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A working Christmas in Germany for Charlie Payne (1918)


The route taken by Charlie Payne's battalion when marching to the German Rhineland. Nov-Dec 1919

On 25 December 1918, 44 days after the 11 November Armistice, when hostilities in the Great War had ceased, Charlie Payne and his battalion  (5th Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment; 62nd Division) arrived at their final destination near Mechernich, Germany, after a protracted march across Belgium as part of the British Army of Occupation of the Rhineland.   In his letter of 28th December to his wife Ida ,  he describes  the highlights of his Christmas, including his first bath in  6 weeks, and playing cards with the erstwhile enemy:

Charlie's wife Ida, with their four sons (from left) John, Rupert, Dick and Ted, 1918

"Hőstel, near Mechernich, Germany, 28/12/18

My dear Wife, I duly received yours of the 15th enclosing letters and cards from all the boys for which thank them.  The parcel also reached me in perfect order and the contents were greatly appreciated, more particularly as we were in a nice comfortable billet at a village called Amel.  Since then we have been on the march, but spent a fairly decent Xmas Day and Boxing Day at Mechernich. Yesterday we moved to Hőstel and are billeted in a cottage.  There is plenty of snow about and the weather is very bitter.  I do hope it is not so severe in London.  On the whole the Germans have received us very well and their houses are neat and clean after the French and Belgian ones.  Like us they are heartily glad the War is over and do not seem to grieve much for the loss of their Kaiser.  I spent Xmas Day in converse with a Prussian Guard, his wife and 7 children; played cards with them.  Who would have thought this possible a few months ago.  The youngsters had plenty of toys etc. for Xmas and a big Xmas tree; as you know Germans like us keep Xmas in fine style.  I was sorry to leave Mechernich.  I had a bed to sleep in with nice clean sheets and you may guess I did sleep.  No doubt what brought Germany to her knees was “shortage of food”.  They are very hard up for it.  Their bread is awful.  We had nothing special Xmas Day, but perhaps we should have a good spread later on when we get settled.

The 1918 Christmas Card of the 5th Battalion, Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment, sent by Charlie Payne to his wife, Ida

I am looking forward to getting your next letter telling me how you all spent Xmas.  I hope after your longer hours and work you may get a good rest.  The conversation between Dick and John I can picture and I should have loved to have heard them.  I note all your other news, dear.  I must tell you I had a nice card from Mrs Palmer also a letter.  I expect Jack was home for Xmas [Jack and Alice Palmer were Charlie's brother and sister-in-law].  What did you think of our regimental Card – I think it good.  Please take care of it as a souvenir. Give my love to all upstairs and I trust they are all quite well.  Gert [Charlie's younger sister] sent me 50 cigs. and some chocolate and please thank Dolce [Ida's younger sister] very much for the ‘bacca' – “Bondman” – I was well away.

Charlie's favourite tobacco

Pleased to say I am quite well except for “chats” [body lice].  For some reason or other we have not had a change of underclothes since about Nov. 15th and only one bath (yesterday).  I have “dumped” several articles of clothing but do not quite like parting with my shirt this weather.  Tell Ted and John [Charlie's two eldest sons] I shall be answering their nice letters shortly and when I can buy some picture cards I’ll send them some which I know they will keep until I come home.

Will you please get me 2 “German Self-Taught by the Natural Method” (Thimm’s System) Revised by W.E. Eber M.A. Second Edition published by E. Marlborough & Co. 51, Old Bailey, E.C. Price 1/9 each paper cover. I am learning a little of the German language as it is rotten sitting here like a dummy.  I want one for myself and one for a pal.  If, however, they are out of print, try and get me some other German book.  I am sorry to trouble you, dear.  Perhaps it would be as well to register them.  Did you get the 20 Francs I sent before Xmas – I hope so? With heaps of love and kisses to you and the boys. Ever yours, Charlie."

Charlie's aspirations to learn German quickly paid off. Within the next two weeks he had  become the interpreter to B Company, bartering effectively with the local German population to help purchase the necessities of life, including the food required for a belated Christmas dinner for the men of his battalion. In fact he ended up having two Christmas dinners as the Officers invited him to join them after he had managed to acquire sufficient chickens for their own meal! 

(These and many other aspects of Charlie's life will be described in my next book 'Charlie Payne's Hatbox').

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