Christmas At The Front During WW1

December 13, 2018.  Researching names on the Cenotaph outside the Borden-Carleton Legion at this time of year gets one to think about what it might have been like for the soldiers, especially during WW1.  They were far from home, by this time they would have lost friends and fellow soldiers, and might be wondering if they themselves would survive another hour, let alone another day.  So when we receive some postcards or letters that tell us what they may be experiencing at holiday time, it’s very special.

A few years ago, we received a photo of George Albert CAMPBELL from his nephew, Gerald Tingley, putting a face to that name.  (Campbell’s story was told in a posting last year – see Two Campbell Brothers in WW1)

George Albert Campbell from Gerald Tingley

Private George Albert Campbell. (Photo courtesy of Gerald Tingley family collection)

Known as Albert, Campbell was born on July 8, 1895 in Wellington, PEI, the son of John George Campbell and Grace Emma, nee Barlow.  A fisherman and farmer before enlisting on April 6, 1915 with the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifles, he later transferred to the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles.

CIMG2669 Oct 9 2018 meet with Gerald Tingley in Salisbury

Gerald Tingley, left, with Pieter. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

Recently we had a chance to meet Gerald Tingley in person.  He arrived with a binder of WW1 letters from his uncle that had been written to Gerald’s mother, and Albert’s sister, Sophie.

One excerpt was really special.  In a December 1915 letter to his sister Sophie, he wrote:  “We got a big box of cake and candy from Bedeque the other day and it was great for a change.  It was meant for Xmas but we ate it all as soon as we got it.

This excerpt about receiving cake and candy from someone in Bedeque really showed how food was always on a soldier’s mind, particularly something delicious from home.  And there was no way a soldier was going to wait for a particular day to have that taste of home.

It was the last Christmas that Campbell experienced.  During the Battle of Mount Sorrel in Belgium, he was killed in action in the vicinity of Maple Copse on June 2, 1916.  He has no known grave, and his name is listed on the Menin Gate Memorial Ypres.

Xmas card from Harold Howatt

Christmas card with a piece of embroidered handkerchief sent by Harold Howatt, wishing his family a ‘Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year’. (Photo courtesy of H. Howatt collection)

Campbell’s brother, William Galen CAMPBELL, born June 16, 1897 in Wellington, was poisoned by a mustard gas shell in France on May 28, 1918.  He was in the same unit, the 8th Canadian Siege Battery, as Harold Keith HOWATT of Augustine Cove.

Howatt kept an active correspondence and journal, and two Christmas entries survive.  In 1917, he was stationed in Lille, France and recorded the following on December 24:  “Route march this morning, then after we came back we had to carry planks for the hut which is being put up for Christmas dinner.  In the late afternoon Dawson and I went into Lille and had a bath at a convent.  Afterwards we went to a concert in the YMCA hut.

If you ever wondered about the saying that ‘soldiers march on their stomachs’, then you will see why food is important in reading Howatt’s detailed description of the Christmas meal of December 25, 1917.  “Church parade this morning, but I did not go as Mr. Freeman wanted me to help him get ready for the Xmas dinner.  We had a great dinner, duck and chicken, applesauce, vegetables, plum pudding, apples and nuts.  The officers bought everything except the plum pudding, pretty good of them.  After dinner was over we gave ‘three cheers and a tiger’ for them.

By December 1918 the war was over, but troops were still in Europe.  Howatt’s unit was assigned to Germany.  On December 25, he made the following terse entry from Mehlem, on the Rhine: “We had no Christmas dinner as the turkey did not arrive.”  On January 1, 1919 he gave a happier update in his journal:  “Last evening we had our Xmas dinner, which had been postponed owing to the non-arrival of the turkey.  We sat down at 8 o’clock to a good meal: turkey and vegetables, plum pudding, and nuts and apples.  There was also lots of beer, ginger ale, and also some scotch.

1918 xmas menu

1918 Xmas menu for the 8th Canadian Siege Battery. Notice that each dish had a name that represented where the unit was in France and Belgium! (Photo courtesy of H. Howatt collection)

Unlike George Albert Campbell, both William Galen Campbell and Harold Keith Howatt returned home from WW1.  Surprisingly, no photo of William Galen Campbell has been found.  If you have photos or information to share, please let us know. Send us an email to or comment on this blog.

© Daria Valkenburg