of boiled lollies that one would be ashamed to give a kid.’

Tuck’s letter, despite lacking gratitude and its rather sullen undertone, reminds the modern reader of the hardships of spending Christmas at war, a long way from home.

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