Newfoundland and Labrador: a Contribution Remembered (part 13)


^^^ Pictured above The Royal Newfoundland servicemen at Christmas in 1915. While the B.E.F. received annual leave for Christmas, the Newfoundlanders had been overseas for 3 years without a chance of leave to see their families.

“The manpower situation is so serious that I could not lose the seasoned veterans whose homes were in distant Dominions.”

Commander in Chief Douglas Haig, Cambrai, 1917


For the men of The Newfoundland Battalion, their third Christmas away from home was “celebrated” while recuperating behind the front lines, near Fressin, France.

Here they received comfortable billets for a change and enjoyed the tremendous hospitality of the local people. And, being Newfoundlanders, they prepared for a “proper” observance of Christmas in as much of a traditional way as possible. Parcels from home finally caught up with them bringing lovingly chosen gifts and other delicacies. Regimental funds were used to purchase enough turkeys to feed every man in the Battalion.

They also secured some geese, with wholesome supplies of fresh vegetables. They even acquired the services of a French Chef. And, of course, they somehow also acquired an “overly ample” supply of Christmas cheer. Even Mother Nature chipped in with the final touch to make it a special Christmas with a two-day blanket of fresh white snow.

Christmas Eve brought a pay parade and that night the Newfoundlanders invaded every pub, café, and restaurant in the area. They celebrated like the unique people they were with boisterous Newfie songs and much good-natured merriment.

While the locals must have “wondered” about these strange people from a foreign land across the sea, their ears were thankfully spared from understanding the songs belted out with their distinctive Newfie accents.

Reveille on Christmas morning roused the troops to begin final preparations for the dinner. Tables were set up and even white tablecloths were borrowed. The Head table was even graced by a huge chandelier that had been “borrowed” from a nearby castle. Shortly before mid-day, the troops took turns sitting down for the Christmas feast.

The Padres, like Padre Nangle, said Grace and they made their rounds of each table. Then, in keeping with tradition, the officers served the men, assisted by a goodly number of women from the villages, and their daughters. Even some mummers appeared and caused great merriment and distraction.

After the Christmas pudding, washed down with stout English beer, came the speeches by the Company Commanders. Many familiar faces were missing in this picture, but they were remembered in many toasts.

For a very brief moment in time, these Newfoundlanders were allowed to forget the ugliness of war and celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace. The spirit of goodwill and boisterous celebrations ensured that even though they were a long way from home, they did not forget how to be true Newfoundlanders.

They had been through Hell and back many times, and this short respite enabled them to not forget the priceless meaning of peace.

The reader should note that these men had now been away from home for over three years. They should have been entitled to many furloughs to visit home and loved ones, but all requests were officially denied. Whereas all the other British soldiers who had families in Britain returned home regularly, the Commander in Chief Stated that “the manpower situation is so serious … that I could not lose the seasoned veterans whose homes were in distant Dominions.”

In retrospect, although very unpopular at the time, he really had no choice. Transportation being what it was at the time, it would have taken twenty days over, ten days there and twenty days back. To contemplate losing his most seasoned veterans for almost two months was literally out of the question.

This was just another little sacrifice made by Newfoundlanders in the Great War.

Then, it was over. The Regiment was told to move out. The serious business of being soldiers was once again upon them. In the first week of the New Year of 1918, they found themselves back in the Ypres Salient. The soft and gentle Christmas Carols were replaced by the vicious sounds around Vindictive Corner, and Hell Fire Corner, at Passchendaele.