Christmas at War

The Australian YMCA in WWI

‘This’ll be over by Christmas’ became more difficult to believe each year that passed during World War I. Australian soldiers, some who had served since the beginning of the war, had spent Christmas days in camps and trenches far from home. 

In 1918, an article in a Sydney newspaper reported some words given by a gunner, Jack Hill, who had spent the previous Christmas in the trenches. He wrote: ‘We all got a Xmas box from the Y.M.C.A. They are good to us. We have a bit of sport skating on the ice in the shell holes and get nasty falls at times.’ 

Throughout the war, the Australian Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) served the social welfare needs of soldiers by running canteens and offering recreational activities like film screenings and performances. They also made it their mission to distribute Christmas gifts, such as wallets, to those in military service. In 1917, over 80,000 wallets were distributed, often in combination with sweets, cigarettes, and pamphlets filled with encouraging words and photos from home.

If you consider it briefly, the image of Jack ice skating and gratefully receiving a YMCA gift feels comforting. To share this experience to those reading – to try and reassure them – shows how tenderness can endure even in the inhumane circumstance of war.  That is until you see those words were published alongside the photos of four local men who had died in service that very same year: Wilfred Edmund Cox, Herbert A. Stuart, Alfred Charles Thorne, and Eric A. E. Goodacre.

With each name, the small joy of skating feels far bleaker and all that comes to mind are pools of scarred ice amid a distant battlefield.