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Letter: A very special Christmas

My father, Capt. D.E.S. Wishart, was in Palestine just over 100 years ago. He was a doctor in the 31st Field Ambulance in the 10th Irish Division, one of whose units was the Dublin Fusiliers.

On Dec. 24th, 1917, he was in the camp of the British Army outside Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been surrendered by the Turkish army on Dec. 11th, and there was a lull in the fighting. The task of the day was serving Christmas dinner to a regiment of troops in the open in drizzly cold weather. He described it in a letter written to his mother on Christmas Day. Here is a portion of his letter:

 

25/12/17

Dear Mother,

A very merry Christmas to you — and very many of them and to all the family. To you I send this general message because you have always been at the bottom of whatever happiness at Christmastide has come our way. ...

Perhaps you will like to hear how we have spent Christmas and to what we are looking forward. I shall give away no secrets, but please remember that the picture I will draw will be one sided, and I will leave out many tellable facts. ...

So much for the general state of affairs — now a word about the weather — it has been mostly unsettled. The evenings and ’specially early mornings are cold enough to demand a greatcoat — but there has been no sign of snow. At times the wind is very high. This morning we had rain in a perfect downpour, rain in showers of small drops, rain in showers of large drops, Scotch mist, a howling gale, a gentle breeze and dead calm — each lasting a few minutes.

You will remember that I had a considerable journey to get Christmas supplies for the men. You would hardly credit the quantity I got. I filled two limbers and two carts with as heavy a load each as could be drawn by six mules. And the night they arrived our troubles began. ...

It was decided to hold the Christmas celebrations on the 24th of December. Preparations aplenty were made forthwith. Committees were made to look after each detail — the catering, the cooking, the seating accommodation, the concert, the sergeants’ mess, and some more buying. ... Off we went with a native interpreter, all our available silver and a deal of determination, to a nearby village, where by dint of much exploring and much exposure to various things that crawl, we eventually found a sore-eyed ragamuffin child in most nondescript apparel who found another, who found one old woman who found another, and who eventually found more and a male and then more of the same variety! Such a circumlocution office! We wanted a bullock, a goat, chickens, and after much palaver got three of the latter and one scrawny bullock. ... At nine o’clock in the evening the sergeant-major returned having got sufficient goats and bullocks to feed our men; but the show wasn’t over, for in the darkness one of the four-footed beasts returned to its owner and had to be sought next morning at an early hour. ...

All morning it drizzled and frizzled so that greatcoats were the order of the day; but notwithstanding this, midday found all but the cooks and the sergeants sitting on the ground by sections at long ground tables. The table portion was covered with a blanket and ground sheet and all the hospital utensils were set out for the men. The sergeants were doing the waiting. The task of preparing for a move interrupted the officers watching the men dine. ... Then came our Christmas dinner, followed next morning with preparations for the move.

 

Ian Wishart

St. John’s

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