The London Gunners Come to Town

A book by Bertha and Chris Reynolds

 

A Military Christmas in Hertfordshire

The following article is based on part of Chapter 18 of The London Gunners come to Town and was published in the December 1995 issue of Hertfordshire Countryside.

It was reprinted in Margaret Ashby's book "A Hertfordshire Christmas"

The Terriers were not pleased. It was Christmas and all home leave had been cancelled.

Four months earlier, in August 1914, the men of the Second London Division, Territorial Force, had marched north to their War Stations in Hertfordshire. The Divisional headquarters was set up in the Peahen Hotel in St Albans and over 15,000 troops were billeted in the town or the surrounding countryside in an area stretching from Watford to Harpenden. While the majority of the troops were infantry men, the cavalry, in the form of King Edwards Horse, were based at Hunton Bridge, while the mounted Cyclists Battalion could be found at Redbourn. Two brigades of gunners were stationed in and around Hemel Hempstead old town, another was at Boxmoor, while the howitzers and heavy guns ended up in the Apsley and Kings Langley area.

When they had first arrived the talk had been that the war would be over by Christmas - but news from France soon showed that this was not to be. In fact three battalions of infantry, the London Scottish from North Watford, the Kensingtons from the Abbots Langley area, and the Queens Westminster Rifles from Leverstock Green were already fighting in the trenches and had been replaced by other territorials from the London Regiment.

During the Autumn they had trained hard, with drills and route marches. There were skirmishes on Berkhamsted Common, and on the banks of the River Chess somewhere between Sarratt and Chorley Wood. A large scale exercise in December involved supposed enemy troops to the east of Sandridge, while the following week a combined force had to take a crossing over the river at Kings Langley. While the men were all waiting for the opportunity to do their bit in the war, they were hoping for a final Christmas leave with their families before going overseas.

It is not surprising that they were bitterly disappointed when the Division cancelled all leave over the Christmas period. They soon cheered up when they realised that celebrations were being prepared for them by the local town folk and their officers.

In Hemel Hempstead the men of the 17th County of London Battery, 6th London Brigade Royal Field Artillery were treated to an excellent dinner in the Queen Street School. The men had turkey, roast pork, sausages, potatoes and sprouts, followed by plum pudding and bon-bons, apples, nuts and oranges for those who wanted them. There was beer and mineral water and each soldier was given a sixpenny pack of cigarettes. Some of the officers, led by Major Ensor and helped by several ladies, carved the meat, while the non-commissioned officers waited on the men. Some of the officers volunteered for guard duty, so that the men who would otherwise have missed the festivities could join in with their comrades. In the evening it was the turn of the officers to celebrate, and they were treated to an elaborate menu at a large house in Alexandra Road.

On the Wednesday after Christmas the Battery held a concert at the Town Hall with Sergeant Major Annison as master of ceremonies. On New Year’s Eve they joined up with other gunners of 5th and 6th Brigades to hold a smoking concert at the Rose and Crown Hotel, in Hemel Hempstead High Street. Sergeant Kemp presided, Corporal Martell played a concertina solo, while Gunner Whiting gave a piano solo, as well as accompanying several vocalists. It was very successful and, perhaps because of the amount of beer consumed, the landlord invited them to hold another concert the following week.

Several of Boxmoor’s leading figures contributed to the festivities. Percy Christopherson provided the 12th Battery with an excellent dinner in the gymnasium at Lockers Park School. Some 200 sat down for the dinner, including some men from the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Mr W. Stacey’s London Concert Party was invited to come and provide entertainment. The popular novelist, Mr. William John Locke of Cornerhall, booked Boxmoor Hall and provided the 18th Battery with a Christmas feast and plenty of liquid refreshment and entertainment. Not to be outdone the County Councillor Mitchell Innes put on a dance in Boxmoor Hall for the 18th Battery and the Brigade Headquarters Staff on Boxing Day, and another for the 19th and 20th Batteries on the Sunday.

Similar festivities were being carried out elsewhere in West Hertfordshire. In Watford King Edward’s Horse celebrated in St John’s Hall, while the 6th City of London Rifles feasted at Boisselier’s Cocoa Works and at the Railway Mission Hall. In St Albans units were entertained at Marlborough House, a warehouse in Holywell Hill, The Trumpet, the Clarendon Temperance Hotel in Chequer Street, the County Hall, and the Y.M.C.A. in Lattimore Road. A special effort was made to ensure that the wounded soldiers in the Military Hospital at Bricket House had a good Christmas dinner.

If the troops could not have home leave there was nothing to stop the families visiting the area. The Post Office Rifles, some of whom were billeted in Leavesden mental hospital, arranged to put on a special show for their families on the evenings of Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The first show went very well. However, at four a.m. on Boxing Day the alarm sounded and orders were issued for the men to march from Leavesden to Berkhamsted carrying their full kit. When they arrived at the Railway Station at Berkhamsted they were ordered to march back again. The six hour march took place in pelting rain and hail and on a road so slippery that it was hard to stand up. When they returned to Leavesden the men were tired and stiff, but the show must go on, and after a few hours sleep the planned children’s entertainment went ahead.

Fishery Inn, Boxmoor, where 2nd Lt. Pilditch was billeted

In addition to the major bean feasts and concerts a number of officers were invited to spend Christmas with local families. On Christmas Eve Second Lieutenant Pilditch was invited to have dinner with the Lidderdales, of Woodland House, Boxmoor. After drinks, a smoke, and a game of pool he returned to his billet in the Fishery Inn. To keep up the Christmas tradition he forlornly hung up a stocking in which he placed some sweets and a packet of tooth paste. In the morning he was surprised to find that it also contained a box of dates, biscuits, fruit, some fluffy chickens and a small bottle of whiskey. The landlord, Edward Hall, clearly wanted to make sure that the officers billeted in his inn had a good Christmas.

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