It may be Christmas, but duty does call for some. One of those is Joffre’s right hand General Castelnau, who is visiting Salonika to report on the situation, and presumably on the grounds that if he can’t enjoy Christmas nobody else will either, he’s sent his report back today. On the positive side, he reports that the position is stable and defensible and with the number of men available, there’s no reason they can’t hold out for the forseeable future.
Then the Grinch asserts himself. You may remember that General Sarrail, commander of the Salonika force, is only here because General Joffre hates him and sacked him from his old Western Front job, only to find Sarrail swinging back round like a boomerang thanks to his political support. Gee, I wonder what Joffre’s best mate is going to think about Sarrail? Unsurprisingly, the report points out that the total failure of France’s efforts to save Serbia can be completely blamed on the considerable shortcomings of its commander.
So that’s nice. Sarrail has far too many people behind him (including the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand) for this to affect his position. Joyeux Noel.
On Christmas Day, the rain fell in torrents. It was bad luck, since it was already a day of rest. The rain is a blessing to the soldier when it exempts him from a day on the drill field, but that did no good this time. The captain made the most of this day of rest to inspect our sabots [wooden overshoes]; the sabots which the soldiers had bought for themselves and for which they were reimbursed according to the captain’s whims. For him, this was an opportunity to show his ugly side. You’d have thought that he was paying for them out of his own pocket. He generously awarded four francs for sabots which had cost twelve or fifteen.
My comrade Ventresque had bought a fine pair of sabots, but he had left one of them behind in the mud of the Mercier trench by pulling his foot out too vigorously. The captain, in the face of this embarrassing situation, scratched his ear, then his nose, as if a huge sum were in play, and finally declared that once Ventresque presented the complete pair to him, he would be paid. Leaving the proprietor of the one sabot in a state of disappointment, he moved on.
He had done well by the fatherland. He had saved the Treasury a hundred sous by stealing them from a poor soldier!
Supplementing one’s inadequate issue kit with privately-purchased items is still a depressingly familiar exercise for soldiers 100 years later.
The British Army establishment had been thoroughly scandalised by the impromptu truces of 1914. How, it wonders, are you supposed to win a years-long war if your men are taking time out every now and again to say hello to the enemy? They might start getting ideas, bigads, and that will never do. So they’ve spent a year hammering the message home to all the hundreds and thousands of new recruits that this sort of thing is completely unacceptable. It peaked a few days ago with a wonderfully Scrooge-ish circular, and by and large it’s had the required effect. There’s the odd stretch of line that saw the odd carol, or the odd candle on the parapet; but for the most part, the war proceeds more or less as normal, perhaps with slightly less artillery fire.
And then there’s Laventie. This area is currently being held by the Guards; and particularly the 1st Scots Guards. This is a unit who’d been in France since August 1914 and which had strong institutional memories of a truce in 1914. They’re also still recovering from the Battle of Loos; the 1st Scots are currently under the command of Captain Miles Barne, the most senior officer to survive the battle. So it’s probably not too surprising that, for a short period of time, the men once again climb out of their trenches to shake hands and exchange souvenirs with their “enemy”. There will be consequences for this, but those are for later. Now is for fraternisation.
The next day was Christmas Day, and a Serbian journalist who had spent a great many years in America walked some miles over from his own company to wish me a “Merry Christmas,” so that I should hear the old greeting from someone in English.
We had quite settled down to our gipsy life, but the food question had become a serious problem by now; bread was at famine prices, the men had finished all their corn cobs and had had practically nothing to eat for two days.I asked the company Commander if it would be possible to buy anything for them, and we sent down into the town and bought a sort of corn meal, and had it baked into flat loaves there in the town.
When we turned out for a fresh start we gave each man in the company half of one of my corn meal loaves and a couple of cigarettes, telling them it was England’s Christmas box to them, which they ate as they went along, otherwise they would have had to march all that day on nothing. As the other companies who had not been so fortunate saw our men go past munching the last of their corn meal bread they called, “Well done, Fourth Company!” after us, and wanted to join us.
For the first time since we had left Babuna we had shaken off the Bulgarians and were no longer within sound of the guns, but we had to press on or the men would starve.
Yeah, “the best of it” is pretty crap, but they’re still alive and still marching, which is about as good as anyone in their position can be.
We’ll give the last word to Robert Palmer, who is writing to one of his mates with another round of fond-but-patronising thoughts about the blokes under his command and Indians in general.
I think a good native state is the most satisfactory kind of Government for India in many ways; but (a) so few are really good, if you go behind the scenes and think of such fussy things as security of life and property, taxation and its proportion to benefits received, justice and administration, education, freedom of the subject, and so on. (b) It spells stagnation and the abandonment of the hope of training the mass of the people to responsibility; but I think that is an academic rather than practical point at present.
Christmas is almost unbearable in war-time: the pathos and the reproach of it. I am thankful that my Company is at Kut on half-rations. I don’t of course mean that: but I’m thankful to be spared eating roast beef and plum pudding heartily, as these dear pachyderms are now doing with such relish. I’m glad they do, and I’d do it too if my Company was here. I’m always thankful for my thin skin, but I’m glad dear God made thick ones the rule in this wintry world.
Enjoy your Christmas, if you’re having it. The book of 1915 is on the way and should be with us all in January. News on that to come once I’ve made a proper dent in the lake of drink currently before me. Chin chin.
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Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow!
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look.
(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)