Christmas in World War I, the saddest of all

“There is scarcely a home from sea to sea… where there will not be a vacant place, and an empty chair,” in Canada on Christmas Day, 1917. Canadian forces won key battles in the First World War, but suffered heavy losses. At the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, April 22-May 25, 1915, depicted here by artist Richard Jack, Canadian troops defeated the German army, Canada’s first defeat of a European power in Europe. Image, Canadian War Museum.

 

 World War I

December 25, 1917 was the fourth Christmas of World War I, and the war was not going well. “There is no prospect of ending it at any early date,” said the Vancouver Sun. Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II threatened that if peace was not accepted on Germany’s terms, “Then we must bring peace to the world by battering it with the iron first and shining sword.” It will last another five years, predicted military author Frank Simonds.

“The Saddest Christmas of all,” said Toronto’s Weekly Sun, a farm paper. “The Christmas of 1917 will long remain in the calendar as the blackest day of all in the memories of suffering millions.”

Across Canada “There is scarcely a home from sea to sea… where today there will not be a vacant place, and an empty chair,” noted the Winnipeg Free Press. The empty chair, the vacant place will be kept “in loving remembrance of the one far away.”

Nowhere in Canada was there more sadness than in Halifax, where the explosion of the French munitions ship Mont Blanc on December 6 had demolished much of the city. Known deaths, reported the Halifax Herald December 24, had reached 1,158, of which 304 were unidentified. Bodies were still being buried. “All of the bodies at the Chebuetco mortuary to be buried today.”

In the crisis of relief work, “10,000 homeless children came dangerously near to being forgotten.” An 11th-hour volunteer effort resulted in the delivery of gifts to the homeless children on Christmas Eve.

“Today Canada mourns the loss of over 35,000 of her gallant sons, and twice that many are maimed, or blind, or partially disabled,” noted Toronto’s Christian Guardian. But “for all time men shall admire the valor and emulate the spirit of Canada’s peace-loving yet heroic sons.”

The Victoria Colonist sounded the ill-fated hope that would echo constantly in the coming years, that this would be the war to end all war. “No matter how unfavourable the signs,” said the Colonist, “this fourth Christmas day of the war finds us nearer to the era of peace and goodwill among mankind.”

Rev. R.G. MacBeth, in the Vancouver Sun, saw in war the defeat of atheism. “Atheistic philosophy has failed to convince the human soul and it has never failed more thoroughly than in these days of terrible war when hearts cry out for a strength and a comfort which this passing world cannot give.”

Amid the gloom, the Montreal Star, a bastion of British patriotism, sounded an overblown note of glory. British forces had captured a string of towns in Palestine. “Wonderful glory, the British flag is floating” over Jerusalem and the Holy City “is in the keeping of our own people,” said the Star. “Surely, then, this is the most wonderful, solemn and impressive Christmas, not only in our own lives but even in all our history.”

Unfamiliar Canadian History 

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