22 December 2017

Christmas through the CWGC archive

The Commission’s archive team has taken a look back through the CWGC’s collection for stories of Christmas past. They uncovered a range of items, produced in different settings and time periods, which all have a link to Christmas.

 

Personal accounts, 1914 - 1920

The pages below are an account of the Christmas Day spent by Fabian Ware’s Mobile Red Cross Unit on the Western Front in 1914. They come from a set of four diaries of the unit, which cover October 1914 to April 1915.

The unit was charged with collecting and transporting wounded soldiers to medical posts. It was while carrying out this task that Ware became aware of the sheer number of casualties and the need to record the details and locations of their graves.

 

This is an account of Christmas 1917 from the diary of L/Cpl George Roland Willis, Royal Engineers. He spent the day in camp in Ramleh.

It reads: "Dec 25 Xmas, what a day drowned with rain all day on 24th half the tent blown down and camp is flooded. No Xmas mail owing to being unable to get transport along."

Things did however improve for New Year’s Eve with the entry for the day stating: "Good little party."

 

George William Robinson, one of the early gardeners employed by the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), recorded his memories of Christmas 1920 in Belgium.

He wrote: “We were granted three days for Xmas, Christmas Day (Saturday) until Tuesday. We went to Pop[eringhe] for the evening stopping en route at Ypres for our Xmas dinner which we had in a restaurant and which consisted of a leg of not turkey or goose but rabbit, and some preparation called soup for the sake of politeness. We had a lively gathering of about a hundred of the Commission employees and a very decent evening sleeping in camp overnight.”

Christmas wreaths

After the First World War Christmas for many was a time to remember loved ones lost during the conflict, with wreaths sometimes placed on graves. A number of private organisations and individuals set up businesses to provide this service to families. The IWGC often received requests from families for wreaths to be placed on graves. Although the Commission could not provide the wreaths it passed on the details of the organisations to families.

 

Letter from Mr George E. Dyke to the IWGC asking if it could recommend a wreath laying business to enable him to have a wreath laid on his son Lieutenant George Bewsey Dyke's grave, December 1924 (left), and  a report on the number of Christmas wreaths laid at IWGC cemeteries during Christmas 1921 in the Poperinghe area (right)

Christmas in Arras

Journalist Henry Benson made a number of visits to France and Belgium after the end of the First World War, writing various articles on the progress the IWGC was making with the cemeteries and memorials it was constructing.

In this article from December 1922, he records his experience of visiting the Arras area on a trip to lay Christmas wreaths on the graves of four soldiers.

It reads: “I found peace and silence, which, like the Egyptian darkness of the Bible, could almost be felt, at Wancourt. The constant stream of visitors and bereaved relatives which flowed continuously during the summer months had ceased, the fallen warriors were alone, and “God’s Acre” was in very truth restful and serene.”

Christmas Parcels

When Belgium and France were invaded by German forces in May 1940 during the Second World War all Commission staff were to be evacuated to the UK. However, the speed of the German advance meant more than 150 men were taken prisoner and spent most of the war in internment camps in France and Germany. The IWGC arranged for parcels containing cigarettes and tobacco to be sent to the men at Christmas.

 

IWGC staff at St. Denis internment camp in 1944

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