Christmas is fast approaching; excitement is building as food and last-minute presents are bought. For many of us it’s a time to relax and consider the last year, but what would Christmas have been like 100 years ago?
Many were away from family, serving in the First World War. The MailOnline recently featured five ‘Christmas Cards from the Front’ from our First World War collection, which would have lifted the spirits of those separated from their families. But what about all the people not ‘on the front’ who also served in the First World War?
Over 200 hospital war diaries from the First World War are now available online, making them available globally for the first time. These war diaries reveal the many challenges involved in setting up hospitals in battlegrounds and hospital ships out at sea as well as the staggering amount of logistics involved in nursing thousands of soldiers and animals back to health so they could return to battle.
They also show fascinating details about daily routines, operations, and even Christmas services, giving insight into life in hospital during the First World War.
In the war diary for the Indian Convalescence Hospital in Rouen, France, on 25 December 1914, it notes that ‘Christmas cards were distributed and that 131 Princess Mary gifts for the Ghurka Rifles […] No non-smoking gifts were received’. However, on Boxing Day, two non-smoking Princess Mary Gifts were received along with an extra 104 Christmas cards. This is all noted in between more sombre preparations to take on 250 more Convalescents and provide proper facilities to cremate the Hindu dead.
In December 1918, not long after Armistice was declared, the war diaries note more Christmas celebrations. Hospital Ship HMS Kalyan, which was docked at Archangel in Russia, celebrated Christmas Day with ‘a concert in the evening and usual festivities. Wards were decorated and Red Cross gifts distributed. All passed well at sea.’
On board Hospital Ship Vasna in December 1918, ‘a generous supply of gifts were obtained from the Red Cross Depot in Basra and were distributed by the Matron to all patients, passengers and staff. They included various useful articles such as shoes, socks, and toothbrushes as well as cakes, biscuits, cigarettes […] also sweets for Indians.’
The last diary entry for Ambulance Transport Syria is dated December 1919. Nothing is noted about Christmas but New Year’s Eve seems to have been celebrated with a concert in the evening and an extra dinner given to all ranks.
It is comforting to see that many people serving in the First World War, whether on the front or on board hospital ships, were given some treats at Christmastime, when so many of them sacrificed their lives.