There were upbeat reports, Christmas care packages sent, and festivities at home - yet little in the way of real relief on the fronts.
There is a note of relief in the Feilding Star's post-Christmas reflection on the 1916 holiday period:
The Christmas season has passed over happily, safely, and without sensation. The holidays have not been marred by any disasters or domestic tragedies…'The Holiday Season.' Feilding Star, 27 December 1916.
Of course all things are relative - no less definitions of happiness, safety and the sensational. Having been at war for some 870 days, New Zealanders had perhaps grown inured to the general war news. Or, perhaps it was more likely that to allay the strain and the grief they had become adept at focusing on the more positive experiences and finding happiness in the smaller things of life.
While shortages meant British celebrations were quieter than normal, a survey of New Zealand newspapers suggests festivities in this country were not so affected. Key family members were missing from many Christmas tables, however, and this meant much effort also went into parcels and fund-raising for those who were overseas, including prisoners of war, and towns held Christmas parties for the children of soldiers.
News from the fronts was mixed. The December successes of the Mounted Rifles in Egypt at El Arish and at Magdhaba were well-received and, suggested the press, proof 'that there is a brain behind the operations of our Egyptian campaign'. But, the spectre of possible overall defeat could not be ignored and the more days that passed, the greater that possibility had begun to weigh.
NEVER has there been a Christmas in a more momentous period of the world's history…. So serious are the issues, so essential is it that our best efforts should be put forward, that the nation is ready, the nation is eager, to make any sacrifice that is necessary for victory...'Christmas.' Nelson Evening Mail, 23 December 1916.
British officer and journalist Colonel Charles Repington wrote that Britain was 'sauntering' through the war and called for troops to be concentrated on the Western Front. The troops already there were suffering through the exceptionally cold winter including the New Zealanders who were experiencing their first winter on that front. Heavy snow fell across the northern battlefields and gales swept through France turning the pounded land to deep mud and filling the shell holes and trenches with ice-cold water: 'Only bursting shells disturb the shrieking of the winds.' The men are doing their bit, wrote a Salvation Army Chaplain, in 'mud and misery, wet and weariness, cold and cracked hands, with guns and grief, shells and shocks, wounds and woes, death and desolation.'
Season's hostile greetings
Despite being a season of peace notes (Germany's on December 12, followed by the United States, Switzerland, and Sweden) there was no cause for optimism that the end of hostilities was near, and there were no truces for Christmas. However, correspondents' reports were relentlessly upbeat about the troops' experiences describing shell lorries bedecked with mistletoe and streamers, New Zealand troops on the front line well and happy and bolstered by hot plum puddings, and those behind the lines 'sitting down to dinners that would do credit to many countries even in peace time.' In the 2nd Anzac Officer's Rest House recovering from a throat infection, Lt-Col. Herbert Hart (10/133) wrote in his diary that he enjoyed a five-course dinner with roast turkey 'but still it was not like Xmas.'
Only occasional unfiltered remarks in journals or letters home to allude to the dreadful nature of the real conditions. Auckland Infantry Captain Herbert King (22513) wrote in a letter home that he had spent Christmas in the trenches and only knew it was Christmas by the fact that he had 'Xmas pudding' from home.
Others were in hospital during Christmas 1916. Corporal Thomas Gordon Reynolds (12/855) was recuperating from a leg amputation at Brokenhurst. He posted home to New Zealand an NZEF Christmas card wishing 'Heartiest Greetings' and proclaiming 'The tide has turned / Kua tima te tai'. If only that had been so.
Learn about the experience at home
Discover the letters, photos, and stories of life in New Zealand at Home Front - Experiences of the First World War in New Zealand, the exhibition closing on 8 January 2017.
Hart, Herbert. The Devil’s Own War: The Diary of Herbert Hart. Ed. John Crawford. 2nd Revised Edition. Exisle Publishing. 2015.
Cite this article
Christmas 1916. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 19 December 2016. Updated: 23 December 2016.