Christmas in a War Zone - From a World War I Soldier's Diary

Christmas was a Busy Day for my Uncle Walt

The request was for a Hub dealing with Christmas in a war zone. Patty Inglish has already provided an excellent Hub on this topic with her article about the 1914 Christmas Truce during World War I.

Unlike the temporary Christmas and Tet truces that diplomats arranged during the Vietnam War, the World War I Christmas truce was a spontaneous event brought about by the troops facing each other at the front. Of course, American troops were not involved in this truce as it occurred some three years prior to our entry into World War I.

Having served mostly in a reserve capacity within the United States with a few side trips to Germany as an aircrew member in the U.S. Air Force I am not in a position to give any first hand accounts of Christmas in War.

However, I do have in my possession a small diary kept by my great-uncle, Walter A. Fraser, who was an enlisted man serving in the U.S. Army's 309th Artillery Battalion in France as both an artilleryman and musician in his unit's band.

The Diary

The diary is a small, bound notebook designed more as an address book and appointment calendar than a diary. When one is traveling around France, mostly on foot and carrying all of your belongings in a pack on your back as he and his fellow soldiers were, it is best to keep things as small and light as possible.

Many of the entries are simply dates and the names of the place he was that day. There are often gaps, one of them being between the entries for July 14, 1918 and July 21, 1918. These are the days in which his unit was engaged in the battle of Chateau-Thierry and simply staying alive consumed every waking moment leaving no time to worry about a diary.

My Uncle Walt in France 1918

Walter A. Fraser with the U.S. 309th Field Artillery Regiment in France in 1918
Walter A. Fraser with the U.S. 309th Field Artillery Regiment in France in 1918 | Source

Shortly after the battle he received a letter from his fiancée informing him that her sister, my Grandmother, had given birth to my Mother. From that time on he didn't need a diary entry to remind him of where he was on July 18, 1918 as my Mother's birth and the battle of Chateau-Thierry were forever linked in his mind.

According to the history books, Christmas of 1918 came some six weeks after the end of the war.

But the armistice that was signed on November 11, 1918 was simply a truce designed to halt the fighting while the diplomats tried to work out peace terms.

Reading letters sent home by my Uncle Walt it was clear that the troops fully expected the war to resume any day.

Military and diplomatic leaders felt the same way, which is why the troops in the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) along with British, French, German and other armies remained in their positions and ready to fight.

So, here is my uncle's account of his Christmas Day in 1918 where, at the age of 24, he found himself in an Army band in France playing the French Horn and attempting to enjoy what he thought was a temporary lull in the war.

I have presented it as he wrote it with my only changes being to capitalize words where necessary, add punctuation where necessary and to add a few words, which I have placed in brackets, which I felt were necessary to make the sentence in question complete.

Christmas Day - Two Small Pancakes for Breakfast Followed by a Cold, Bumpy Ride in the Back of a Truck

Dec 25th 1918 - Fresons, France

We were allowed a little longer sleep this day owing to what day it was. Being about 7 o'clock reveille after which we went over to mess. It was a mess to the cooks [who], after planning the night before to get up a couple of hours earlier to give us a good feed of pancakes, over slept a couple of hours.

No breakfast started, not even a fix. Eight and it was time to eat. We hung around and hollered "soup" and everything. While they were making the cakes, a voice from the rear [shouted] "band men at the front of the line", so we had to go up in front so they could try there (sic) cakes out on us. The main reason was that this meant work for us, and a lot of it right away [as] after being served two small pancakes, a piece of bread and a little jam handed out by Blondie, [with] no coffee [we had to leave].

This was our plan for the great day. Our truck was supposed to be outside waiting for us to take us away to some town. [While] we waited, [just] laying and lounging around for about an hour when we could of otherwise been eating some pancakes had we known they were going to be late. Well they finally did arrive. Two big trucks one driven by a Jew and the other I don't know what. The trucks had two long folding seats such as they used for setting up patients in the time after the battles.

We threw our luggage [aboard] and climbed in after them, taking a seat. "Hurrah", we were off! The morning was quiet, cold and sharp and it was cold riding. I'll say. We traveled thru quite a number of towns, Mont Baird being the largest. [And,] on we went to Villus in the bumpy truck.

[I think] the Jew need a bit of instructions in shifting gears or something [as] he gave us a jerk now and again. At last, after traveling for 1 1/2 hours we reached the old French town Villers. We hopped off, pretty well chilled to the bone, and right away played a concert [while] still getting more colder.

In this town was our 2nd Bat Reg. While we were playing they brought a wagon load of French girls and women to hear the concert. After this we were urged to go to another town by the name of Montaigny and play for Battery 'A', so we hopped in our waiting Pullman cars and off we went up the hill.

Military Band Which Entertained Children in France in 1918

WW I 309th Field Artillery Band at Ft. Dix, NJ 1917
WW I 309th Field Artillery Band at Ft. Dix, NJ 1917 | Source

Santa Claus Arrives at the School

Now that it was getting pretty cold around the marrow of my bones, but on on [we went] and no dinner on such a great day. After arriving there, one of the Lieri's wanted to take us up to her room and get warm. But we had no time for such a thing, so sound off again.

About the time we were arriving for this concert it started to rain then turned into a heavy snow. The Mess Sgt got us to go and have what they had left from a good feed. We had coffee, a piece of cake, [which was] a bit heavy and soggy, and a package of jam cookies. This was dinner, so off again we went for our hometown.

We had a date at the little school house for a concert there and it was about 2:30 when we got back. We ran down and got a cup of coffee, a piece of bread and jam (they had cold beans for those that could get them) then back again to the job.

The American Soldiers Treat Children in French Village to a Merry Christmas

[At] about 2:50 we formed [up] out side and played the Star Spangle Banner and the Marseillaise. Then a Meuch, the National Emblem for the kids to march into the school, after which we followed in and took our places. Inside looked pretty for all decorated up. A nice Christmas tree, well decorated, candles burning [and] lots of presents for the Frogs.

After a few minutes the program started [and] the French School Master gave the French people a short talk.

He is a man of about 40 with a pretty grand looking daughter. The kids sang a piece. Then we played our concert, playing Winter, My Gal Pal, Hunting Scene, Madeler and a couple others.

Then, in comes Santa Claus (one of our men) the kids went wild over the presents and the good time. From the youngest to the oldest they were all made happy by the A.E.F. and it is a Christmas that will never be forgotten by the French. As [for] ourselves, for supper this night we had bread, jam, coffee, cold fish & beans.

So ended our Christmas Day. After supper I wrote a letter home to Psethy & then [that is] when you come to the end of a perfect day.

Bnquenay Church, Ardennes Region of France

Eglise De Bnquenay, Ardennes, Nov 9th 1918
Eglise De Bnquenay, Ardennes, Nov 9th 1918 | Source

© 2007 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 11 comments

Rufus rambles profile image

Rufus rambles 4 years ago from Australia

This is such a great piece of history! I have recently discovered my great grandfather's World War One letters home to his mother and one letter is written on Christmas Day on the Island of Lemnos at a rest camp. He describes getting "Christmas Billies" (a billie is an Australian term for a metal type of bucket that people camping in the bush use to boil water for tea with). The billies were filled with nice things from Australia and presents, including a notepad that he wrote the letter on. It is so wonderful to have access to these original records of our ancestors' experiences.


Lydia Young 6 years ago

It was apserlottley amazing to find out the Kind and caring things they did on that present day.


Neil Ashworth profile image

Neil Ashworth 6 years ago from United Kingdom

Interesting article. Some good stuff there! I'll drop back in later to re-read in detail.


azlynnakohl profile image

azlynnakohl 6 years ago

This was an amazing read. I have for years now collected stories from war veterans. They have so much to share with us. I would love to read that diary through and through. I adore the history and the sentiments shared here. Thank you for allowing me a peek into the past of a wonderful man.

Az


VilPietersen profile image

VilPietersen 6 years ago from Bristol, UK

This is an amazing Hub, I have a military background and have spent time over in Afghanistan but WWI & WWII were both "Wars to end wars" You are really lucky to have a piece of memoribilia from that war, especially one so personal to yourself. Thanks for sharing :)


mp3audiobooks profile image

mp3audiobooks 8 years ago from Switzerland

This is an amazing testimony. And it shows that thankfully, even in war we keep some kind of civility, given even half a chance. Take good care of this diary, your kids and their kids will treasure it!


MrMarmalade profile image

MrMarmalade 8 years ago from Sydney

Marvelous piece of history Thank you

Have a great new year


Dottie1 profile image

Dottie1 8 years ago from MA, USA

A touching Christmas story. Thanks for sharing.


gabriella05 profile image

gabriella05 8 years ago from Oldham

Thank you very much for sharing a wonderful historical diary. I enjoyed very much


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

Fantastic Hub, Chuck!.

I enjoyed reading more about the end of WWI and what it meant to people. Thanks for the mention of my own entry as well -- I enjoy all of your writing.

Patty


VickeyK profile image

VickeyK 8 years ago

Wow--what a treasure, to have such a diary as that! I'm sure your family will always take good care of it. Even reading the words as a stranger, I feel I'm reaching back 90 years!

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