“This was the first Christmas for four years not overshadowed by war.
“There was a notable restraint and lack of boisterousness about the way in which the season was celebrated. There was little doing in town to lure people away from their firesides. The holiday was a particularly quiet and sober one.” - Doncaster Gazette, reporting on Christmas 1918.
Every Christmas is different, shaped by whatever might be happening in our lives at that moment. Local volunteer, Roger Offord has been exploring the archives to shed light on what Christmas might have been like 100 years ago, as Doncaster emerged from the First World War, part of his work for Doncaster 1914-18, a community project supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The project has been uncovering extraordinary stories about Doncaster’s people and places in the final months of WWI – and they’re hoping that local people can help unearth even more of this hidden history, to build an everlasting digital memorial.
After Armistice had been announced in November 1918, there had been great hopes for a joyous ‘Peace Christmas’ in Doncaster, celebrating with family – just as it used to be. The reality was very different. It would take many months for fathers, sons and brothers to return home from the battlefields, with many men stranded overseas during Christmas 1918. While they couldn’t be reunited with their own families, local people soon recognised that there were others who were desperately needing to feel the comfort and kindness of Christmas cheer in Doncaster. They included soldiers recovering in local military hospitals, who were often far from home. At one point, it looked as though crowds of soldiers would be spending Christmas 1918 on the platforms of Doncaster train station. Local people made sure they could enjoy Christmas, providing beds and meals for the stranded men, and entertainment at the YMCA. As a special gift, the YMCA also arranged for these men to make a phone call to the local police in their home town – a rare privilege. Once the phone message had been received, a special constable would visit the soldier’s home and inform his family that he would be returning by the next train. Families up and down the country were anxiously awaiting the return of their loved ones in time for the Christmas festivities: to hear that they were almost home, must have given them great joy.
Once back home, however, it soon became clear that there would be no turning back the clock to a nostalgic Christmas Past. The First World War had changed lives – it’s still shaping our world today – and the reverberations were felt throughout Doncaster during December.
Just like today, the newspapers for December 1918 were full of politics, not Christmas. After four long years of war, people wanted change. Immediately after Armistice, a general election was called in Britain, the first since 1910. It was to be a landmark in history: the first election where women over the age of 30, and all men over 21 could vote, recognising their significant contribution to the war effort. Women were now employed in roles that were traditionally only considered suitable for men, including the post office, plant works or trams; and how could anyone deny young men the vote, who had risked their lives on the front line for king and country? Times were changing, and the review of the electoral systems reflected this. The result was a landslide for David Lloyd George, who had led the country since 1916, and was campaigning to make “a country fit for Heroes.”
It must have seemed as though wishes were about to come true as, just days before Christmas, the Chronicle reported that eight new pits would soon be opened in the area, a development that had been delayed by the war, and a great gift for hundreds of men returning home from war, needing employment. With political and social change at the forefront of the public’s mind, Christmas 1918 might have bwwn a thoughtful, even sober occasion; but it was a Christmas with true meaning, and heart-felt spirit: driven by love for our neighbours, and hope that together we could build a better future. Doncaster’s families made a huge contribution to the war, and to the world we know today, but as the First World War passes out of living memory, their stories are at risk of being forgotten. This Christmas, the Doncaster 1914-18 project is appealing to local families to help shine a festive light on Doncaster’s wartime Christmas, by sharing stories and photographsm helping to build an everlasting digital memorial, free for everyone to use and share.
Visit doncaster 1914-18.org.uk to find out more.