This post copies an article that I wrote for the newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, the body of Anglican chaplains serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. It is part of an ongoing centennial retrospective of Anglican military chaplaincy in the First World War. Last Christmas, I posted here about the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first Christmas of the war, when they were waiting to go over from England to France. By Christmas 1915, the Corps had suffered brutal baptisms of fire at places such as Second Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy, and were well on their way to becoming professional soldiers.
By Padre Michael Peterson
To make the centennial of the First World War, the AMO Newsletter continues a series of vignettes of Canada’s Anglican chaplains and their ministry throughout that conflict. Each instalment in the series will recall a time one hundred years prior to the date of each Newsletter.
During the second half of 1915, Canada’s Army and its Chaplaincy had both matured. The Canadian Corps, now with two divisions in the line, had suffered its baptism of fire in the spring at Second Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy. By the winter the Corps’ strength had reached ninety-five thousand, and it held a line in Belgium south of Ypres and north of Messines, between the villages of St. Eloi and Wulverghem. While the positions were static, the British high command expected all units to carry out trench raids under cover of darkness in order to improve combat skills, gather prisoners and intelligence, and to maintain the troops’ fighting spirit.
These orders were more easily given than executed. The historian of the Second Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment), described the Flanders rains that winter as “like no other that had ever fallen on earth”.
There was no escape from it. The trenches, which were nothing more than sandbagged breastworks, simply dissolved. The earth within the sandbags liquefied and oozed out. Everything collapsed. Every indentation of the ground filled with water, and, to make things worse, the enemy, being on higher ground, delighted in draining his trenches across No Man’s Land into those occupied by the Canadians.
Those in damp billets and flooded dugouts fared little better, and as there was not sufficient waterproof clothing, particularly rubber waders, troops suffered from influenza and a new ailment known as “trench foot”.
Canadian troops in Flanders, Winter 1915
(Natl. Archives of Canada)
While the Canadian Chaplain Service had been formally established in August 1915, it suffered from the divisive leadership of its first Director, Col. Richard Steacy. His partiality towards Anglicans and Orange Lodge factionalism meant that many Catholic and other Protestant chaplains were kept out of the line, and as Corps numbers increased, so did the number of padre vacancies.
Chaplains in the rear areas found opportunities to enhance morale. Some set up sports events and libraries, while others worked with the Red Cross and church groups in Canada to distribute comforts to the troops. Arthur McGreer, an Anglican priest (Trinity College 1910) assigned to Third Field Ambulance, was tasked with setting up a concert troupe which became wildly popular. By the end of the war there were some thirty such concert troupes entertaining Canadian soldiers in Europe, the most famous being the Dumbells.
Three of the Dumbells. Their founder, Capt. Merv Plunkett, is in the centre.
Through the second half of 1915, padres had earned greater freedoms to pursue their frontline ministries. Canon Scott wrote that “Chaplains were being looked upon more as parish priests to their battalions. They could be visited freely by the men, and could also have meals with the men when they saw fit”. During the sodden winter of 1915-1916, some found that maintaining morale could be difficult. Even the diligent Canon Scott discovered this challenge when he met a unit, “wet and muddy”, coming out of the line.
I stood by the bridge watching them pass and, thinking it was the right and conventional thing to do, wished them all a Merry Christmas. My intentions were of the best, but I was afterwards told that it sounded to the men like the voice of one mocking them in their misery.
Christmas 1915 was a varied experience for Canadian troops. If they were in the front line, it might pass with scant celebration. The 10th BN (Calgary Rifles) spent Christmas in the trenches, supporting the engineers with working parties day and night. The 10th’s war diary states tersely: “No notice of Christmas Season other than issue of plum puddings and gifts of cigars and fruit at midday meal”. However the men of the 7th BN (British Columbia Regiment) found time to publish a Christmas edition of their regimental newspaper, “The Listening Post”, with an image of a stern Father Christmas and wishes “To one and all of our Fellow Countrymen at home in Canada, and to our many friends and relatives where ‘ere they be … a right MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR”.
Pte. Alan Manderson with the 49th BN (Edmonton Regiment) wrote to his mother to describe a fine Christmas dinner of chicken, plum pudding and beer served by the sergeants.
We got a Christmas sock from the people of Canada for the Canadians in France. Mine came from a lady in the east end of Toronto. I may write and thank her for it. At seven we had supper – just custard and figs. Then followed the concert — a pantomime, “The Babes in the Wood”. It was great. The actors were all soldiers in camp here, but I’ve seen worse shows in Toronto lots of times.
For those troops in the front lines, however, war and danger were ever present. Canon Scott was summoned on Christmas Eve by a sergeant “who told me he had some men to be buried”. After prayers over their graves with the burial party, he set up in a barn “which for some reason or other, although it was in sight of the enemy, had not been demolished and was used as a billet” and celebrated a midnight Eucharist with the men of the 16th BN (Canadian Scottish). This candlelit barn, with empty biscuit tins as an altar, was a far cry from Scott’s previous Christmas, celebrated in the lovely English parish of St. Mary and Melor, Amesbury.
St. Quentin Cabaret Commonwealth Cemetery
Somewhere near here, Canon Scott celebrated the Eucharist on Christmas Eve, 1915
The Highlanders assembled in two rows and I handed out hymn books. There were many candles in the building so the men were able to read. It was wonderful to hear in such a place and on such an occasion, the beautiful old hymns, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The men sang them lustily and many and varied were the memories of past Christmases that welled up in their thoughts at that time.
Christmas 1915 also saw one of the famous informal soldier’s truces. For some Canadian troops, the memories of the gas attack at Second Ypres left them feeling too uncharitable for such a gesture. The CEF official history notes that “front-line battalions were instructed that any attempt by the enemy ‘to bring about a temporary cessation of hostilities’ must be met by rifle, and if necessary artillery fire”. However, in Canon Scott’s part of the line, all was peaceful. To the Canon’s “astonishment”, German and Canadian soldiers strolled in plain view of one another, and bottles of beer were exchanged as gifts. Miraculously the rain had stopped. “Christmas parcels had arrived and the men were making merry with their friends, and enjoying the soft spring-like air, and the warm sunshine”.
The unofficial soldiers’ truces of Christmas 1915 earned
significant media attention.
Later that day Scott celebrated Eucharist with another battalion, “in the cellar of a ruined building” and “down some broken steps”. He would later write that “We had two more war Christmases in France, but I always look back upon that first one as something unique in its beauty and simplicity”.
No Canadian soldier that Christmas could imagine that three more years of war, each more terrible than the last, lay ahead of them.
Blessings to you and yours this Christmas.