By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
For the Victorian soldiers, Christmas Day began at 6 a.m. with the sounding of Reveille by the duty bugler. Roused from their sleep, the men hastened to the ablutions, then back to the barrack room where they made up their bedding into standard neat parcels held in place by a leather strap. The metal telescopic bed frames were pushed in to give more space in the centre of the room where, later in the day, the great Christmas feast would be enjoyed. The barrack room was swept out, and then the men could enjoy their breakfast.
So far the routine could have been any other day, but as this was Christmas there would be no drills and a Sunday routine was observed. For most this meant a Church Parade in the morning, with a “fall-in” at around 10.30. The Garrison Churches, like the barrack rooms themselves, were decorated in the days before Christmas. “The churches of the Camp”, reported Sheldrake’s Aldershot Military Gazette for Christmas 1878, “were chastely decorated with evergreens etc, and with inscriptions suited to the season”. The decorations in 1875 at the Church of All Saints seem to have been rather more lavish. On the altar was an arrangement of flowers surmounted by a cross made of holly berries and white camellias, with the words “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord” in gold letters above the communion table. There were more decorations around the pulpit and lectern, and down the centre aisle were “pendant festoons passing across the arches”, wreaths on the columns, and more pendants, wreaths and circlets of evergreens across the west end. On Christmas morning the more experienced chaplains knew that on this day they would be well advised to keep their sermons short. Although this was a much more religious age than today, many of the men did not want a long ceremony as they eagerly anticipated the festivities which were to come.
Not everyone was at Church Parade, for the morning was a particularly busy time in the cook-houses where the dinner was prepared. With all the extra work involved in preparing the dinner, the regular cooks were given assistance from “Cook’s mates”, men designated to help in making sure that all the extra food was ready by the appointed hour. Although the normal diet for the Victorian soldier was rather uninspiring, for Christmas every effort was made to make this a truly special occasion. Sheldrake’s Gazette reported of Christmas 1863: “In the cookery department extraordinary activity prevailed, and vast were the quantities of beef, mutton, poultry, puddings, etc, that were served up”. To wash down all this food, the men were allowed generous amounts of ale, stout and porter, although spirits were strictly forbidden. During the morning the beer casks were brought into the barrack rooms where they were put under the charge of a reliable senior NCO tasked to ensure that there would be no drinking before the meal had begun. In 1891 some of the 5th Dragoon Guards anticipated the arrival of the beer barrels in their decorations: “The corporal’s bunk [had] undergone a great transformation, and informs the thirsty wayfarer that it is the ‘Pig’s Whistle’ where is kept fine ales from the Friary Brewery … This ‘pub’ is well thatched with straw, and the general effect is very good.” To pay for all the extra food and refreshment, it was the custom for the Officers to make generous donations to the seasonal funds, with additional money coming from profits from sales in the unit canteens over the preceding year.
When the soldiers returned from the church parade they got their barrack rooms ready for dinner. For days beforehand they had decorated their rooms with quantities of evergreen leaves, coloured paper, and, if the unit had amateur painters among their number, specially prepared scenes and loyal mottos of support for the Regiment and its senior officers. Now the dining tables were prepared in the centre of the room, which, for this special occasion, were covered with white cloth and usually more decorations to add to the festive atmosphere.
At twenty minutes to one the duty buglers sounded “cook-house”, and the designated orderlies from each room rushed to collect their allotted dishes. At one o’clock came the most welcome bugle call, the signal for the feasting to begin. In some instances junior officers acted as waiters for the men, but with so many individual barrack rooms in the camp more usually it was the NCOs who would serve the private soldiers. The beer barrels were opened, and within minutes all would be heartily enjoying both food and drink.
Despite this being a special day, some military duties still had to be done. William Robertson remembered his first Christmas in a cavalry regiment in 1877, when he was on Stable-Guard duty looking after the troop horses. He recorded that it was the regimental custom to employ the most recently joined recruits on duties at Christmas, which left the old soldiers free to enjoy their Christmas dinner. In Robertson’s unit dinner “was provided by the officer commanding the troop, and included a variety of eatables never seen on any other day, as well as a liberal supply of beer”. However, those on duty were not forgotten. He recalled: “It was the practice to see that all members of the troop who were absent on duty should be specially well cared for, and in my case the dinner brought to the stable consisted of a huge plateful of miscellaneous food - beef, goose, ham, vegetables, plum-pudding, blancmange - plus a basin of beer, a packet of tobacco, and a new clay pipe!”
Back in the barracks, while the men tucked into their dinner the Commanding Officer would begin his round of visits. Accompanied by the Adjutant and subaltern of the day, the Colonel would enter the first of his unit’s barrack rooms, where he wished them all the compliments of the season and hoped that they were enjoying their dinner. Before the Colonel could leave, the senior NCO present, usually a Colour-Sergeant, would offer him a drink of sherry or port wine, which the Colonel would, of course, gracefully accept. The Colour-Sergeant would then call the men to attention and propose a toast to the CO’s health, to which the Colonel would reply with some suitable words of thanks and wishes for all to have a merry Christmas. The CO then left and moved on to the next room. Knowing that this scene would be repeated in every room, the wise CO would take no more than a sip of wine for each of the many toasts offered. Once he had visited all the soldiers in his unit, the Colonel could retire to his own quarters to enjoy his Christmas dinner with his family.
Once the meal was over, the Officers and Sergeants would also retire to their respective messes, leaving the soldiers to finish the remainder of the beer by themselves. Along with their enjoyment of the ale, many an impromptu concert would take place during the afternoon. Tables became temporary stages as the best singers entertained with popular songs, others gave recitations, and inevitably many more toasts were proposed. In some units visitors were allowed to come into barracks in the afternoon, and there would be dancing into the evening. “In camp all was merrymaking and joyousness”, said Sheldrake’s Gazette of Christmas 1874, “and for the time being military duties and discipline gave way to mirth and pleasure. No class of men seem better able to appreciate the good things of Christmas, or join in its festivities more heartily than our gallant soldiers … and the sounds of music and of dancing might have been heard in every regiment, aye, in every troop, and every company.”
When the beer in the barracks ran out, festivities continued either in the unit canteens, or those who were permitted out of barracks changed into their “walking out” dress to continue their celebrations in the many places of entertainment in the town. The jollity continued until the 9.30 p.m. signal to return to barracks, for lights out at ten o’clock and the official end of Christmas Day.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 0011, December 2016/January 2017
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.