Follow the Drum: Christmas 1917
To celebrate Christmas one hundred years ago in 1917, it was necessary for people to dig deep within their own personal reserves of strength as the fourth Christmas of War unfolded. How could anyone know that it was in fact the last Christmas of that grim global combat as another year of war was approaching in 1918?
Fixing bayonets and fighting on
The cartoon on the front cover of the extended Surrey Volunteer Review, December 1917 seemed to encapsulate the mood with the image of the soldier being berated by an irate instructor. Fix bayonets! Now go and stick it in the target. It’s your only chance of hitting it!
It was a time of constant repetition of the same survival tactics and overly familiar patriotic messages. However, the strain was apparent as in the editorial, volunteers are told I will not say ‘a merry Xmas’ this year, but hope to be able to do so next year when perchance by then our boys at the front will have finished their clearing purposes… This is … the fourth Xmas for our lads in the trenches and I am not able to wish you that Merry Xmas… but I will wish you that time when we can hear the swish of the bullet as it stops its moving target…
There was a distinctly grim feeling of ‘backs against the wall’ if you read between the lines. The inference was that every man must fight on to the end, including hand-to-hand combat in its most extreme form. What a terrible prospect.
Christmas 1917 and the local economy
In the same edition of the Surrey Volunteer Review there are references to the local shops. Christmas shopping as a patriotic act is a recurring theme at this time. A section on the last page of this Review magazine urges Volunteers to take on the responsibility of supporting their local shopkeepers by buying the items they require for Christmas shopping locally. (in those shops placing advertisements in the Review itself: ‘It is up to us to try’.
What to buy
Ideas for gifts included ideas for modest, homely and practical ideas such as a selection of soaps, hair tonic, sponges and hot water bottles (illustrated in this advertisement from the Richmond & Twickenham Home Journal, December 1917).
Again, the emphasis was on shopping locally for such provisions. Some businesses were aiming at specific items for the military market so badges for the South African troops in silver or gold were being marketed via their magazine, Springbok Blue. Hence this unusual promotion of the South Africa Badge Brooch.
This was the exception in that readers of the magazine were being pointed to a business located in Regent Street. The revenue from such an advertisement would have been useful income to maintain the magazine production. The South Africans had always been staunch supporters of local cafes, pubs, cinemas and other local outlets.
A local spending spree
A creative and imaginative approach was adopted in the Springbok Blue magazine (Volume 1, December 1917) for the soldiers and staff in their Richmond Park hospital. In order to encourage family members as well as the troops to indulge in a shopping spree in those economically challenging times when supplies were uncertain, a story about a local shopping expedition with a difference was featured.
Entitled A Christmas Shopping Jaunt a woman called Mary was Christmas shopping locally for the first time her eyes sparkled with pleasurable anticipation. Married to Jimmy who was somewhere in France, she was being met in Richmond by her cousin John (aka Jack) who she had not seen since they were both young in Durban. He was now a patient in the South African Military Hospital. He had been a young boy of 10 but now had seen action in France and been wounded but the poor boy had been at the front. What would he be like? Would she know him? Would he be on crutches? What had happened to him?’
By injecting some real life drama into the story that readers could recognise this piece of writing was clearly a vehicle to guide potential shoppers towards local businesses. For example, Jack and Mary stopped for refreshments in ‘Rose Cottage’ after buying furs. (Clearly it was largely a ‘fantasy’ spree beyond the average person’s means in its scope and expense).
The advert and image for ‘Rose Cottage’ a licenced restaurant on Hill Rise, open for 12 hours daily (with music and singing) was placed opposite the third and final page of Mary’s shopping saga for maximum impact. The grand tour of Richmond’s shops ended in Chatfield’s of Friars Stile Road where Jack stopped. Mr Chatfield is quite one of our Hospital family party… where he(Jack) bought a very handsome case of pipes for Jimmy’s Christmas present and some stationery for himself. Needless to say, Jack slept the sleep of the just, dreaming of the never to be forgotten red-letter day in his calendar.
Christmas Cinema – December 1917
A more economical and popular leisure pursuit was the cinema at this time. Programmes varied but showings would typically include a main feature and two ‘subsidiary’ dramas of fifteen minutes each, two comedies of the same length and a newsreel of around eight minutes. A full show usually lasted for up to two hours.
The ‘offering’ from the Royalty Kinema, Richmond for December 1917 featured Mary Pickford in A Romance of the Redwoods. Nationally, the average cost of a ticket was 4d in 1916 and by January 1917 weekly attendance reached 21 million tickets. Initially audiences were seen to be rowdy and would shout at the screen and cinemas were considered places for working-class entertainment. However, gradually the class barriers broke down and more middle-class patrons started going and more women. Some, like Richmond resident, Virginia Woolf (who resided at 17, The Green and then Hogarth House in Paradise Road) were avid viewers of the newsreels. Others went to the cinema to escape the war and managers tried to present programmes that would meet the requirements of both kinds of audience.
A Family Christmas?
Yet again, families were apart or had endured tremendous losses. In the Richmond & Twickenham Home Journal for December 1917 there were signs that families wanted to re-discover some fun that Christmas, particularly for the very young children. A story was featured about a family of cats complete with wonderful illustrations and light-hearted verses by Louis Wain. The plot-line concerned Sir Tabbycat of Kittenhall’s Christmas celebrations and emphasised music, song, dance and good food to be had by all:
‘Sir Tabbycat of Kittenhall, resolved to give a Christmas Ball,
To show to all the countryside, that he believed in Christmastide;
He sent his servants up and down, through country lane and market town,
And kittens came in high delight, all glad to have a jolly night.’
These highly anthropomorphised images are typical of Wain’s artistic style. The fanciful words can leave no doubt that a strong desire is expressed, on the part of the adults for a return to some more joyful, frivolous times that all could be involved in celebrating. These were yet to come at an unspecified point in the future once the conflict ceased.
After Tipperary: Theatrical Entertainment during the First World War in Richmond upon Thames. Richmond Arts Service and Orleans House Gallery
Springbok Blue Magazine. The magazine of the South African Military Hospital, Richmond Park, Surrey. (Our reference: L 362.I SOU)
Surrey Volunteer Review 1915 – 17. (Our reference: L 940.4 I R).
To discover more about the effect of the First World War on our local community 100 years ago, visit the Local Studies Library & Archive.
Archive materials are varied and fascinating, providing a real insight into lives lived in the Borough at a crucial moment in history. They can be accessed easily with support from the Local Studies Team who can help you conclude your enquiries successfully.
[Patricia Moloney, Local Studies Assistant]