We have become familiar with images of wartime Christmas truces where fighting stopped, football matches were played and carols were sung, but this certainly wasn’t the universal experience on the Western Front a hundred years ago.
Ambulance trains did not stop running during Christmas 1914, many patients still needed treatment and staff remained on trains during the holidays. Men worked 24 hours a day during Christmas to prepare Dover Marine station for an increasing amount of patients expected to be received onto home ambulance trains in 1915.
You can read what ambulance train nurse Kate Luard was doing during Christmas 100 years ago here. This is her entry for Christmas Eve.
…This is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed
There was some Christmas cheer on the trains, ambulance train staff distributed cigarettes, pipes, handkerchiefs and Christmas cards to patients. This Christmas card belonged to Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) orderly Edmund Cooper who served on number 16 ambulance train, this example has recently been sent to us by Mr. Cooper’s son.
Ambulance train staff did take time to enjoy Christmas day where and when they could. Nurse Kate Luard describes an elaborate dinner eaten on their train.
12 Midnight – still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills
One ambulance train orderly describes eating Christmas dinner and drinks on the empty ward, followed by a concert. Festivities ended at 11.30 pm with a load of patients coming onto the train at 5.30 am, a few hours later.
A lot of the work we are doing as part of our 2016 ambulance train exhibition centres on balancing the lighter stories of life on ambulance trains with the bleak realities of war experienced by everyone who travelled on them.
We have spent the last year gathering fascinating real life stories of staff and patients who worked on ambulance trains, this information will inform our exhibition where we will describe real life experiences of what it would have been like to travel on an ambulance train.
If you have any information you would like to share with us we would be very interested to hear from you.