What was Christmas like in Suffolk 100 years ago?
PUBLISHED: 00:46 25 December 2017 | UPDATED: 01:02 25 December 2017
Back in 1914, they'd said the fighting would be over by December 25. It wasn't. By the winter of 1917, peace remained elusive. But life carried on while the guns boomed across Europe
Tragedy, normality and surrealism walked side by side a century ago. While troops dodged bullets in the mud of France, an advert on a newspaper front page showed a Mr Charles Glasgow, complete with twirly moustache. He was a platelayer who’d lost part of his heel in an accident at work. Off for two years, he’d spent time in a convalescent home, readers learned.
“The wound was as large as a five-shilling piece but for many a month made no progress.” Wait for it… “I was in great pain until I was advised to get your Clarke’s Blood Mixture, and in two weeks the pain left me, the wound healing up very quickly, and now I am at work again. Your medicine did what the doctors could not do.”
Folk could buy a bottle for two shillings and ninepence.
On a more homely note, the Grange Furnishing Company of Colchester offered beds, chairs, wardrobes and more on easy weekly terms. “Your Home: Make it bright and cosy for the boys’ home-coming”, it said with optimism.
Hard up against the Clarke’s Blood Mixture advert in the Evening Star on Saturday, December 1, 1917, was a column headed “The Casualty Roll”. A list issued the previous day told of 26 local officers dead and 56 wounded or missing. There were just over 1,000 other ranks dead, with 4,278 hurt or missing. It’s not clear how long a period of time this covers, but such technicalities would be of no concern to families back home.
Underneath, the names of the latest to fall. Private Rayner from Halstead: killed. Private Harris from Bury St Edmunds: killed. Private Sparling from Colchester: killed… There were more.
Also, men who had died of wounds; a long list of injured soldiers; and something happier: The Suffolk Regiment’s Corporal Smith reported, now, not to be wounded.
Underneath that, glimpses of grim reality at the front. Such as: “Mrs Steward, St Margaret’s Street, Ipswich, has had notification that her youngest son, Sergt H Steward, Suffolk Regiment, is in hospital in France, suffering from a gunshot wound in the right thigh.
“He has been twice wounded previously, on the Somme and during the Arras offensive. He joined the Army at the age of 16 at the outbreak of the war.”
Down, past a report about the Suffolk Agricultural Association deciding to have a spring stallion parade the following spring, is more “colour”. It’s about the soldiers’ buffet and rest room at Ipswich station.
“Soldiers fresh from the trenches in France or Flanders, covered with mud and travel-stained, are frequently amongst the visitors to the buffet, and some of them have to wait all night at the station because there is no train to carry them on to their homes, which sometimes are comparatively but a few miles away,” says the report.
Volunteers did their best to give these “weary warriors” a “cordial and hospitable welcome”. The items lists the gifts given during the week: “Mrs Vulliamy, pears”, for instance, and Miss Juniper, coffee; Miss Stowe, magazines.
The Christmas Eve edition had a report of German troops mounting an attack on British positions by the Ypres-Staden railway in Belgium, under heavy artillery barrage, on the Saturday afternoon.
But British bombs had been dropped on a big gun near Lille and other targets, such as trenches. Four German planes had been brought down.
As soon as it was dark, British planes had bombed aerodromes and key railway stations. “In spite of the intense cold, several of our pilots made two consecutive flights to one of the enemy’s aerodromes, where many hits were obtained on the sheds. All our machines returned.”
According to a report from Amsterdam, a “Berlin telegram” said that when visiting part of his army on December 22, “the Kaiser, in the course of an address to the troops, said if the enemy did not want peace, Germany must bring peace to the world by force”.
Back in East Anglia, the changes and transactions of life carried on as best they could. Advertised in the Evening Star that Christmas Eve was an “attractive small villa” in Lacey Street, Ipswich. Price? Yours for £315. A detached house in Gainsborough Road was £650. Another agent advertised a different house in Lacey Street. This had seven rooms and a garden, and was £305 – “terms arranged if required”.
Fish knives and fun
Look at some adverts and you wouldn’t know there was a war on. The Evening Star carried one from jeweller H Samuel, advertising a gold gem brooch (with pearls and topaz centre) for 21 shillings. An Acme watch in a solid silver case and with a five-year warranty was 27/6. Six electro-plated fish knives and forks, in a case, were 15 shillings. Sneezum’s “fine selection of Christmas presents” included horn or hornless gramophones at £3 and five shillings. It also offered more than 500 records to choose from. John Fisher of Ipswich was advertising smart overcoats; Footman, Pretty and Co trumpeted its “exceptional value” pure-down quilts.
The Ipswich Lyceum Theatre was busy. On Christmas Eve it was staging entertainment by The Red F’s costume concert party, in aid of the Local Red Cross Fund and the Wounded Soldiers’ Tobacco Fund. On Boxing Day there were two performances of To-Night’s the Night, featuring Mr George Dance’s Company from the Gaiety Theatre, London.