Christmas 1917: Poignant letters from frontline home to Kirkcaldy

There is no doubt that Christmas 2021 will be tough for many. We live in dark, uncertain times under pandemic restrictions that were unimaginable less than two years ago.

Monday, 20th December 2021, 11:59 am
The Kirkcaldy Times, 1917
The Kirkcaldy Times, 1917

But, nothing can surely compare to having a festive season when the world is at war.

The pages of the Fife Free Press from 1917 capture the sense of community spirit that was so strong in the last year of conflict - but also the pain it brought with letters arriving daily from the frontline informing families of the deaths of young men.

The human cost of war is painfully evident in the columns of the press with a roll of honour recording the losses one by one, week by week.

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Advert from the Fife Free Press, December 1917

It ran to thousands of words in every single edition.

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Christmas 1917 came on the back of a thaw after snowfall.

“Typical Christmas weather” the Press reported.

Soldier killed in 1917

It noted: “Saturday evening, the High Street seemed as busy as it had been on many similar occasions and shopkeepers were able to report a record trade

“Although many articles were unobtainable this year the merchants were able, by means of substitute or new attractions, to present an enticing show.

“Later in the evening cars were laden with passengers almost all of whom were laden carrying parcels.”

The Post Office dispatched some 1180 parcels on Christmas Eve with many coming from troops serving abroad.

Much of the community effort centred around local churches, underlining the important role they played when it came to helping ‘the poor.’

The generosity of Kirkcaldy Parrish Church congregation saw 400 poor children entertained in the church hall in Kirk Wynd

The Rev Dr Campbell addressed them after which they were each given a pie, a bag of pastry and a new penny.

Caring for the elderly was another recurring theme of the paper’s festive reflections.

Kinghorn Old Wives Festival was held for the 43rd year in a row.

It was held under the auspices of the Rosslands United Free Church Bible Class and took place in the Town Hall.

The Rev W. Allan “welcomed 50 old wives to tea.” - the Press didn’t define what ‘old’ meant.

“On leaving the hall after a most enjoyable evening’s entertainment, each person was presented with a parcel of tea and cakes.”Also in Kinghorn, at Providence House - the seaside home for Edinburgh’s poor children, - around 40 were entertained to a Christmas treat, while the Linktown Old Folks Festival

Enjoyed a good turnout at the Philp Hall where there was “a delightful programme of songs, piccolo selections and recitations.”

The shadow of war an the losses it delivered remained ever present.

The edition of the Press before Christmas contained many poignant reports of men who had fallen.

The roll of honour included a report of the death of Captain James Elder.

A year earlier he had his vessel sunk by a German sub and he was wounded with shrapnel.

He got command of another large vessel and, on March 7, his steamer was also sunk by a sub

“After great privations the crew were picked up and landed. There were reports Captain Elder and his engineers were taken as prisoners but all enquiries have failed to find any other information.”

News of his death was conveyed with great tribute: “He was a splendid type of British shipmaster and has left behind him tangible tokens of his bravery and humanity.”

Captain Elder was knighted by the King of Italy for his gallantry and presented with the highest order of Cavalerie of the Crown of Italy.

Many others are listed - and their tributes make for moving reading:

Private John Page, Banet Crescent killed aged 36 - he was a Beveridge Park gardener who signed up for the war effort; Private Alex Crabb, Gordon Highlanders killed in France, “ a good and trusted soldier”; and think of James Foster, Invertiel Rd, who had both sons in army. Both were killed.

And then there was Private Peter Low, Scottish Rifles, killed at the Battle of Loos; and Private William McGregor, who died in a casualty clearing site in France.

He was called into a place of danger and went fearlessly.

He was hit on the back and side, and died in hospital.

Exceptional circumstances saw his leave home cancelled. He was killed on the very day he should have arrived in Kirkcaldy to be with his family

The Press editorial reflected such appalling moments which changed families’ forever.

“To those who have suffered, what message for them this New Year’s time

“Just the old, old ones- up, brave heart and on your way

“In all the trials and tribulations and losses, let us keep a smiling front to the world

“A happy new year can be had for one and all if the troubles that are inevitable are met with brave heart.”

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