Posted: 24 December 2018 20:26
Back in 2015 I posted some thoughts on Christmas Day 1939-43; I stopped in 1943 as at that time, I didn't really have any detailed information for 1944-45 to speak of. However, three years on, things have changed, so here's those missing years!
We left East Sussex at Christmas 1943 in part 1; the Canadian Army was the largest military presence in the county at that time, but by December 1944 all five Canadian divisions were fighting on mainland Europe. We will, however, briefly touch upon one Canadian soldier, G.E. French.
I came across French at Battle Abbey when I found the inscription in the photo below carved into the parapet of the gatehouse:
Searching the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database, I found the details of a G. E. French of 7th Canadian Reconnaissance Regt. (17th Duke of York's Royal Canadian Hussars). Elliot's inscription bears the (presumed) date '42' and the war diary puts 17 DYRCH in Battle from 1st June - 6th August 1942. Although the regiment were not actually in the Abbey itself, inscriptions carved in the gatehouse by others include the full unit name, so members of the regiment were here.
If we can place members of 17 DRYCH in Battle Abbey gatehouse in 1942, then it is very plausible that the G.E. French who etched his name was the same man I found in the CWGC database. The war diary unfortunately doesn't tell us anything about the circumstances of French's death. We do know that he lies in Bergen-Op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands.
George Elliott French died on Christmas Day, 1944.
By December 1944, the Allies were engaged in attritional battles in Italy and NW Europe. The failure to cross the River Rhine at Arnhem that September had ensured that the war would continue into 1945. The Christmas period would see the Germans in the west launch their final major offensive in the Ardennes. In the Far East, the forces of Imperial Japan were not yet defeated.
Back to East Sussex and 5 Somerset Light Infantry were based in Seaford. The battalion had moved from Northern Ireland to Sussex in December 1943 to undertake general coast defence duties. By Christmas 1944, 5 SLI was a training battalion to convert anti-aircraft regiments into infantry units.
For the SLI, the Christmas period involved football and rugby matches against neighbouring units, most of which they won. On Christmas Eve, troops were treated to an Aladdin pantomime in Seaford.
Not surprisingly, it was hoped that 1945 would bring the end of hostilities; the regimental newsletter of 13 December includes the following passage:
By the time this Christmas issue reaches you, gentle reader, preparations for the Christmas Festival will be well in hand: the Messing Officer will be exercising his innane talent for spotting the bird; an odour of strong ale will be pervading the unit; the Post Wallah will have been promoted to the dignity of a 3-ton truck to cope with the influx of mail...in short, the Festive Season will be upon us. We take this opportunity of wishing our readers at home and abroad as Happy a Christmas as is possible under their varying circumstances coupled with the hope that Victory in 1945 will bring an even greater happiness and family reunions by the time Christmas comes round once again.
This text was accompanied by the somewhat surreal/risque illustration below, warning not to go to excess over the festive period!
Although 1944 was the last Christmas of the war, the end of hostilities did not mean the immediate end of a military presence in Sussex, or indeed, mainland Europe. As one conflict ended, old tensions re-emerged as former allies, having defeated their mutual enemy, sought to protect their interests. Armies of occupation were maintained on the continent, but large numbers of combat veterans of the recent war were being released from service, including those of the Canadian Army.
A series of army camps was prepared in East Sussex to accommodate large numbers of Canadian troops awaiting shipping back home. Three such camps were at Pippingford Park, Chelwood Gate and Sheffield Park.
Given the reduced Canadian presence in Sussex in 1944, it is not certain whether any of the parties for local children (such as previously described in 1941-43) were held that year. However, 1945 saw the occasion return for one last time:
This year we have the opportunity to provide a Christmas they will never forget for many of the youngsters who live near our camps.
It's certainly a chance which will be welcomed by all of us who are to spend another Christmas overseas. Army officials, Auxiliary Services, cooks and messing personnel will see to it that the holiday will be as pleasant as possible when time and distance separate us from home. But it's a good thing to remember that if the season is important to us, it should mean a great deal more to children.
To the hundreds of Sussex kiddies who will be guests on December 15, the effects of war on England have meant that the annual feast day is little more than a name. It certainly represents nothing of the glorious occasion we can all remember in our own childhoods.
Workshops at the camps were busy as soldiers spent their spare time making both wooden and soft toys for the smaller children. Toys and games were purchased for the older children; six bottles of whiskey from the Officer's Mess were raffled and other events were hoping to raise £100. Troops donated food and chocolate from their rations and parcels from home, but the messing officer was also hard at work, sourcing "many items which have been in short supply since the early days of the war; oranges, apples, cake, candy, Coca-Cola and real ice cream."
The original guest list was to be 300 children, but it was felt that it would be unkind to exclude other children in the district and so the invitation was extended to children from Nutley, Danehill, Chelwood and Fletching. As a result, about 600 attended the party at the Isle of Thorns, Chelwood Gate on 15 December.
In a military operation, the children and their teachers were collected from their schools and driven in army vehicles to the party. The Pipe Band of the Canadian Women's Army Corps played as the children were herded into the hall before settling down to watch Mickey Mouse and Popeye cartoons. This was followed by carol singing, before the children surprised the troops by singing "The Maple Leaf", "O Canada" and "Sussex by the Sea."
The children were then taken outside:
Oh! Look! It's Santa Claus! Chubby fingers pointed. Shrill voices called to mother, to teacher, to big sister, to see the gaudiest jeep ever to be seen hereabouts, or, for that matter, anywhere. The jeep, with flags and bunting waving in the December wind bounced swiftly towards the excited throng and rocked to a halt. Out of the back seat rolled a round, jolly red-faced figure, dressed in scarlet trimmed in white, his mischievous eyes twinkling, his luxuriant white beard bobbing saucily. Then "Merry Christmas, boys and girls!" The tots, many of whom had never seen the patron saint of all good children before, forgot their sudden awe and rushed pell-mell over to the jolly visitor. They clutched his hand - they tugged at his beard and plied him with excited questions.
Poor Santa Claus was one Sergeant Reg Shank and this initial inundation of children was only the start of his ordeal:
Local kiddies learned some new Canadian words when Reg was doin' his annual good deed for 1945 last Saturday at the Isle of Thorns and was informed that a certain Sergeant-major had ducked off with a female pipe band, leaving the old fire and police chief to hand out several thousand toys by himself...
The stats make impressive reading: 1,200 toys were handed out (half had come from the Canadian Army Toy Factory in Holland), along with 112 books, 98 games and over 1,600 chocolate bars and bags of mixed candy. Surplus toys were later donated to local hospitals.
The kids did well with the food too; they accounted for 30 gallons of ice cream, 5 cases of oranges, 1,200 sandwiches, 1,200 jam tarts, 1,000 pieces of cake with icing and 864 bottles of Coca Cola.
Consider how children felt at the sight of all this food, having lived under rationing and austerity for nearly six years, with shortages to last until 1954. They rode in army trucks, had film shows, many saw Father Christmas and a real Christmas tree for the first time and went home with toys. It's no wonder that one account says that the day was "beyond doubt the happiest day of their young lives."
But what of the men? Many camped in Sussex were veterans of combat and their time after leaving the battlefields must have brought about a lot of contemplation of what had happened. We know from the documents that several units who finished their war in The Netherlands returned to visit sites of previous battles, such as Normandy and Dieppe. Some men reached Sussex in time to make it home to Canada for Christmas; others had to wait their turn for a troopship home.
Christmas Day 1945 was greeted with rain, however it cleared by noon with sunshine in the afternoon. The highlight of the day was the serving of a full course turkey dinner by the officers and sergeants to the other ranks...Following a glorious meal, with two bottles of beer for every man, cigarettes were handed out. Special menus had been printed and each was a souvenir...with the back left blank for pals' autographs which will recall many memories in time to come.
The above passage describes a Canadian soldier's Christmas similar to previous years in Sussex, but perhaps with the significant difference alluded to in the last line; the realisation that the war was over and the need to remember their comrades. The documents talk of remembering fallen comrades, as well as looking to the future following demobbing in Canada.
For the time being, at least, there was peace on Earth.
A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.
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Hibbs, Peter Wartime Christmas in East Sussex (2) (2020) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/250777/ Accessed: 26 September 2020
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