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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 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
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
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
© 2007 Chuck Nugent