From the Archives: Christmas with Fr Leslie Walker SJ

POST BY RSomerset

Painting of snow covered village
Fonquevillers (opposite Gommecourt), winter 1916-17

The personal papers of Fr Leslie Ignatius Walker contain some of the Archives’ most treasured items, particularly his sketch books. Among his records are his personal diaries, the majority of which belong to his teenage years. These give a delightful insight into the life of a school boy during the late 19th century. Among the most charming are the entries for Christmas day, in which he often lists what he and his family received.

Christmas Day 1889:
Rose early at 5-30 but got in to bed again after I was dressed as it was so early. Rose again 6-45. Sang a carol at Ma’s door called The Saviour’s Birth, commencing Once in Royal David’s City.
Found the following things in my stocking:-

A text
2 dates
15 raisins
3 almonds
5 sweets
12 small nuts
1 large nut
3 biscuits
1 sugar mouse
3 pence
1 apple
1 orange
7 grapes
1 fig

Helped Pa get the table ready for dinner. Uncle & Auntie & cousins (Grices) came & cousins (Bullwants) came to dinner. Uncle Joseph came afterwards. Wilber, Harold & I went to the post for Pa with 216 letters. Wilbur and I went to Mrs W Grice’s to ask them to come to tea but they were out. Sang & played in the evening. Had games at Clubs, & How When & Where, & Judge & Jury; Nellie, Emmie & Elsie & Bertie stopped all night.
Retired (not at all). Weather frosty & cold.

Christmas Day 1892:
Mother & Father sang a carol. The whole family went to Chapel (which was beautifully decorated). Spent the afternoon round the fire.
Our presents were:-
Father:- “Chaucer Canterbury tales”
Mother:- ditto
Leslie:-  Oil paints in box, A silk pocket handkerchief
Harold:-  Dinner knife etc, Kingdoms of Europe (cards), Stone bricks
Ethel:-  Birthday book, Book of texts for painting, Paints (waters)
Grandmother Walker: - Box for pens etc, Woollen cape or shawl
Grandmother Bullwant:- Portrait frame, Veil
Sang hymns & carols in evening. Father read from Bible as usual.

Sketch of trenches in snowBut Christmas would not always be such a happy and care-free time. Between 1915 and 1919 Fr Walker served as a military Chaplain with the 19th Division of the British Expeditionary Force. In July 1915 Walker would have moved with the rest of the Division to the point of assembly near St Omer. For the rest of the war they served on the Western Front, taking part in many of the significant actions, including the Battle of the Somme. In an article printed in Letter & Notices (January 1916 Vol. 33) Walker paints a vivid picture of life in the trenches, particularly of the scenes in the hospital where he tended to the wounded and the dying:

It has rained for a week now without stopping. The roads are slippery as ice and covered with oceans of mud, and the temperature at times is little above zero. In the trenches the mud accumulates knee-deep and has literally to be ladled out in bucketsful, and all the time shells and bombs and bullets are falling. Yet everywhere the men are in the best of spirits, never grumbling, always cheery... On the day [of the big action] I saw 600 wounded brought in, dressed and carried out again... Motor after motor rolled up, day and night, and always more wounded. Many were sitting huddled together on seats, others were lying like logs on stretchers. Some were only half-dressed, and all were covered head to foot with filthy, slimy mud. They swarmed like bees... There were too many to see individually...The most one could do was to get a few words in here and there, and to give them absolution.

Serving the 19th Division, it is likely that Walker was witness to the horrors of Battles such as the Battle of Ancre (13–18 November 1916), the final large British attack of the Battle of the Somme, which resulted in approximately 22,000 British and French casualties and 45,000 German casualties. The next major offensive the Division took part in was the Battle of Messines (7–14 June 1917) in Belgian West Flanders. It is possible that Walker sketched the snowy scene at Fonquevillers (main image) as the Division made its way north over the winter. The Engagement at Gommecourt had taken place 1 July 1916 which resulted in a stalemate with each army’s positions remaining largely unchanged and a loss of nearly 10,000 casualties in total. Although the image is undated, it demonstrates the kind of bitter winters the men were exposed to and what they would have endured even on Christmas Day.

Reflecting on Fr Walker’s very different experiences of Christmas time we should remember that, although for many Christmas is a time for family and giving, there are many people throughout the world who are less fortunate and they should remain in our thoughts at this time.

For more information about Leslie Walker and images from one of his sketchbooks, see his profile.