Europe bitterly divided, war in Iraq, controversy over Jerusalem, suspicions over developments in Russia – is this 2017 or 100 years ago? Browsing the local newspaper in the run up to Christmas 1917, there are clear parallels with the situation today but also massive differences.
The year 1917 had been momentous, with the loss of over a million tons of shipping to U-boats, disasters for the French on the battlefield and terrible casualties at Passchendaele. One ray of hope for the allies was the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in April. The British were using new destructive tactics such as the detonation of huge mines at Messines Ridge and a mass tank attack at Cambrai. In Russia, the Tsar had abdicated and a Communist government was installed under Lenin. Jerusalem had been captured by the British, General Allenby entering the city on foot out of respect.
After three years of a terrible war, Poole people had become used to shortages, fear and loss. They were familiar with the names of distant places where their husbands, sons and brothers were serving and were eager for any scrap of war news. One grim feature of every edition of the Poole and Dorset Herald was the weekly Roll of Honour column, reporting injuries or deaths in action of local men. In contrast, up-beat letters from servicemen writing home were frequently printed. In early December, the newspaper contained a letter from the son of Mrs. Whitley of West Street serving with the Dorset Regiment in Mesopotamia who was having a rest after being in action. He had had ‘a warm time’ but he and another Poole man, Herb Rigler, had managed to get through without a wound although three or four Poole men had been killed or injured.
Not all the news was about the war. The Poole Sanitary Committee was debating the condition of houses in Old Orchard and Church Street in response to a report from the Medical Officer of Health. The owners had been served notices to give good reason why the defective premises should not be demolished. The Committee was also concerned about the White House Laundry which was emitting black smoke, and sceptical over the owner’s claim that he was having great difficulty obtaining smokeless coal. The laundry was not the only offender. Councillor Stevens complained that people were sometimes unable to see each other in East Street because of smoke from the gas works.
A pleasant weekend had been spent by the soldiers at the Poole Soldiers’ Home. As one of them remarked when ‘taking a hot cup of coffee prior to starting out for a 16 mile cycle ride to camp’, “Whatever we fellows would do without this place, I can’t think.” The Sunday night social consisted of selections on the piano by Mr. Benboe of London and songs to the accompaniment of the auto-harp by Miss C. Reed and Miss Senior. The audience sang ‘O God our Help in Ages Past’ in memory of Lance Corporal Arthur Gritten of Maple Road, Poole. Donations to local hospitals for the benefit of wounded soldiers included socks, gloves, mittens, biscuits, apples and even bottles of pickles. Entertainment was also on offer at the Amity Palace of Variety with Miss Evelyn Brewster and Co. in a novelty all lady sketch entitled ‘The Real Lady Raffles’ and ‘star pictures’ including The Heart of Norah Flynn, a dramatic silent film starring Marie Doro and directed by Cecil B DeMille.
Some Christmas spirit was appearing in Poole. The newspaper reported that ‘the purveyors of the good things of this life, in Poole as elsewhere, are beginning to exhibit their stores in great abundance and variety. The butchers as usual stocked to overflowing, make a most tempting display.’ (Although a 21 lb turkey sold in Wareham for £3 6s 0d provoked the paper into mutterings about ‘mugs’ and ‘excessive war profits’.) The International Stores was urging people to drink coffee for breakfast to help the Food Controller to cope with the shortage of tea, and the Borough Studio reminded customers not to forget the Boys’ Christmas: ‘have your photo taken now with Xmas Greetings, Special Price 4/- doz’.
For most shops the theme of their Christmas advertisements was usefulness. S. M. Silverman of 60, High Street was offering ‘a fine selection of useful household requisites suitable for presents at prices within the reach of everyone’ while H.W. Jordan and Son, general drapers, proclaimed ‘Useful Xmas Presents’ and simply advised their readers to ‘see our windows’. Ladies’ outfitter, M. Prankard also felt that her coney and musquash coats, fur ties and muffs would be useful Christmas gifts.
On the political scene, the paper reported a speech made by Freddie Guest, the M.P. for East Dorset, to the House of Commons on behalf of the War Aims Committee. The third son of Lord Wimborne of Canford, Freddie Guest had been a regular soldier and returned to active service on the outbreak of war. In 1916 he received a D.S.O. for service in East Africa and then was invalided out with a serious illness. In his speech he defended the activities of the War Aims Committee which had been set up in industrial areas ‘where patriotic citizens asked the Government to take the platform from those who were holding it unpatriotically and against the interests of the nation’. Their work consisted of holding meetings and distributing literature, in fact acting as a propaganda organisation for the Government against disruptive elements. The committee was a cross-party body, not sectionalist and, he argued, did not cost very much considering its effectiveness, although it was not appropriate to disclose exactly how much.
In the December 20th edition of the paper, a Christian message was published under the headline ‘What shall Christmas be?’ The writer acknowledged the burden of celebrating a fourth wartime Christmas but maintained that the country had much to be thankful for. Britain had not lost the war and its shores had not been invaded ‘by the foot of a foul and murderous foe’. There was cause to celebrate because the country was fighting, sacrificing and dying for the very cause that ‘the Babe of Bethlehem was born to work out and fulfill’. (Would we see things in quite that way today?) The occupation of Jerusalem had made the story of Christ’s birth closer to us than ever before. Merriment might be inappropriate but quiet celebration was not and the paper concluded by wishing its readers all that Christmas means to ‘a Christian nation in the grip of war.’
Reading about the preoccupations of Poole people 100 years ago, it is impossible to ignore the shadow that the war cast over every aspect of everyday life. In contrast, squabbles between politicians over Brexit seem very minor problems!
Main source: Poole and Dorset Herald November and December 1917.