Another Christmas in the Trenches

07 December 2018

History | War and Conflict

Photo from [My trip aboard: album of service with Ambulance Americaine], 1915 © Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Photo from [My trip aboard: album of service with Ambulance Americaine], 1915 © Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

December. It’s here. As Kevin McCallister once declared, “This is it. No turning back!” For some, the festive season is marked by traditional fare – carol singing, sleigh rides, chestnuts roasting on an open fire. For others, however, nothing heralds the arrival of Christmas like Hans Gruber prowling about Nakatomi Plaza or Elton John hawking pianos for a certain department store.

Inevitably, watching the crooner transported through Christmases past, my thoughts turned to famous festive stories throughout time; Washington and his troops fording the Delaware, Cromwell – that classic panto villain – cancelling Christmas, and, of course, the famed football match of 1914. Contested between jovial troops in No Man’s Land just months into a war which would drag on for another four years, the latter looms particularly large in the collective memory.

Christmas 1915 / Greetings from Ambulance Train No. 16, 1915 © 	Special Collections, University of Leeds. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Christmas 1915 / Greetings from Ambulance Train No. 16, 1915 © Special Collections, University of Leeds. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Browsing the gallery of Medical Services and Warfare to learn more about how the armed forces spent Christmas during the First World War, I stumbled across scenes of soldiers convalescing on bough-decked hospital wards; stony faced and bandage-wrapped, they pose with a tree twinkling behind them. While hostilities continued to rage at the Front, Christmas was clearly still celebrated behind the lines. In amongst thousands of periodicals, medical records and text books, intricately designed cards can be found, sharing New Year’s messages from specific divisions to the folks at home. The magazines of the Red Cross, meanwhile, feature idealised scenes of soldiers filling stockings for sleeping children and nurses reading Christmas greetings to the wounded. But was this a fair representation of Christmas at war?

I turned to the diaries for a more personal account and found one document in particular that captured the festivity of life on the ward. Published in 1919, Hospital days in Rouen, was a memoir of VAD nurse, Tina Gray. Recalling a visit into the town to find tissue paper, she notes, “What rivalry there was at ward decoration!” My, such innocent fun! Her unexpected follow-up focusses not on the staff, but their patients: “They were bold, bad boys and strangers were well-advised to beat a hasty retreat, for, unbidden, they had hung branches of mistletoe in every conceivable corner.” Quaint, I thought. And yet: “The full, thoughtless devilry of this can only be realised when you know the ward was diphtheria.” Yikes. 

As a war of attrition raged on, nurses decorated the wards, soldiers posted cards home and civilians donated gifts for their boys in France. The average Tommy sheltering in the trenches may not have experienced footie, tinsel or snogs during the long, drawn out conflict, but on the officers’ wards, efforts were still made to instil cheer despite grim circumstances. So, this Christmas morning, when you wake up nursing a hangover and lack the strength to spear a sprout, spare a thought for the troops of years gone by – and their poor nurses.

The American Red Cross Magazine, Vol. 11, Nos. 1-12, 1915 © Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
The American Red Cross Magazine, Vol. 11, Nos. 1-12, 1915 © Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Medical Services and Warfare is available now. To find out more or request a free trial, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit https://www.amdigital.co.uk/primary-sources/medical-services-and-warfare

About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, popular medicine, World’s Fairs and socialism around the globe. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.