Dec 24 2010
Although a soldier of Wellington’s army would no doubt be amazed by our modern Christmas, which only began to develop in the mid-nineteenth century, it was still a special time. For men hundreds of miles from home, Christmas could provoke some unexpected feelings.
Benjamin Harris of the 95th remembered the Christmas of 1808, when the Rifles were part of Sir John Moore’s army, harassed by the French as they retreated towards the sea.
‘Sadly, war blunts the feelings of men, and we felt eager to be at it again. As the cheer of our comrades sounded in our ears, I am afraid we longed for blood. And yet, amidst all this, even whilst they were thirsting for a sight of the enemy, softer feelings occasionally filled the breasts of those gallant fellows. As they saw the snow lying thickly in our path, some of the men near me suddenly recollected that this was Christmas Eve. It spread amongst the men. Many talked of home, and recollected previous Christmas Eves in Old England, shedding tears as they spoke of the relatives not to be seen again.’
Undoubtedly, the men of the 95th were not the only ones to share their nostalgic memories.
The season rarely passed without some comment from letter writers and diarists. Four years later William Wheeler of the 51st wrote to his family from winter quarters that
‘We have spent a very comfortable Christmas, you know I am one of those sort of mortals that do not stand to niceties. Youth and health with a good share of the good things of this world always satisfies me. I have often spent many happy hours, when on the out lying picquet, when sitting by the fire smoking my pipe and listening to the marvellous tales of my comrades. But here we are a distance from the enemy, we get our rations regular and we can purchase every eatable very cheap, wine is very good and cheap, and so is tobacco. I mention this because I know you will be pleased that we have it in our power to make ourselves comfortable after so arduous a campaign as our last was.’
Clearly, the sentiments of a contented man.
Very different was the experience of Daniel Nicol of the Gordon Highlanders. He had been wounded and taken prisoner after Talavera. In the winter of 1809 he found himself in Madrid. He was suffering the after-effects of fever; he also knew that
‘All hopes of being relieved were now sunk in despair until a general exchange at the end of the war.’ In this state of depression, he wrote: ‘I expected death and prayed to God fervently to receive my soul, for I had no desire or inclination to live. But it pleased the Lord to prolong my days when numbers were cut off around me.
‘Christmas Day was ushered in with the ringing of bells from all the churches in the city, and I believe no town in Europe has so many places of worship as Madrid.’
Whether it was the sound of the bells, or thoughts of Christmas, Nicol now began to recover both his health and his usual optimism.
Nevertheless, he was to experience several more Christmasses as a prisoner before he knew freedom again. There were ways of making sure Christmas did not pass without some celebration, however.
‘About this time a body of men formed themselves into a banditti, stealing bread, money and everything they could lay their hands on; by dint of severe punishments we got them into order and kept them so.’ But ‘On the 25th December, Christmas Day, a great many had something extra to eat and drink’ – thanks to the banditti, no doubt.
Young officers had their own way of celebrating Christmas. In 1811 Ensign Carter of the 30th recorded in his journal a day of mixed fortunes.
‘We had a parade at 3 o’clock in the morning, at 10 the brigade assembled for divine service the parson being taken ill, instead of praying, we formed line, saluted General Walker [in command of the brigade], marched past in slow & quick time, in marching past in quick time he abused us very much indeed. When we wheeled into line again he found fault with the movement, the men not sloping their arms properly, called the officers 10 paces in front & told them to examine the men & put them to rights, he found fault with the supernumerary officers, in partcicular after advancing & retiring in line, we marched home. In consequence of all this palaver he ordered the whole rgeiment to drill at 8 o’clock every morning.’
One wonders what had put General walker into such a bad humour. However, at this point things improved for the young ensign.
‘In the evening we dined with the Adjutant Lieutenant Garland & Ensign Campbell, we had a jolly famous time of it, sung several songs, at 9 o’clock we adjourned to Colonel Grey’s where we had an eloquent supper, a great deal of jolly rum in which I play my part pretty well…’
Unfortunately, under the influence of the ‘jolly rum’, Carter had invited ‘a whole lot of jolly fellows to dine’ the next day. Having little money, he virtually beggared himself as a result. Still, he could console himself with the thought that he had celebrated Christmas in style!