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Christmas in the trenches


When we talk about “Christmas in the trenches,” I have always imagined troops hunkered down in bunkers, eating tasteless rations out of mess kits, tired, dirty, cold, and longing for home. But that was not always the case. Several collections in our holdings illustrate that Christmas was not always a time of great physical suffering, although being away from friends and family was a hardship.

Philip Clayton Holladay sent to his parents a copy of his 1918 Christmas Dinner menu from war-torn France.

Philip Clayton Holladay sent to his parents a copy of his 1918 Christmas Dinner menu from war-torn France. (Virginia Historical Society, call number Mss1 H7185 h 106-151, from letter dated January 1919)

Philip “Clayton” Holladay was in the Burgundy region of north-central France on Christmas Day 1918. He was serving with the Headquarters Detachment of the 305th Ammunition Train of the American Expeditionary Forces. His letter home to his parents in Richmond gives the highlights of the menu for the upcoming Christmas Dinner. Thanks to the efforts of Clayton and his first sergeant, the troops would enjoy chicken, turkey, and veal. The typewritten menu, which he encloses in a later letter, is a bit more elaborate. It includes the aforementioned turkey and chicken, as well as olives, mashed potatoes, creamed peas, sweet pudding with wine sauce, grapes, apples, mandarins [oranges], dates, nuts, and Roqueford [sic] Cheese and ends with coffee, cigars, and cigarettes. There is, of course, both white and red wine. In contrast to this delightful repast, he mentions that “It really doesn’t seem at all like Christmas—being so far from home, raining, and these French people are all so poor and anyhow make nothing of Christmas.”

Samuel Julian Trimmer (1898-1972) at age 20 in uniform.

Samuel Julian Trimmer (1898-1972) at age 20 in uniform. (Virginia Historical Society, call number Mss2 T7365 b)

Samuel “Julian” Trimmer, in his diary, which was more like a long letter to his mother, describes Christmas Day 1918 in the Lorraine Region of northeastern France. Again, his focus is on food, but the meal was no where near as elaborate. The menu included “French Fried Potatoes. Peas. Tomatoes. Gravy. Pie. Cake. Coffee. Candy. Nuts and a few other things.” Some of those things had no doubt been obtained on a visit to Bar-le-Duc, where he purchased grapes and oranges. Still, what does come through is the homesickness.

Twenty-five years and a different war later, Ernest W. Bishop’s December 1942 letters to his sister, written from Scotland, talk of how much he misses his extended family. He describes a party his company gave for local children and how the children’s reactions reminded him of his niece, Virginia Lee. Ernest’s letters are most notable for their lack of detail, no doubt a reflection on the secret nature of his training. But his desire to be home for the holidays, enjoying family and traditions, is clear. Sadly, unlike Clayton Holladay and Julian Trimmer, Ernest did not live to return home. He died June 29, 1944. From December 1942 until October 1943 he was attached to 29th Rangers Battalion (Provisional) and as such underwent commando training.

Eileen Parris is the archivist at the Virginia Historical Society.

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