“I certainly never put in such a Christmas before.”: Being a Brigade Chaplain During Christmas 1915

Our conception of trench life is shaped by the various descriptions of it from historiographies, eyewitness accounts, and popular media such as the excellent documentary They Shall Not Grow Old gives us but a glimpse into the tough and horrible life in the trenches.

To the culture of a soldier there was that immutable hierarchy that existed between the men of the “other ranks” and that of the officers. Centuries of military culture, practice, law, and regulations (those immutable Kings Regulations) that shaped a soldier’s life. Put into practice during peacetime these factors would shape a soldier’s experience. But war, the application of the theory and practice of doctrine would be shaped by operational experience to make a soldier’s experience much different that that imagined or practiced on the grass glades of Kent and the practice trenches at Tolsford Hill.

Inside these experiences and the hierarchy of the military formation that was the battalion was one man, perhaps more than any man, that bridged the cultural dichotomy of the men in “other ranks” and that of officer class was the regimental or battalion chaplain.

Volunteers all, these men would act as a focal point of social and religious life for a battalion. Always active. Moving about from one problem or crisis to another, ministering a kind word, writing a letter to the family of the fallen, or simply being an available ear to the men of the battalion, the battalion chaplain was a focal point of military life.

We need to remember, or to be reminded, that the life of the citizens of Canada – as far as religion is concerned – was much different than the secular world in which we inhabit now. For example, 32% of Canadian troops identified Church of England (Anglicanism) as their religion during World War 1. Now, only 4% of Canadians identify as Anglican.

During the war the battalion chaplain was responsible for the spiritual well-being of all the men of the battalion, officers and other ranks alike. The chaplain may have been Anglican or Presbyterian for example, but they had a responsibility to offer non-denominational support for all the various religions practiced by the men under their care. In addition, they would be called on to help in a wide range of social issues involving a soldier’s personal life and were a focal point for support and finding solutions for the myriad of problems a population of a thousand men could experience.

For the 18th Battalion it had the good luck to be under the care of Captain Arthur Carlisle. He enlisted February 27, 1915, with the Battalion and was appointed Battalion Chaplain on that date. He served in this capacity until November 28, 1915, when he was assigned Brigade Chaplain for the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, of which the 18th Battalion was a part. There are many references to him in the correspondence, news clippings, and other remembrances that survive to this day.

Now, we can see, in this man’s own words, his experiences during the first Christmas the 18th Battalion experienced during active service. What follows is a letter Captain Carlisle sent to his sister, Mary Carlisle, relating his experiences over the three-days that was to be his Christmas experience.


‘Rev. Arthur Carlisle of Windsor in Interesting Letter Tells Meeting Lieut. Stewart M’Keough and George Kerr at Unique Christmas Communion Service—Seventy Communicants at Two Services

Rev. Arthur Carlisle, rector of All Saints’ church, Windsor, at the front in France as chaplain of the Eighteenth battalion commanded by Lieut. Col. E.S. Wigle, Windsor, has written to his sister, Miss Mary Carlisle, Windsor, concerning his work on Christmas day, one of his duties being the holding of communion service for Chatham and other Canadian boys in the front line of trenches within a hundred yards of the enemy’s underground works.

“My own Christmas day was certainly a day of unique experiences,” he writes. “I certainly never put in such a Christmas before. At that it was never so much better than many men’s.

“The day before Christmas I rode and walked miles and miles arranging my day’s services, coming back here absolutely tired out at 6 o’clock just in time for services. Immediately after dinner I got into an ambulance and rode over to the officers’ hospital where I was going to spend the night, as my duties were to commence there the next day.

Acquires Good Habit

“Well, I turned in very early—which, incidentally, is getting quite a habit of mine and will probably be one of the chief alterations in my habits after the war—and got up just after 5 on Christmas morning.

“That early hour reminded me very much of childhood’s days, for, as I vividly remember, Christmas day was about the only day in the year when I didn’t need to be absolutely rooted out of bed. After a nice cold bath—in water that looked more like beef tea—and a shave, I had my first celebration in the big living or reception room of this beautiful old chateau. Nearly every officer who was able to get up was there, and a large number of the attendants at 6 o’clock. I then had a hurried breakfast—a cup of tea and a slice of bread and butter—jumped into an ambulance and rode over here, where I had communion with the 19th Battalion at 8 o’clock. They were in divisional reserve in our village. We had a good turnout here, too, and such a nice service in the Y.M.C.A. tent.

“At a quarter to 9 I had another celebration with the men of one of our Canadian batteries in the same hut; they mistook the time and so I had to have a special service for them, which I had to shorten considerably in order to get through on time for my next service. I walked about three miles to it over roads and fields that were horribly muddy, which seemed to be their usual state here during the winter. (I don’t believe we’ve had frost more than twice all winter, and it really horrible weather, very mild and stuffy nearly all the time.) Here I had communion with the 21st battalion in a hut which the men use for drying their clothes.[i] It was in the brigade reserve camp in a little woods just a short distance from the line.

Buries Three Men

“When that was over I had to bury three men of the 20th battalion who had been killed by shrapnel the night before.[ii] Did you ever know me get through a big day without a funeral or two? Then I scampered away across a trench-seamed field to the 18th camp, where two companies were, the others being in the trenches, and I had a communion service with them in their drying hut.

“It was then 12.30, so Col. Wigle and I had Christmas lunch together in his dug-out—tea, bread and butter, and steak. For a minute we forgot the woes. We both roared with laughter over our Christmas lunch and incidents of the day. They were to have a big dinner there, but we couldn’t wait for it, is it was not due to begin until 1.30. And we had other things to do.

“As soon as we had finished this heavy Christmas dinner we pulled on big hip boots and set out for the front line. The day was very bright so se didn’t dare attempt the overland route for we would have been exposed all the way. So we took the communication trench and had to walk in this little channel—sometimes in water up to our knees, and in mud absolutely all the way, bowing down every here and there, where the parapet was low, in order not to be seen by the enemy, about a mile and a half. No, it must have been much more than that, because it took us over an hour to do it. This brought us right into the midst of our own fellows in the very front line.

“We went all through the line, seeing them all and giving them a Christmas greeting. Then I had two celebrations right in the trenches, less than 100 yards from the enemy. It was rather weird. Everything had been quiet all day, but every little while a bullet would whiz over our heads or bang into the parapet in front of us. I wore no vestments, for they would have been spattered with mud. I took no communion vessels or linen, because we couldn’t carry them along the trench. Instead I used the granite cup and plate. The table was a pile of sandbars on the fire ledge of the trench. But so many of the fellows came, I was surprised. All our own church boys were there and besides many others—Ken McKay, Stewart Gunn, S. McKeough, George Kerr, Jim Kerr, all Presbyterians. It was a very unique experience and I believe we had over 70 communicants at those two services in the trench. It certainly was fine and I did enjoy it all.

Reveled in Luxury

“We waited there with the fellows until dark, half-past four, and then walked out by the overland route, arriving at the battalion headquarters about 5. Then, my day’s work being over, I betook myself back, a distance of three miles, to Harold Emery’s palatial abode, the glorified chicken house. Lam, who use to be in the Walkerville Dominion Bank, and who is now paymaster; Billy Hodgins, the general’s son[iii]; Harold and myself, were the party? And did I eat and enjoy myself? I should say! I had been rushing so hard all day that I didn’t realize how little I had eaten. But I made up for it that night.

“Such a dinner! Delicious tomato soup, fine roast chicken, cauliflower, potatoes, cabbage, celery, cheese, plum pudding, jam, coffee, oranges, apples, candies, cigarettes and cigars—absolutely everything you can imagine, and right within sound of the guns and sight of the rocket-like flares which go up constantly all the night from both our own and the enemy trenches.

“I stayed long enough to wear off that “well-packed” feeling, and them I ambled home, another mile, arriving here tired out content, at half past 9. I immediately ‘hit the hay,’ because I had another day of Sunday before me.

“That was my Christmas day. Some day, wasn’t it? I’m mighty glad it was busy, or I should have been very homesick. As it was, I had no time to think of other days, although you all, and All [Saints] were very much in my heart all day lone.

“Sunday was just about as busy. I didn’t even have time to open parcels until night, and then I was too tired. So they hall had to wait until Monday. I had five services and covered about fifteen miles that day. All the time I thought ‘Well, I’ll sleep in tomorrow.’ But, nothing doing! Another casualty, and I had to ride out the first thing in the morning to bury him. Something or other has happened every day and I’ve been kept on the jump until night, when I’ve been too tired to write. But I’m felling just fine and the outdoor life and exercise are doing me all the good in the world.

“Col. Wigle is now on leave[iv] and I expected to go to England today for mine. But I have to wait a while. It will come soon.”’

Source: The Chatham Planet. January 31, 1916. Via Allan Miller.

The letter abounds with wonderful detail. The commentary about the weather, mud, water, and the efforts needed to travel from site to site give such an impression to the environment in which Captain Carlisle had to operate. Compounding this was the constant stress and wariness to travel in such a manner as to mitigate the observation of one’s travel. The Captain is conscious of the need to travel in the trenches to avoid shelling; to avoid parapets that have been undermined to avoid the risk of observation and snipers; and the need to travel in the dark if travelling overland (on the top of the trenches).

As the Brigade Chaplain he had responsibilities to the men and units of the brigade – four battalions, a trench mortar company, support units, headquarter unit and support staff, as well as helping out a Canadian Artillery battery. Some 5,000 men. A very large flock indeed. And we get an idea of the geographic diversity as he relates his travels, covering over 6-miles by ambulance and on foot.

But he must have felt a loyalty to his original unit as he makes a decided effort to socialize with his former commanding officers. One suspects that they shared more than the common bond as officers as they both were residences of Windsor, Ontario, and were most certainly familiar, if not friendly with each other before the war being from a similar social stratum as Wigle was a lawyer and local politician before the war and Carlisle presided over one of the major churches in Windsor.

His front-line religious communion was remembered almost seventy years later when the 18th Battalion Association published as series of “memories”, one specifically referencing Captain Carlisle’s efforts on that Christmas Day:

“We were later told that on Christmas morning, Captain Carlisle had gone into the front line and held a Communion Service for the officers and men who wished to attend. It was quite a setting, for only a hundred yards of no man’s land separated us from a powerful enemy. It so happened that on this day both sides were honouring an unofficial cease fire because the Germans, like ourselves, and the rest of the Christian world, were celebrating the birth of a child in a stable at Bethlehem many years before. We recall Major Baxter mentioning this unique service at one of our banquets.”

Captain Carlisle appears to be the very template of a military chaplain. Tireless and committed. Very human and with a certain humour and humility that is enduring – a very human man. Not as well known as Canon Frederick George Scott but displaying all the same attributes as this well-known chaplain of the 1st Canadian Contingent. His efforts endeared him to the men he was responsible for, and his letter gives one a valuable insight into the ministrations of a Canadian military chaplain as well as the nature of this man of God.

[i] The 21st Battalion’s War Diary simply relates for that day, “Christmas Day – REST DAY – No fatiques or working parties. Celebrated in a very quiet manner with plenty of Xmas puddings.”

[ii] Privates Harry Bower, reg. no. 58191; Thomas Galloway, reg. no. 57187; George Taylor, reg. no. 57307.

[iii] General William Francis Hodgins.

[iv] Lieut.- Col. Wigle was granted leave from January 3, 1916, until January 14, 1916. Therefore, Captain Carlisle wrote this letter during this timeframe.

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