The Soldiers’ Christmas – Winter 1914

An inevitably censored/self-censored article in the Cambridge Independent Press on 01 Jan 1915 hints at some of the struggles the Borough of Cambridge faced. Put simply, local government did not have the infrastructure to respond to the demands suddenly placed upon it. The voluntary response from the town, while worthy, could never cover everything equally, reflecting some of the uneven distribution of support, with some units getting lucky while others were less so.

The opening of the substantial article in the Cambridge Independent of 01 Jan 1915, from the British Newspaper Archive reads as follows:

“Compared with their comrades in the trenches, the soldiers now quartered in Cambridge may be said to have had a fairly good time during Christmas. The wounded in the 1st Eastern General Hospital at Burrell’s Walk were admirably looked after and spent as enjoyable a time as it was possible for injured men to do, and the men of the Cambs Battalion, Suffolk Regt. (Kitchner’s Army at the new hut barracks at Cherry Hinton Meadows) also got on very well, despite their muddy surroundings, albeit they had to depend upon the generosity of their officers supplemented by their own resources for the seasonable fare they enjoyed.

Above – from Rock Road Library, Cambridge’s WWI exhibition – the barracks at Cherry Hinton Meadows – today between Coleridge Road and Perne Road – this section being close to Lichfield Road viewed from Cherry Hinton Road.

“The Territorial troops who were billeted in private houses in most instances had a good time, but it must be confessed that the rations issued to some unites were somewhat meagre, and the men were to a considerable extend dependent on the good nature of the townspeople upon whom they were billeted for a share of the good things usually associated with the festive season. Some units were more fortunate than others were provided with a Christmas dinner by their officers, others received Christmas gifts from the same source, temporary reading and writing rooms were opened in various parts of town and in some instances, refreshments for the men were provided by local committees.

“Unfortunately, the Territorials arrived in town such a short time before Christmas that there was not sufficient time for the inhabitants to organise anything on an independently large scale to deal with such a large body of troops, so a great deal of entertaining had to be left to the goodwill of the people upon whom the men were billeted.

“In the majority of cases the householders did their best to make as pleasant as possible the Christmastide of the lads who had left their distant homes at the call of duty, and most of the soldiers shared the family Christmas dinner and were treated as honoured guests. Some of the men who were billeted in empty houses spent a rather rough & ready Christmas, but they made the best of things and accepted the situation with that cheerfulness for which Tommy Atkins is noted.”

The article goes on in great detail to describe the arrangements at a number of different venues and institutions.

  • The Military Hospital
  • The Hut Barracks (Cherry Hinton Meadows)
  • The Belgian Rest Home
  • King’s College Chapel
  • Field Ambulance Corps at Gonville & Caius Cricket Ground
  • Chesterton Skating Rink
  • The Corn Exchange
  • The Leys School
  • Guildhall Concert

One area that Rock Road Library produced an exhibition on during the centenary of WWI was the impact of the war on the neighbourhood – which had only recently been built. The article from the Cambridge Independent reads as follows:

“The majority of the men of the Cambs Battalion Suffolk Regiment spent Christmas at the Hut Barracks at Cherry Hinton Meadows. Each company is allowed three days Christmas leave, but had to take it in turns to go away. The leave was drawn by lots, and “A” (Cambridge) Company had the good fortune to get Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day, “C” (Newmarket) Company had their leave on the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, “D” (Ely) Company drew the 27th, 28th, 29th, “B” (Caxton) Company have the 30th, 31st, and 1st January, and “E” (Reserve) Company will go away for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

“Thus four companies (954 men) were in barracks for Christmas. The men of these companies decorated their huts and made them look as bright and seasonal as possible. They displayed a good deal of ingenuity, and took a lot of pains over the embellishment of their quarters, and it was surprising what a brave show they made with the aid of one or two Union Jacks, a few fathoms of coloured paper chains, an armful of evergreens, some Chinese lanterns, a bundle of paper flowers, flags and streamers, and some seasonable inscriptions. In “C” Company a competition was held for the best decorated hut, and the prize was carried off by No. 6 hut, no 11 platoon, who made a really artistic display.

It goes on to mention the lack of presents for the soldiers.

“We have much regret to have to record that practically no Christmas gifts were sent to the battalion from outside excepting, of course, the private gifts that the men received from their own relatives and friends, and the whole of the expense of the Christmas festivities fell upon the officers and men themselves. Some of the companies had turkeys, others fowls or roast beef for dinner, supplemented by vegetables, plum puddings, nuts, orangest etc, and beer or mineral waters were provided by the officers commanding companies. For tea, the men had cake and mince pies. Some of the companies indulged in other luxuries such as ham, custards, jellies, stewed fruit etc. according as funds permitted.

“The YMCA have kindly given a large hut which will be erected in the centre of the barracks. This will be 90 feet by 30 feet, and it is hoped to open it on or about January 11th.”

The barracks would later be used to house the Cherry Hinton Military Hospital, which was used for soldiers with venereal diseases (STIs) – something that became a significant burden on army commanders due to the number of men who had to be withdrawn from the field for treatment.

“During the First World War, VD caused 416,891 hospital admissions among British and Dominion troops (Mitchell & Smith 1931: 74). Excluding readmissions for relapses, roughly 5 % of all the men who enlisted in Britain’s armies during the war became infected.”

The article by Richard Marshall here, and quoted above, shows how slow the military and political authorities were in responding to the outbreaks of disease – all too aware of the response from the then very influential church lobbies. Hence why the problems were treated as moral issues rather than medical ones.

Christmas in town – an annual feature

The article prior to the Soldiers’ Christmas also covers Christmas in town, focusing mainly on the institutions that aided the sick and the poor – as was traditional for newspapers at the time. These included:

  • Addenbrooke’s Hospital
  • Cambridge Work House on Mill Road
  • The Chesterton Workhouse
  • The Sanatorium
  • The Church Army Labour Home
  • Dr Barnardo’s Homes on Histon Road
  • Harvey Goodwin’s Home
  • The County Gaol

Christmas at Addenbrooke’s 1914

Even Addenbrooke’s had to tone down its usual festive celebrations due to the demands of war.

“At Addenbrooke’s Hospital [the site on Trumpington Road opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum, now the Judge Institute], the entertainments were not on such an elaborate scale as in some previous years, but the wards were as tastefully decorated and as bright and cheery as of yore, and there was the usual supply of Christmas Fare for all.

“On Christmas Eve the nurses, carrying lighted Chinese lanterns, waled in procession through the wards singing carols. This commenced about 6.30pm and lasted about two hours. On Christmas morning every patient awoke to find at the bedside a parcel containing Christmas gifts. The usual Christmas dinner, consisting of turkey, plum pudding, mince pies, dessert and crackers, was served on various wards about midday.

“As in previous years, Mr Fisher, the chef at Downing College Kitchen [round the back of the old hospital] kindly sent a quantity of jellies for those inmates unable to partake in plum pudding and mince pies, and also sent his usual gift of jellies for the nurses’ Christmas Dinner on Boxing Day.

“The usual ward concerts on Christmas Day were abandoned owing to the war, but possibly one or two entertainments may be arranged early in the New Year. The number of visitors to the Hospital [VIPs] was not as large as usual, but there was a fair attendance, including the Mayor (Mr W.L.Raynes), Ald Dr Dalton, and members of the Governing Body and the hon. medical and surgical staff.”

Visiting VIPs

The local civic dignitaries would often visit the sick in hospital and those in the workhouses on festive occasions. The newspaper lists who visited where, and who donated funds to the different appeals.

Above – who donated to the Addenbrooke’s Festivities Fund – many more donated gifts in kind.

For those of you interested, you can still donate to Addenbrooke’s today via the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust.

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