war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Christmas 2007

"THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS PAST"  by Marilyn Stephenson-Knight

James Banks was peacefully cutting evergreens for Christmas decorations when a huge explosion blew him out of the tree. It was Christmas Eve, 1914, and when Mr Banks ran next door he discovered his fellow gardener, Mr Kemp, mournfully surveying a large hole where his cabbage patch once grew. Christmas dinner would be short that year, for only scattered broken stalks remained. The first bomb ever dropped advert from 1917 for children's toys and games, courtesy Dover Expresson British soil had just fallen in Dover.  Far from seasonal tidings of comfort and joy, it confirmed the war would not, as hoped, be over by Christmas.

Dover, our frontline town, became used to war-time Christmases. But no matter the hardships, Christmas is a time of sharing and friendship. Dovorians, defiant and determined, continued to celebrate. In the Second World War they decorated the cave shelters with garlands and held parties for the children.  Navigating the sleigh amongst barrage balloons can be tricky, but with true Dover grit, Father Christmas always got through. In 1943, he even enlisted the balloonists as his helpers. Led by Corporal Sherman, a civvy street tailor, they made stuffed toys from scraps and saved up their sweet rations for the “cave kids” Christmas.

Dover children could enjoy Christmas in the Great War too. In 1917 Dawson’s shop, on New Bridge, still boasted toys from France in their Children’s Wonderland. There were engines and dolls’ prams, tricycles and growly bears, and large bright rocking-horses to gallop away on. Money was tight for children orphaned by the war, but Brisley’s in the High Street had toys for even the smallest of purses.  Irene’s father was lost at sea, but, now in her 90s, she looks back fondly on Christmas, with plates piled high with scrumptious vegetables from Granddad’s allotment. It was a special family day, and after the washing up was done aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, played games and the children entertained Grandma with a dance or a joke or a carol buzzed through comb-and-paper.  

In 1914, in Belgium, Private Frank Tapley was far from his family. But the Christmas message of peace and goodwill was always close. On the Western Front soldiers from opposing sides sang cross marking the place of the Christmas Truce, Prowse Point, Belgium, by Simon Chamberscarols from their trenches, and met in No Man’s Land to exchange cigars. In the biting cold on Christmas Day, Frank enjoyed a vigorous game of football, and then dined on tinned stew, with plum pudding sent from home.  Accompanied by a rickety old piano hauled in from a nearby village and with Belgian beer to help the singing, his regiment held a concert in a deserted convent, where the windows were blown out and the walls pock-marked by shells.

Christmas is always a time for remembering others. Despite air raids and shelling in the 1940s, Dovorians gathered for carol singing, collecting money for Prisoners of War. During the Great War envelopes on the Christmas table were filled with coins for “plucky little allies”, destitute in Serbia and Belgium. There were presents for serving soldiers too. Flashman’s in the Market Square offered “The Tommy’s Cooker”. It fitted in your pocket and was guaranteed to fire up in the harshest wind. But for Private Metcalfe the best present was the tobacco tin Princess Mary distributed to all the troops. His tin ricocheted a sniper’s bullet - and saved his life.

To him and to so many others, to the indomitable spirit of the past, we owe our precious gifts of freedom and peace. During the Battle of Britain, Pilot Officer Mudie lost his life at Dover. He is buried near the home of Mr and Mrs Tee, who grew up in the war. Every Christmas they lay a wreath on his grave. Like them, in this special season and always, let us never forget what we owe to those who served and still serve today.

A cheerful Christmas and a peaceful New Year to you all, from the Dover War Memorial Project.

This article first appeared in the Dover Loyalty Card Newsletter, December 2007

advertisement from the Dover Express from Christmas 1917, for children's toys and games
marking the site of a football truce from 1914, near Prowse Point cemetery, Belgium

Copyright 2007 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved