Christmas 1916 – Falkirk at war

Falkirk around 1916.
Falkirk around 1916.

As we approach the season of goodwill and over indulgence spare a thought for our grandparents’ generation facing Christmas 1916 in the dark shadow of the Great War. The disastrous Battle of the Somme had ended a few weeks earlier after five months of carnage but the casualty lists continued to grow and families throughout the district mourned their losses and waited in fear for what 1917 might bring.

I have been thumbing through the Falkirk Herald for Saturday, December 23, 1916 to try to gauge the mood of the town and its people as the festive season approached.

It was not surprisingly a mixed bag of joy and sorrow for as the editorial said: “let the nation place its comforts, luxuries, indulgences on the national altar consecrated by such sacrifices as our soldiers have made”.

The obituary column listed 13 soldiers lost in action and the usual feature, For King and Country, displayed the faces of fallen soldiers from all around the district.

The men still at the front were in the minds of many including the local Comforts Committee which sent 50 parcels of Christmas gifts paid for by public contributions. The shops did not miss the chance to sell ‘comforts’ which the public could buy and send to the front. Dillon’s for example offered kilt underpants, khaki handkerchiefs and complete camp outfits with cookers, pans etc. Cockburn’s Chemists in Kirk Wynd recommended their pills as perfect gifts for troops in trenches where conditions would give them “sluggish liver and torpid bowels”!

Of course there were many gifts for home consumption including toys, sweets and fancy clothes though it was clear from other reports that rising prices made life difficult for many.

Still there was entertainment in plenty. The Grand Theatre offered a panto called Hop o My Thumb and the Electric in Silver Row had a variety show featuring a “juvenile Scotch comedian”. There were silent films in the Hippodrome in Hope Street including the first appearance in Falkirk of Charlie Chaplin in ‘Charlie’s Police’. With the reformed churches relaxing their former cool attitude to Christmas there were many carol services and Christmas sermons in which the fate of the country and its suffering soldiers formed many a lesson.

There was a report of a grand parade of the local Stirlingshire Volunteers, 3200 in all, in Princes Park where they were inspected by Field Marshall Viscount French who had led the Expeditionary Force to Belgium in the first weeks of war in 1914. He declared the ‘citizen soldiers’ a fine body of men ready to answer the call if required.

On another page there were reports of tribunals hearing appeals from men who argued that work, health or family commitments should allow them to stay at home. All rejected!

In Scott’s Livery Stables in Newmarket Street the ‘Edith Cavell X Ray Car’ was on display and the public had a chance to see what was being done for the wounded soldiers by this miracle of modern science.

It was a snowy week and Falkirk beat Aberdeen 1-0 at Pitoddrie!

What comes through every page is the courage and determination or ordinary folk in extraordinary times.

Much has been written over recent years about the suffering of our soldiers in 1914-18 and that is only right. But the pain of those who waited at home and tried to carry on with their lives for the sake of their children and their own sanity are at least as deserving of our sympathy and worthy of a memorial to rival all the crosses and cenotaphs in the land.