By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
From the first days of the Camp at Aldershot, the units stationed here over the Christmas period have always made great efforts to mark the festive season with appropriate celebrations.
In the early years of the Army in Aldershot, the majority of the men lived in simple wooden huts, but these “wretched wooden shanties”, as they were described by a writer in Sheldrake’s Aldershot Military Gazette, were still “made resplendent with evergreens, paintings, and gay-coloured festoons, and very homely they looked”. Such was the enthusiasm for decorating the barrack rooms that an unofficial competition developed to see which unit had the best Christmas trimmings. When the first permanent barracks were built the enthusiasm for decorations continued in the new barrack rooms. Sheldrake’s reporter in 1862 was particularly struck by “room no. 13, second block”. In this year there had been tension between Britain and the USA caused by the American Civil War, so the centrepiece of the room’s decorations was “the British fleet surrounding the American flag, and demanding an answer to the question - peace or war?” Away from this topical painting were more traditional festive embellishments, including the colours of the regiment, Christmas trees and foliage, and the whole room being “very tastefully decorated”.
The garrison churches were also made ready for the Christmas services. The main garrison church was still the original “Iron Church” erected near Thorn Hill, as the Garrison Church of All Saints had yet to be built. Sergeant Bowers and Corporal Williams of the Royal Engineers had decorated the interior of the Iron Church with evergreen leaves which they had made into large texts, “Unto us a child is born” and “Glory to God in the Highest”, set up at each end of the building, and “Alleluja” at the end of each aisle. The whole, thought Sheldrake’s, was “very tasteful”.
The competition for the best-decorated barracks became more intense as prizes began to be offered, initially by individual regiments and then by major generals across their brigades. In 1880 Major General Sir Frederick Fitzwygram, commanding the cavalry brigade, offered prizes to the value of £22, a considerable sum for the time, which were awarded on Boxing Day. So elaborate were the results of this competition that the national press took notice. The Standard described in detail paintings “most artistically executed” by the 4th Dragoons, which depicted a fight between an English Dragoon and a French Lancer, and “two capital comic sketches” of fights between the Naval Brigade and Zulus, and a Highlander and an Afghan. Not to be outdone, the 7th Dragoons had a drawing in memory of one of their officers who had died a few months previously, plus two marine paintings representing morning and evening. The 4th Hussars had not done paintings, but instead had hung up various regimental trophies and devices of crossed guns and swords.
The efforts of the Army Service Corps were regularly singled out for praise, and no doubt having set a high standard the men felt that they had a reputation to defend each year. In 1880, No. 3 Company, which had recently returned from Africa, put up “a capitally executed motto worked in gold on a black ground, in memory of their comrades whom they left behind in Zululand”. In 1893, No. 20 Company ASC was praised for “by far the best decorated room in the garrison” for which “neither expense nor pains were spared”. They had decorated the walls with regimental badges, loyal slogans in support of their Corps and messages of seasonal good wishes to their officers, while “the work on the ceiling was ... the best that has ever been seen in Aldershot”. The effect at night was especially spectacular as “the whole, when illuminated ... presented a fantastic and unique appearance, which will not soon be forgotten by those who had the pleasure of being entertained to the merry gathering which took place”.
Of great importance to the soldiers was, of course, their festive food and refreshment. In addition to the fare provided by the authorities, it was common for a regiment’s officers to give something extra for the men’s Christmas dinner. In the Camp for Christmas 1862 were prepared “no fewer than 230 geese, and 16,000 lbs. of plum pudding, besides legs of pork, hams, sucking pigs, and other dainties ... the tables groaning under a load of all the delicacies of the season”. As the men finished their dinner it was traditional for the Commanding Officer to tour the dining rooms of his Regiment, and in each there would be a toast drunk and compliments of the season paid. Afterwards the officers would retire to their quarters, and the soldiers would repair to their regimental canteens to enjoy further refreshment and celebrate a day free from normal duties. A report of Christmas 1885 relates that the officers “were received with hearty cheers” as they toured the barrack rooms. The soldiers had a “capital dinner” and the afternoon was spent singing songs. Visitors were welcome, and soon the rooms were crowded with friends and relations. In the evening furniture was moved aside to conclude the day with dancing, which was “indulged in with hearty spirit”.
At times the indulgence was overly hearty and excessive drinking could cause problems of rowdy behaviour. In 1893 the Duke of Connaught, then GOC in Aldershot, attempted to impose moderation by issuing orders that no beer was to be allowed in mess rooms before Christmas dinner was served, that the total amount allowed in the day was to be not more than one quart [2 pints] per man, and no spirits of any kind were to be allowed in mess rooms. However, these somewhat draconian measures were a complete failure, as it was reported that soldiers were “well supplied with all descriptions of liquors”. The Hampshire Telegraph was disgusted and complained that “so gross an irregularity speaks very badly for the discipline of the various corps now at Aldershot”, but in reality it just showed that little would stop the soldiers from enjoying their Christmas in the traditional manner.
When festivities were curtailed it was because of outside events over which no-one had any control. Christmas 1890 was unusually quiet because Aldershot was in the grip of some extreme winter weather. Adding to the problems were the many hundreds of bricklayers and workmen who were working on building new barracks to replace the wooden huts, and the weather left many of these so destitute that on Christmas Eve soup kitchens were set up to relieve some of their suffering. Their employer, local contractor Martin, Wells and Co., advanced the men 25 per cent of their next week’s wages and gave presents of food to their families. Making the best of the conditions, many officers and ladies went out skating on the ice, and people enjoyed tobogganing on the hills adjacent to Long Valley.
The nineteenth century finished on a sombre note, for over the Christmas period of 1899 the Camp was busy mobilising units to go out to the Boer War. The pace did not slacken over the holiday period. The Cavalry Brigade was getting ready to depart at the end of December, the Royal Engineers were preparing contingents to go to war, and the Royal Army Medical Corps was calling in personnel not only to deploy to the front but also to strengthen the manning of the Cambridge Hospital in anticipation of receiving large numbers of sick and wounded. There were no decorations in the barracks, and although there was good food for dinner “the observance of Christmas at Aldershot was more mechanical than hearty ... The only outbursts of enthusiasm were brought about when absent comrades were toasted”. The following year the war continued to cloud the Christmas celebrations. In Aldershot attempts were made to celebrate in the traditional manner, some decorations were back and there was a plentiful supply of seasonal fare, but “throughout it all, however, could be observed a sober undercurrent” as units remembered absent comrades, and some reflected on orders received just before the holidays to prepare to go to the front.
Thankfully the start of the new century saw an end to the South African War, and with peace Christmas in Camp was again a time of celebration and all the good things that the season brought. Sheldrake’s Aldershot and Sandhurst Military Gazette described the fine Christmas of 1910:
“There is great deal placed on the tables on Yuletide Day, when the common fare is composed of dainty dishes, which would make the ordinary working man and his family feel green with envy, for turkeys, geese, duck, fowl, game, roast legs of pork, hams, veal pies, and all the fruit in season, with sweet stuffs galore, are to be found, and were found, on the dining tables in camp this year ... An altogether happy holiday may be said to have been spent by the troops in the Command, and so far as was possible consistent with actual duty calls, work from Saturday afternoon till the following Wednesday was forgotten.”
A merry Christmas and happy New Year to all.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 005, December 2015/January 2016
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.