Friday, December 22, 2017

Christmas on the Western Front: WW1 Christmas letters of Oscar Holt of Sheffield (1891 - 1948)

A sketch done for the Hallamshire's Christmas card
by J.H. Dowd, 1915 (y06152)
With Christmas nearly upon us, and as we look ahead to 2018 and the centenary commemorations of the end of World War One, it is an opportune time to reflect on how Sheffield soldiers out on the front line spent Christmas during the First World War years.

Images of a Christmas Day truce, with British and German soldiers laying down their weapons, clambering out of the trenches and temporarily turning ‘no-man’s land’ into a friendly meeting place (singing carols, playing impromptu games of football together, sharing cigarettes, gifts and stories of home) is imprinted on the popular imagination. Certainly, there is evidence that such unofficial Christmas Day ceasefires, followed by amicable exchanges with the enemy, were fairly widespread along scattered sections of the Western Front during the Christmas of 1914. But, what was the reality of life for a typical soldier at the front at Christmas time? And, in particular, what happened at subsequent Christmases after 1914, as the war dragged on, and high command on both sides made it clear they would not tolerate future fraternising with the enemy (fearing it might dampen the resolve of troops to return to battle)?

Corporal Oscar Holt of Sheffield (MD6063)
Various collections of letters and diaries of individual First World War soldiers from Sheffield can be found at Sheffield City Archives which provide fascinating personal insights into life in the trenches and on the front line and also give an indication of how soldiers marked events such as Christmas. One such collection is a long series of letters written by Oscar Holt (1891-1948) who, whilst serving as a Corporal (and later Sergeant) with the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) in France and Belgium, corresponded throughout the war with his sweetheart back in Sheffield, Alice Whitehurst (1886-1941). Some of the letters in the collection are also addressed to Alice’s sister Jane Whitehurst who lived with Alice and their grandmother Sarah Gibson at 92 Vale Road, Parkwood Springs, Sheffield. Prior to the war, Alice worked for a local silverware manufacturer as a ‘wrapper up of spoons and forks’.

Oscar Holt was born in Sheffield in December 1891, the son of Tom Robert Holt, a grocer and ‘provision dealer’, and his wife Annie Maria. The Holt family lived at 120 Bernard Street, Park, Sheffield. Although they were both from Sheffield, Oscar and Alice actually met in the unlikely setting of Douglas, Isle of Man in 1913, whilst both were on separate Summer holidays there and happened to find themselves staying in the same guesthouse.

Their relationship was still in its infancy when war broke out the following year. In September 1914, Holt was working as a clerk for the Sheffield steel firm of Hadfields on Newhall Road, when he enlisted and joined the Royal Field Artillery. Holt’s letters to Alice form a wonderfully vivid and more-or-less weekly record of his life in the army over four years (subject to the usual constraints of censorship). On Christmas Day 1914, Holt was back on leave in Sheffield (from his training barracks in Deepcut, Aldershot) so his first Christmas on the Western Front was not until the following year 1915.

Alice Whitehurst (MD6063)
Holt’s first taste of action ‘in the firing line’ on the front came in France in August 1915. By December 1915, things had quietened down a little for Holt’s brigade and he was stationed with an ammunitions’ column where he led (in his words) a largely ‘idle existence’ in the run-up to Christmas. In a letter written to Alice on 17th December 1915, Holt looks ahead with eagerness to Christmas but, more importantly, to a future with Alice when the war is over:

‘…Wish that parcel would turn up…Am longing to see what’s in my stocking this Christmas. Think I shall hang my stocking up on Xmas Eve always. Will you be nice dear and put nice things in them? Not sawdust or cinders but something nice. Have so much time on my hands I often think of the days to come Alice when we’ll be spliced and all our worries and troubles will be over…and it makes me simply long for this war to finish soon…’

The following week, Holt wrote to Alice on Christmas Day, filled with excitement of news of forthcoming leave and the expectation that he will be back in Sheffield to bring in the New Year. In the letter he explains how his Christmas Day feels largely like any other day with guns still ‘blazing away’ on both sides. He also bemoans how there were no signs of the fabled Christmas truce activities he had heard troops enjoyed the previous year. However, Holt’s letter does describe how his brigade were able to make some effort to mark Christmas, having been supplied with turkeys and plum puddings for dinner and a tot of rum for each man’. He also describes how they enjoyed a very memorable ‘merry’ Christmas Eve with music, singing and dancing (accompanied by a violin, mandolin and mouth organ!) deep into the early hours. A full transcript of Holt’s Christmas Day 1915 letter follows:

Christmas Day 1915

Dear Alice,

Received your letter and Blaines(?) the other day. Thanks for Blaines(?) – but what a short letter kid. Yes, I too hope we won’t be apart next year, or any others, at this Time(?), still I hardly expect the war will be over even next Xmas. I sincerely hope it will but don’t see any signs of a quick ending.

I’m simply bursting to tell you though Alice I expect to start my week’s furlough next Thursday. Of course we never know for certain about these ‘leaves’ until we are actually on the way home, but I am the next to go from the Brigade staff, and in the ordinary course that would be about next Thursday (Dec 30). As far as I can say I should reach Sheffield about 9 o’ck on Saturday or Sunday night. I  don’t suppose I shall be able to let you know definitely as it takes four days or so for the post to reach you and don’t think I shall know myself for days in advance. I can hardly realise(?) it dear, another week and I shall see you again, it seems too good to be true. I’ll try and send you a wire from London.

Although it’s Christmas day now, there seems no difference in generally throughout the night the guns have been blazing away harder than usual. I remember reading last year about our chaps and the Germans stopping firing and swopping fags & cigars between the trenches, but just round this quarter there’s no sign of anything like that, at the moment of writing this I can hear them blazing away at each other.   

At any rate though, we are making an effort today to uphold Xmas a bit, the captain has provided Turkeys and plum puddings for dinner, and a tot of rum for each man. Last night (Xmas Eve) I’ll remember for a long time. I’m at the Column still and in the Corporal’s room (there’s six of us chaps in a little barn apart from the main barn) four of them turned in about 8.30 in a decidedly merry condition (no dear – really I was ‘not guilty’) accompanied by half a dozen of their pals in the same state. We had a violin, mandolin and a mouth organ and kept it up till 3 o’ck this morning, singing and dancing. Funny thing was, Christmas carols were the favourite songs.

I’ve been informed that I’m to return to the Brigade tomorrow. I’ll be sorry in a way to go back, as whilst down here I’ve had the softest time since joining the army. Two and a half hours parade a day.

Still though I forget all about the army, Christmas festivities and everything when I think of you dear and that I’ll be with you again in a week’s time.

Can’t tell you how I’m looking forward to coming home, simply counting the hours. Don’t forget Alice, you’ve got to stay at our house again all the time till I have to come back.

Yours always for ever & ever & ever

In the run up to the following Christmas of 1916, Holt endured a torrid year of bitter fighting. He was involved in the Battle of the Somme from Summer through to November as part of General Haig’s ‘Great Push’ forward. In one letter to Alice dated 26 September 1916 he writes, for example:

‘…For the past few weeks have had an awfully rough time, many a time slept out in the open, once or twice to wake up in the early hours to find the rain passing merrily down. At present living in German dugouts 30 feet deep. The late occupants were still in here when we arrived; still I won’t say anything about that, it’s too gruesome. Any rate they are decently buried now...up to now it has been impossible to bury the dead and clean things up. Both Germans and English are lying about in hundreds, the smell is frightful…you can hardly turn over a shovelful of earth without digging up somebody or worse still a part of somebody...’

Amongst Holt’s collection of letters is a souvenir he retrieved from the enemy dugout - a German pocket book of English phrases, labelled in Holt’s hand as having had a ‘bullet passed through’.

German pocket book which 'had a bullet passed
through' retrieved by Oscar Holt from an
enemy dugout in 1916 (MD6063)
Considering the restrictions imposed by censorship, Holt’s letters are remarkably candid in relaying the action in which he was involved. In October 1916, he describes ‘dragging the wounded into shell holes’ during a bombardment, sleeping in shell holes and subsisting on ‘a few biscuits and water tasting of petrol’. He often alludes in his letters to the many casualties his brigade has suffered, and in one letter includes a description of the death of a fellow Sheffielder, his ‘old chum from Hadfields, Teddie Hill’, who was killed whilst ‘going over the top’. In a letter dated 22 November 1916, Holt describes a heavy enemy attack as ‘like Hell let loose’ and gives a graphic account of fellow soldiers suffering from shell shock.

Unsurprisingly, given his experiences that year (and how, as with the previous Christmas, there was no sign of any cessation in hostilities over the festive period) Holt’s letter to Alice written on Christmas Day 1916 is markedly gloomy in tone, His mood was also darkened by recent news of his leave being postponed. He writes:

‘…Been a rum sort of Christmas Day up here. Both ourselves and Germans have been banging away all day like the deuce. At any note there’s been none of that Christmas Time idea round here (supposed to have happened two years ago). I expect lots of the chaps behind the line have been feasting today on Turkeys, plum puddings, etc. We’ve dined – as per usual – stew and onion, not even potatoes (haven’t seen potatoes by the way, for weeks now). Our Xmas tea consists of dry bread and jam…’

Although he goes on to say in the letter how later on that same Christmas Day his unit managed to ‘scrounge eight bottles of champagne’ between twenty of them, which prompted them to break out into a brief spell of ‘rejoicing’ and ‘singing around the dugout’, the festivities didn’t last long and Holt explains how:

‘…things fell a bit dull about eight thirty so we shuffled off to bed. Honestly I think every one of us was thinking of other Christmases before the war, I’ll admit I was. I sincerely hope we’ll spend all the other Christmases to come as civilians, today on the whole has been a miserable failure among us, no fun as festivities go, in fact if it had not been for the letters from home, I wouldn’t have noticed it was Christmas...Of course though Alice my one thought at present is of coming home to you for a spell. I don’t think you can imagine what it means after a year of this, the thought that you are going home in a day or two...’

Caricature of an army medical officer enjoying a hearty Christmas
dinner in a Christmas edition of The Leadswinger (a far cry from
reality for most troops!) (MD2071)
Holt’s third and final Christmas spent on the Western Front (1917) was again prefigured by months of further fierce fighting. This time, Holt was caught up in the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres) from summer up until November 1917.

In a letter dated 2 October 1917, Holt breaks the news to Alice that he has been wounded by an enemy shell (although he is quick to emphasise how his wounds are not too serious):

‘At last Alice, after 27 months out here, Fritz has got me, though it isn’t quite a Blighty...It happened five days ago, it wasn’t much..’.

After being treated for septic poisoning in a wounded ankle, Holt was soon thrust back into the fray. A letter to Alice dated 26 November 1917 includes an intriguing account of him mixing with captured German prisoners as the British army advanced:

‘…the other night I slept in in a dugout with about thirty or forty other ‘strayed or lost’ troops, waiting for daylight to find our way ‘home’. It was a mixed collection, among us were infantry, artillery, cavalry, tank chaps, engineers, RAMC and a couple of Fritz prisoners, and although we were well within machine gun range had quite a merry evening, even the two Fritz laughed and tried to join in some of the singing but they wouldn’t speak English so it might have been the ‘Hymn of Hate’ they contributed to the entertainment. Anyway nobody quarrelled with them and they shared our bully and biscuits and we their fags and they seemed quite happy...’

Christmas Day 1917 for Holt’s brigade was evidently a somewhat jollier affair than the previous year but Holt was not able to indulge in the merriment as much as his fellow troops due to having to take his turn ‘on duty’ that night. In his letter to Alice describing his Christmas Day (dated 27 December) Holt writes:

‘…Well that’s another Christmas Day we’ve spent apart kid, and sincerely hope it’s the last. I often wondered during the day how you were spending it Alice. Tell me, will you. Mine was spent in a dugout. We had a decent spread for dinner, Roast Pork and Christmas Pudding, followed by many toasts (how many I don’t know – but enough to give me a headache). Still had to be fairly moderate during the evening owing to the unfortunate fact that my turn of duty came at midnight for four hours. When I left the company though they seemed to be in jolly spirits, enlivening the occasion by singing (the selection ranged from Xmas carols to Ragtimes – rendered with great gusto the vocalists numbering about 20) and accompanied by a violin. The evening seems to have been a great success though, too much so I think, as when my four hours was up, my relief hadn’t arrived and on enquiry, I found the two gentlemen concerned fast asleep in bed, fully dressed, boots and everything, and as I couldn’t waken them there was nothing for it but to stay on the next four hours too. However it was Christmas so nobody worried. On Boxing Day we were on the move again, not far though, and are still in action. Six of us are living in an isolated place on our own, working a forward exchange. Our worse trouble is getting water. Been here two days now and all the water we’ve got has been by melting dixies full of snow. All right just now during the snowy weather, but if it thaws our only hope will be muddy shellhole water. Still not particular nowadays, am afraid Alice you’d get a shock if you saw our cooking arrangements sometimes. Bit of mud (outwards or inwards) does you no harm though out here...’

As well as giving a detailed sense of the excitement, struggles and even horrors of the war (in spite of the threat of censorship), Holt’s letters are also notable for his moving descriptions of how much he misses his home town and in particular how much he misses Alice. The letters frequently articulate Holt’s longing to return to ‘dear old Sheffield’ and mostly to return to the comfort of his lover’s arms. The letters also illustrate the vital role women like Alice (and family and friends back home) played in helping to keep up the morale of soldiers fighting on the front line.  Letters and parcels (of provisions) sent from Alice back in Sheffield out to Holt in France and Belgium were in his words a ‘godsend’. As Holt says in a letter to Alice written on 1 July 1917: ‘It’s just thinking of you Alice that keeps me going many a time’.

Oscar Holt's letters sent home to Alice Whitehurst (later his wife)
Having repeatedly expressed his yearning to wed his sweetheart Alice in four years’ worth of letters sent to her throughout the war, on 1 September 1919 (after leaving the army), Holt’s cherished wish finally came true. Oscar Holt (then residing at 198 Crookesmoor Road) and Alice Whitehurst were married at St Michael and All Angels Church, Neepsend. The couple set up home at 646 Barnsley Road, Sheffield. Holt became a commercial traveller in the iron and steel trade and later managed a Sheffield firm. In January 1941, the couple (having remained childless) relocated to 4 Heather Lea Avenue, Dore, along with Alice’s sister Jane. Sadly, Alice died just a few months afterwards of cancer on 19 May 1941, aged just 54. She was buried in Dore Parish Churchyard.

After the death of his beloved Alice, Oscar Holt moved away to Oldham, having set up his own business as a travelling iron and steel merchant. He eventually remarried his housekeeper in Oldham, Viola Brierley (born 1902), in 1943. Tragically, for a man who had survived bloody First World War battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele, by a particularly cruel twist of fate, Holt met his death at a former military base in peacetime England some thirty years after leaving the army. He died on 2 June 1948, aged 56, whilst working as a demolition engineer, supervising demolition of buildings at an old RAF site at Faldingworth, Lincolnshire. In a freak accident, a 12-foot high wall collapsed on top of him, killing him instantly.

Holt was buried in Lydgate near Oldham but he is also remembered locally in an inscription on his wife Alice’s grave-stone at Dore Churchyard. In 1955, Alice’s sister Jane presented Holt’s First World War letters to Sheffield City Libraries. The letters now reside at Sheffield City Archives on Shoreham Street, alongside personal records of other First World War servicemen from Sheffield, where their remarkable individual stories of courage and sacrifice can be preserved and remembered forever. 
Oscar Holt's letters are at Sheffield City Archives (ref. MD6063).