Anywhere but Home for Xmas

The one thing always on a soldier’s mind when he is away from home is his next leave. It is never more true than in the approach to Christmas. It was on the mind of Private Robert Bennett in training at Woking in 1914: “I am saving my money to come home at Xmas, it costs 22/9 for us to Durham and the fare to Shotton will amount to about 25 shillings return.” He promised is little sister Kitty that he would bring her something special for writing to him. Instead they moved from Inkerman Barracks to Pirbright Camp, swapping huts for canvas. He was in “the last batch to go away but one” and had to content himself with the rumour that “we are going to get a good dinner on Xmas day”. In fact he would have to wait several more weeks.

It was even worse when the Battalion went overseas. Long before Xmas 1915 Robert was predicting that it would be at least three months before he got home leave. Writing again just before Xmas he was still predicting 9 or 12 weeks and intimating that the lads had been told the last posting day for Xmas was 17 December. On 1 Jan 1916 he returned his Xmas cards for the family to keep but “we had a good time at Xmas. We got tons of bacca and tabs sent out to us and a lot of Xmas pudding.” He never did make it home and he was dead before the next Xmas.

Two more men from 11 DLI were the occasion of domestic mourning around the 1915 festive season. Private 12115 John James Surrey was killed aged 24 just before New Year’s Eve and Lance Corporal 13797 John Henderson died of wounds on 19 December – no doubt the occasion of a badly timed letter from the War Office to his family. John Henderson was the husband of Julia and father of William and John, a hewer from Dudley in Northumberland. Ironically he had been on Xmas leave in 1914 and lost a day’s pay for arriving back at camp in Pirbright a day late. That was his last Xmas at home.

What will ‘the lads (and lasses)’ be doing this year?