Christmas at the Front: Insights from the Monica Roberts Collection

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Christmas CardThe Monica Roberts Collection Database is well-worth examining for insights into the personal stories of Irish soldiers fighting at the Front and their experiences at Christmas time. The letters have been transcribed and digitized by Dublin City Council and the user-friendly database allows for keyword searching across the collection and also searching by ‘month and date’. This allows researchers to explore different themes and topics.  A search using  key-words such as ‘Christmas’ and 'New Year' finds vivid pen-pictures of  different soldiers and their efforts to keep their spirits up during the Christmas period.

Arthur Brennan notes how Christmas day offers no respite from the War but that the soldiers are frequently fortified by memories of happier times at home

Arthur Brennan“I remember quite well, how the Boys last year, endeavored to bring home to themselves, their Christmas at home, in the past. I of course was one the many who pictured this and that, yet the day went by and I could hardly notice any difference at all. However, this campaign cannot last forever, so like the remainder I am looking forward to old times again” 

(11 December 1916)

Joseph Elley  also indicated that there was no real break from the war for those still on active service in France and Belgium. He writes One would not know it was X mas out here if you were not told, things go on as usual”  and that  "if any of the Germans ” show themselfs [themselves] we have to shoot & take no notice not like last year, when they exchanged gifts” (24 December 1915)

George Soper’s letter describes the juxtaposition of the beautiful snow-filled landscape with the reality of spending a second harsh Christmas on the battlefield. 

Image of extract from Letter“I received your parcel on the 17th and we were after having a great fall of snow so I need not tell you how comfortable they were when I put them on [socks], what a  [relief] from the cold. It was simply splendid to look across the country and to see the ground all covered with white. It would remind you of those pictures you see of a Christmas time when Santa Claus is going around instead of a Battlefield. We had snow this time last year and also on Christmas Day. What a Christmas that was. I don't think I shall ever forget it but there what is the use of grumbling. I suppose there was plenty of people worse off than us chaps “ (8 November 1915)

Describing Christmas 1915, Sgt. Major George A. Hillman’s letter does however highlight the efforts made to create a Christmas atmosphere, noting that a special  meal  and concert was organised for the men

“On Xmas day I am pleased to say we had a very nice time indeed, the men all contributing a franc each and that was supplemented by our officers. I was commissioned to look after the feeding arrangements and I must say everyone had quite a good Xmas dinner, the menu consisting Roast Pork, Potatoes & Cabbage Xmas pudding and pineapple. after which there were oranges, apples, figs and plenty of smoking material and drinks. Considering we are at war we all considered ourselves fortunate to be so well off."

A feast like this must have been a huge treat for the men compared to the meals that they had the rest of the year. It must have also given them a brief feeling of home to be able to celebrate the holidays, even in a small way.

Christmas Card from the Royal Flying Corps 1915Sergeant William Hunt of the Royal Flying Corps similarly describes  events organised to boost the moral of the troops over Christmas period  “ We are trying to organise a concert & it looks like being a success. It is surprising the amount of talent we have found in the squadron”  (7 December 1916). Private Christopher Fox wrote how their Christmas dinner was delayed until mid-January in 1917  "we only had our Xmas Dinner 4 days ago we had a grand night of it we couldnt enjoy ourselves better we had plenty of Singing and Dancing I think I eat to much pudding. I blame it for me been sick" (19 January 1917)

The collection also includes many beautiful embodied postcards and Christmas cards which were sent to Monica Roberts during the Christmas period, frequently with messages of hope for an allies victory.

Christmas CardPrivate Edward Mordaunt “ I am enclosing a card hoping it shall bring you the greatest of happiness for Xmas 1917, also a prosperous and Victorious New Year.”  (21 December 1917).

The collection includes many more examples of letters written at Christmas time which are fascinating to read. Perhaps the most remarkable aspects which emerges collectively from the letters and Christmas cards is the courage the men showed in the face of appalling circumstances and hardship in the trenches.

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