Mary Christmas from Frank

29th December 1914

Envelope addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 etc franked APO 13 De 14, censor 1611 (E Rogers) – written in ink and on back “gone to Camberwell”
Letter dated 29-12-14

Dear Till

Just a few lines to let you know how I got on at Xmas and what sort of time I had, well I must say I didn’t enjoy myself at all, for what with the weather and being in the trenches it just about put paid to the bill but I am getting on alright and still in the pink. The weather out here is miserable what with the rain and mud. Did you receive my letter with the Xmas card in I except you have by now? Till I received a Xmas card from Dolly which was very good of her and I sent her a PC so you can let me know what she says, when next you hear from her. How did you spend your time Xmas don’t forget to let me know?

Now Till I expect you have read about the gift we received from Princess Mary but I am unable to send it home to you as I have not got any rent now I have told you about me leaving you 6d per day for yourself, now dear I want to know if you could send me out some money so that I could register it home, so don’t forget to let me know what you can do, and if you send it in coin not in paper, now I think this is all for now so will conclude hoping this finds you in the best of health.

Love Bid xxx

After a quiet morning the Dorsets left their trenches and at 2.30pm marched to billets in Bailleul, arriving at about 6.50pm. They left behind some men on details and C Company who were relieved a little later on at around 8pm by the West Riding Regiment. C Company arrived later that evening.

Frank probably wrote home from his new billets. I imagine the trenches were far too wet in which to do any writing other than crossing out some words on a Field Post Card. Again, the letter is censored by E. Rogers. I’ve still had no luck finding out anything more about the life of this Dorsetshire officer.

Frank’s opinion of Christmas in the trenches says it all. To top it off, he now needs money to send his Christmas gift from Princess Mary back home. According to the Imperial War Museum, a great many troops did this. His promise of giving Mabel money from his pay continues, but it appears he needs a seed fund to start the ball rolling.

The Princess Mary Gift Fund was a venture started back in October 1914. Its ambitious and commendable aim was to provide every overseas person wearing the King’s uniform with a brass box containing a variety of objects depending on the recipient: From cigarettes, pipe and tinder to smokers, to bullet pen and sweets for the non-smokers, chocolate for nurses and sweets and spices for Indian troops. A card was included wishing everyone a “Victorious New Year”.

Sadly, there’s no indication that this box survived the intervening years, but below is a photograph of  a sample box with cigarettes in it.


Photo of a Princess Mary Christmas Fund Gift Box
Princess Mary Christmas Gift Fund Box

And if you’ve ever want to make a tiny replica of this iconic gift then knock your tiny socks off.


Bailleul is a town in France archly described by Gleichen as “with its rather quaint old brick fourteenth-century church, porched à la Louis Quinze, was tolerable rather than admirable”. The town was an important staging post for British troops throughout the war. There’s a far better written account of its role here than I could manage.

Image showing the Hôtel de Ville in Bailleul
A postcard written from Bailleul at around the same time as Frank was here in billets

The 15th Brigade had moved en masse into Divisional reserve. Gleichen was off to London on leave and was temporily replaced as CO by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Richard Jebb Griffith, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Bn Bedfords, whom Gleichen rates as the “trustiest of C.O.’s, who had been under heavier fire than almost any one in the Brigade, yet never touched”. You can read more about this old war horse on the Bedfords’ website.

A white lie Christmas?

25th December 1914

Merry Christmas everyone. I am writing this from my leather wing-backed armchair, fire crackling in the grate, chestnuts roasting (must move back a bit) and dogs at my feet. A glass of Lisbon’s finest at my side is pepped up with some meths from the garage, while Val Doonican croons festively from the gramophone. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin…

Christmas day 1914 in Wulverghem began with a sharp frost and most of the day was foggy. The Dorsets’ war diary reads as follows:

Quiet Day
Nothing to report
Casualties Nil

Good eh? Now, as everyone is probably bored to the back teeth by already, there were unofficial truces up and down the line on Christmas Day 1914. There are countless reasons why it happened and I won’t go into those here. This book, The Truce, by Chris Baker looks very interesting if you want to read further – although I’ll admit that I haven’t had time either so you’re forgiven too.

The 5th Division’s war diary records the following information:

In afternoon opposite Sector B a large number of Germans and our men meet half way between the trenches and fraternize (sic). Badges show the Germans to belong to Schulenberg’s Landwehr Brigade.

The Bedfords, who now shared Sector B with the Dorsets, also record nothing much in their war diary.

Christmas cards from Their Majesties the King & Queen distributed to all ranks of the Battn. Also present from Her R. Highness Princess Mary. Cold & frosty day. Quiet day. Germans semaphored over that they were not going to fire. Hard frost all day.

However, the Bedfords website annotates this with “[note that a private diary by a battalion member records fraternisation between men of B Company and the Germans in No Man’s Land]” but it doesn’t provide any information about how to find this diary. I thought I would be able to post excerpt here but only found quotations from the 2nd Bn Bedfords. It’s easy to muddle reports as the 2nd Bn Bedfords also met up with Germans further to the south.

So Sector B was visited by Germans yet the Dorsets fail to report that any meeting took place. I am very skeptical about their side of the story. We’ve seen the Dorsets skirt around facts a couple of times since they came to France. Once when attacking Hill 189 in September and another time when their attack failed at Givenchy in October.

The History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919 quotes from Ransome’s personal diary.

“Nothing unusual in this connection occurred on the Dorset front, except that no shot was fired by either side , but further south a certain amount of “friendly” intercourse took place.”

If we believe the 5th Division’s war diary then the fact that Germans came across to Sector B surely contradicts this statement by Ransome. Its inclusion of a denial in the regiment’s official history could be seen as an admission of guilt – when no guilt was deserved in the first place. Did the Dorsets agree to a blanket ban on talking about what happened 100 years ago today? Perhaps regimental pride dictated this silence, or perhaps it was the CO’s wishes. Or perhaps nothing happened at all. Until I find any evidence the official history stands true, or course. But did the Dorsets meet with the Germans, or at least bury dead in front of the trenches together?

We know that 15th Brigade had been criticised by Smith-Dorrien in the offensive at La Bassée. Did they feel that admitting to any fraternisation with the enemy would further dim their star? Is that why the Bedford’s diary is also silent about Christmas day? I need to do more research about this in order to satisfy they were telling the truth. But it cannot be ignored that Germans did come over into No Man’s Land in their sector. Count Gleichen, who still commandeered the 15th Brigade, admits that it happened in his memoirs – he’s only a mile up the road at Brigade HQ in Neuve Église.

The trenches were much less pestered with shells and bullets than the Dranoutre lot, and it was easier work altogether for the men. We quite enjoyed it, and on Xmas Day so did the Germans. For they came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks. What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men. Let them come? You could not let them come into your trenches; so the only thing feasible at the moment was done—and some of our men met them halfway and began talking to them.

Whatever happened the Dorsets enjoyed a quiet day without the usual danger of enemy fire. I do hope Frank enjoyed his new vest and pants and perhaps a lovely bar of “Choc”.

I also hope you have a lovely day with your families.


Have yourself a Verey merry Christmas

22nd December 1914

Cold rain and some snow fell throughout the day, rendering the ground even more sodden than it was already. One man died today in what is described as light shelling in the Dorsets’ war diary. Alexander Sellers, aged 34, was the last Dorset man to die in Flanders before Christmas day in 1914. What a miserable Christmas for his wife, Ellen, back in Weymouth. What a miserable Christmas for countless families around the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

And what a miserable Christmas for the Dorsets; stuck in freezing, wet, filthy trenches with Verey lights instead of fairy lights, jam tin grenades (last minute Christmas present anyone?) instead of crackers and the ubiquitous bully beef instead of goose and all the trimmings.

But here’s a really long letter from Frank to warm your cockles (I’ve always liked them cold myself, with plenty of white pepper and malt vinegar), filled with positive sentiments as always. Frank and his Bhoys are determined to have as good a time as they can, despite everything.

Envelope – Miss Crawshaw, 29 etc – franked 22 Dec 14
dated 21.12.14*

My Dearest Till

At last I am able to answer your welcome and interesting letters and also parcels which I received on Sunday, and Till which I think was very good of you to send out to me, and also Aunt and Uncle, yes I was ever surprised at the parcels which you sent I never expected all that, it was a proper Xmas gift. Well Till I expect we will be in the trenches on Xmas day, but the Bhoys have made up their minds to make the best of it providing nothing happens although the Bhoys remark it will be a dry one.

So old E Jim as got the bird tell him that is only half his luck, yes he is right there are plenty more gals going. Yes Till I still hear from Jess and she sent me a parcel the other day, which was very good of her.  I have just heard from Bert he said he has a good time at Brixton, he asked if I would like some Cig and I said I would sooner have Choc, No I never had the choc from him, so you can tell him.  It’s about time Bert was out here and some more of Kitchener’s Army. I reckon they are doing a proper laugh, I don’t know what you think. I bet Tom didn’t like going back, but I expect he’s settled by now.

Well Till that was exactly what happened in that letter I wrote to Uncle, only it was very hard and we had to rough it, but we are still alive and kicking, so we can’t grumble. I am surprised at Dolly, for it shows she thinks a lot of you and worries about my safety, I should certainly find the time to go and see her, Till I would like to have her address and hope you will send it in your next letter.

Yes I was reading in the trenches about the Trams, and I wondered how you got on, I said to myself I bet old Till was late that morning, but I see you went by train and got there alright. So the Germans have been giving England a few shells, that’s just what they send over to us and the Bhoys shout out when we hear them whizzing in the air, look out Bhoys. J Johnson and we all duck and chance what happens. I hope they won’t get coming any more of their games, for I expect they will stop it next time I believe there was a very thick fog on at the time.

Well Till I hope you will receive this letter before Xmas, and I hope you will have a good time of it at home, only I know things would be brighter if Tom and I was home but still let’s hope we shall be together again soon.

I am going to change and put on the vest and pants directly I have finished your letter. I am pleased to hear that all at home are well, remember me to Tango and Uncle and I hope you have a drop of lizzie with them soon. Till I am just seeing about my pay and am making arrangements so that you can receive 6d a day out of my pay, but will let you know more about it later on, for you can do with it.

Well I am getting on alright and still in the pink, things are just about the same out here. Now I think this is all the news this time, again thanking you and Aunt for the parcel and also wishing you at home a Merry Xmas, and I hope to hear from you soon.

I remain
Your loving Brother
Frank xxx

We are each getting a Xmas present from Queen Mary. Tell Mattie not forget his sporting letter.

* Eek! I got the date wrong on this letter in my schedule so it should have been posted yesterday. Apologies for that. I am leaving it here as yesterdays’ post is a longish one already. I don’t have time to write about any of its contents today. I shall return to it tomorrow and beyond as there plenty to write about.

Brixton – the flower garden of London

PC to Miss Crawshaw etc franked 16 De 14
Card dated 16-12-14

Dear Till

Just a few lines hoping this finds you all at home in the best of health as I am the same. Well Till we will soon be having Xmas here now, where are you going to this year Dollies? I hope you all have a good time at home only Tom and I won’t be there like last year, no drop of Lizzie. We are still on the go and there is plenty of mud out here I can assure you.

How are you getting on at Stewarts still blacking your nose? Have just heard from Jess she is getting on alright. How does Mattie get on for cold tea now it has gone up? I expect you all had a good time when Tom was home. Till I thought I was at Brixton when I was marching the other day for what should pass us was one of the Bon Marché motor lorries I gave the Bhoys a shout and said that Brixton was the Flower Garden of England and you should have heard the Bars (?) I got. Now I think this is all the news this time hoping to hear from you soon

Bid xxx

16th October 1914

It’s just as well Mabel got a letter from Frank as not much happened today and the Dorsets remained in billets for the day.

It can’t have been fun for Frank to contemplate spending Christmas in muddy Belgium. This flurry of letters home might reflect that fact that his attention is not wholly with fighting the Germans. It appears that Tom spent Christmas with Frank and the Family in Brixton the previous year. The more I read about Tom the more I am convinced that he is a cousin of Frank’s. The only problem is that the age of Caroline and Matthew Webster is a little bit young to have a 19-20 year old son. Caroline is 36 in 1914. Did Walter or Caroline have a child with an earlier partner? I cannot find anything that suggest this. Or is Tom another cousin from the Crawshaw side? This remains a mystery and it’s driving me nuts!

Frank uses the same phrase “blacking your nose” to describe Mabel’s duties at Stewarts. I imagine she is a waitress there. Anyone who has worked in a small catering business has to be a multi-tasker. My mother remembers Mabel being an excellent cook. Perhaps she learned from her father, “Stammering Sam”. She always had a stockpot ticking away on the stove. I still haven’t found any sources for this phrase.

Image of the Bon Marché department store in Brixton
Bon Marché department store in Brixton – circa 1912

Frank cheers as a Bon Marché lorry goes by. I’m not sure if the answer “bars” was an answer at all. The Bon Marché was a big department store in Brixton. In fact, it was the first purpose-built department store in the UK. It was started from the winning on a horse race and ended up as part of the John Lewis empire.

Quite what one of their lorries was doing out at the front is anyone’s guess. It could have been one of the London buses (with adverts still on the sides) that had recently been commandeered for the front.  It could have even been a local delivery truck for another Bon Marché business. A Paris-based department store had a fleet of lorries for deliveries.

The Flower Garden of London may be a surprising monicker for the Brixton of today but road names like Lavender Hill in Clapham tells the story of South London’s past. Much of the area was farmland in the Eighteenth Century, giving way to the tide of housing that followed the railways as thy snaked their way to the suburbs. Apparently strawberries were Brixton’s speciality but I cannot find any primary sources confirming this. A lot of sloppy copying and pasting in tourist guides is propagating this rumour. You won’t find that kind of behaviour here. I change some of the the words around before posting.

Peppermints and perfumed soap

### 29th November 1914

Let’s begin today’s post with a deceptively bucolic description of the local terrain by Count Gleichen:

Imagine a bit of rolling country—rather like parts of Leicestershire,—fair-sized fields, separated mostly by straggling fences interspersed with wire (largely barbed), and punctuated by tall trees. Patches of wood in places, spinney size for the most part. Low hills here and there—;KemmelScherpenbergPloegsteert Wood,—but all outside our area. For villages, DranoutreNeuve ÉgliseWulverghem, and Lindenhoek, of which the two last were already more than half shot to pieces and almost deserted. Opposite our right was Messines—a mile and a half in front of our line,—its big, square, old church tower still standing; it may have had a spire on the top, but if so it had disappeared before we came. Nearly opposite our extreme left, but out of our jurisdiction and in the sphere of the Division on our left, was Wytschaete (pronounce Wich Khâte), one and a half miles off.

14th Brigade handed over control of the Dranoutre area to 15th Brigade in the morning. All the troops in trenches, including the Manchesters and the East Surreys, came under Gliechen’s command. The 14th Brigade moved with its ambulance and baggage train to Saint Jans-Cappel four miles to the west, just over the border in France. The 15th Brigade had just arrived from there after a short rest. Gleichen stayed with the local Curé…

who liked the good things of this world … and did not disdain to make the acquaintance of an occasional tot of British rum or whisky, except on Fridays.

The Dorsets received orders to gauge the Germans’ strength in front of them. Another quiet day is reported in the diary. The Germans kept them on their toes during the night with two outbursts of rifle fire.

At home the Daily Telegraph reports the war has gone quiet in France and Belgium all along the line.

The newspaper is still banging on about Christmas present ideas for the men. Peppermint lozenges and perfumed soap (bad breath and B.O. being a big no no when hunkered down in a stinking trench) should included be offered as small gifts for those family members who are “maintaining the honour of the Country”.

There are also recipes for feeding wounded soldiers. What they do to a fillet steak possibly breaks the Geneva Convention. After the steak has been hammered flat and fried for 10 to 15 minutes I am sure the men could have used it as a bullet proof vest. Thankfully, a letter from Ethel Jonson offers to set up a society to put recent Belgian refugees* to good use and teach the English to cook. She labels English cuisine as being “lamentably inferior to that of Continental cookery”. Plus ça change.

*Did they get tax credits, I wonder?