The first weeks of January can be a leaden time, the days short, the nights prolonged and dark. Chill and gloom pervade as Christmas and New Year slide away into the past and spring feels very far away. It was no different for Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, on the Somme in the early weeks of 1916.
But what a Christmas it had been. One to write home about – except that very few loving parents would have been told everything. Writing to his sister a few days later, Noel described the men’s dinner on Christmas Day, when the officers served the food, and treats sent from home helped add to the party atmosphere. His own parents sent a case of goodies, with sausages, cake and tin trumpets proving the most popular. ‘When I went round dinners I was greeted with ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ played on cornets and lustily sung, and one gentleman in a voice husky with beer and emotion assured me that if I ever wanted a man to follow me into a tight place, 11132 Private Harry Gay was the man in question.’ But did not tell her about the officers’ party held the evening before, which he himself had arranged.
At 7.30 pm on Christmas Eve, about 20 officers squeezed into their mess room. There was a large stove in the centre and three tables, each about 18 inches wide. For Christmas decorations the walls were hung with Raphael Kirchner nudes and the gramophone played ‘Any old night is a wonderful night if you’re there with a wonderful girl.’ The menu listed eight topically named courses, including Hulluch oysters and Festubert soup, roast turkey à Boyau 15 (one of the most dangerous communication trenches in their previous sector) and plum pudding with Givenchy sauce.
At first there was an awkwardness in the air: the CO. was a strict disciplinarian and too many of the officers were new to the battalion. But the atmosphere warmed during the meal, and that was nothing to what followed. As the ‘old men’ (in their thirties, mostly) withdrew to drink port quietly in a corner, the ‘B’ company officers’ orchestra set up to play, one conducting, one on tambourine, one on castanets, one triangle, and Hodgson, who wasn’t even in ‘B’ company, on ‘any instrument he can get hold of.’ The gramophone was supposed to provide the tune, but one of the others kept stopping it and changing the speed, while everyone else cheerfully pelted the ‘orchestra’ with bread.
By 10 pm some of the youngest and least experienced were the worse for drink and needed to be steered gently to their billets. The CO. went to bed too, but for the others the party continued with singing around the piano. The adjutant, a promoted Sergeant Major from the 1st Battalion, played a prominent part, leading the company in some drunken hymns before starting a wrestling bout with the mess president of ‘B’ company, who couldn’t stop giggling. He – the mess president – then took up the triangle and tried to play but couldn’t find the metal rod to strike the note. He stumbled round the room searching for it, the others unhelpfully offering him everything but the rod.
Now the ‘old men’ decided to join in, and emerged from their corner with a bottle of vinegar. The game was to see how many of the others could be persuaded to drink a toast, thinking it was champagne, and each success was greeted with glee. But the greatest amusement, which the others would dine out on for days, was the machine-gun officer, who spent his whole evening gazing in silent devotion on the daughter of their French host.
They were all very young and very far from home, enjoying a few hours of complete freedom from the weight of responsibility they had accepted when they volunteered. Their letters describing the party are irresistibly funny. A century on, the humour is inevitably touched by the knowledge that many of those mentioned would not live to see another Christmas, but they were not thinking of what the future might hold. They were out of the line and enjoying themselves, knowing full well that within days they’d be back at work, training and marching under the dull January skies.