The Christmas of 1914 was a Christmas like no other in the war. On the front lines, as this picture shows, there was that unique moment of humanity as the two sides crossed into no man's land and celebrated together. Policy aside, by 1915, too much blood had been spilled to enable this to happen.
1915 changed everything.
But today, as Christmas approaches, I am going to talk about the more intimate Christmas of my extended family in WWI. For this too was to be their last normal Christmas. Too much blood would be spilled for them too in 1915. For many, the wounds would never heal. But for a few, something wonderful would arise from the pain.
This is Alexis Helmer. He is in the First Brigade of the CFA. His best friend is Captain John McCrae MD. They got the day off on Christmas. It is likely that they spent the day together. McCrae was not only a doctor but also a gunner in the First Brigade. He had been a gunner in the Boer War.
In May 1915, Helmer will be blown up by a shell. His friends had to use sacks to collect his body parts and then they filled the coffin with a shape of a man. There was no chaplain that day, and McCrae, who had been working as a doctor, took the service. Later the grave was lost as the war moved back and forth over the spot.
But Helmer's death was not the end. For in his grief, McCrae was to write in Flanders Fields.
That Christmas, my Aunt Frances would see her father Chattan well for the last time. She and her parents would spend a day at the rented cottage in Westbury just west of the Plain. Her baby brother John, we see him in the picture above, was in Montreal with Chattan's mother. In the spring of 1915, Chattan woud be invalided out of the army. He was very sick indeed with a major infection of the heart. His mother got on the next ship to come and see her son. She took baby John with them.
The ship she took along with many friends was the Lusitania.
My grandfather Alec was with his battery and the rest of the 2nd Brigade, now finally billeted in villages on the north of the Plain.
They would likely have been meeting in the string of pubs along this road. There were about 844 men and 30 officers in the Brigade then. These men became known as "The Originals".
I have a menu of the annual reunion of the Brigade that was held each year on Feb 15, the anniversary of their arrival as a Brigade in France for the first time in 1915. At this dinner, that included Arthur Currie, who became commander of the CEF in 1917 and General MacNaughton who commanded the Canadian Army at the outset of WWII, were only about 30 men in all. Signing their names were the generals and the men. So of all this nearly 900 men that celebrated Christmas in 1914, maybe 30 made it to peacetime.
This was their last normal Christmas ever. Most would be wounded or dead by Christmas 1915.
I can't be sure but I suspect that my great Aunt Marguerite, Lady Allan, was back in Montreal that Christmas with her three daughters. Here she is with Anna and Gwendolyn. Martha was working to get a place as a VAD even though she was under age. Uncle Montague was probably London and if he was would have had Christmas with his son, Hugh, who was at Eton. Uncle Montague and Aunt Marguerite had found a house in London and planned to spend the war there. So, as well as organizing Christmas, Aunt Marguerite was packing up Ravenscrag.
In the spring of 1915, Martha would sail a few days before her mother and sisters. Lady Allan was going to sail with Anna and Gwen and many of her friends on the Lusitania.
This too was to be their last Christmas as an intact family.
This is "Tim" Trumbull Warren. He was Guy Drummond's brother in law. Here is Guy just before he died.
They were both married to Braithwaite sisters, Mary and Marjory. I know for certain that Guy spent Christmas with Mary and can only surmise that Tim was there with Marjory. For I have documentary evidence that both girls came to London to be with their men. They may well have travelled with Lady Drummond, Guy's mother, who arrived on November 19th. She lived at Browns Hotel. Maybe they all met there?
Tim was to die on April 20th 1915. Guy to die on April 22nd. Guy wrote to his mother on the day of his own death. He starts the letter like this:
Of course I came to the war knowing that its bitterest trial would be the loss of my friends or relatives, but I had not expected such a sudden or heavy loss as that of Tim Warren the day before yesterday.
He ends it with these prescient thoughts referring to his sister in law.
Words are no good, are they? Poor little wife. Indeed and truly it’s much harder for you women at home.
Your affectionate son, Guy
Both men lost within two days!
Stricken with grief and determined to comfort her sisters, the last Braithwaite girl, Dorothy, got the next ship to England. She joined my great aunt Marguerite and Mrs Stephens on the Lusitania. They all shared a table in the dining room for lunch just before the torpedo struck. Gwen and Anna played with baby John.
Mary Hendrie Braithwaite Drummond - the only picture I have been able to find of her.
I know for certain that Guy had Christmas with Mary because nine months later, on October 1st 1915, she gave birth to his son, also known as Guy. Mary and her sister Marjory both remarried. Guy grew up in a loving family with his step father Tom Stoker who married Mary in November 1919.
It is good that we cannot tell the future. 1915 was to end any idea that this war would be an adventure.
So I wish you all my dear readers a very happy Christmas. Every moment is precious.