At Ashburton Museum we are proud purveyors of stories past. World War One, known at the time as the Great War, was a time of unparalleled suffering and loss of life. We are all familiar with the stories of the brave men from the battlefields of Europe, but lesser known are the tales of those at the home front, who experienced the war in totally different ways.
One unique lens we can use to see what the people at home felt, are the Christmas messages authored by Ashburton Guardian editor, Mr Thomas David Taylor. We can look back at changes in the way he approached his annual Christmas message over the span of the war fought over 100 years ago.
A hopeful Christmas
We start the story on December 24, 1914. The war has just begun and Mr Taylor writes a decidedly upbeat and hopeful Christmas editorial, wishing his readers a “bright and happy Christmas and a prosperous new year”. He writes patriotically of how,
“The war is progressing along the lines that the Allies’ military leaders planned it should follow, and it is merely a matter of time – almost any day during the coming months that may see it’s achievement – when the enemy in France and Belgium will be hunted across the Rhine.”
Mr Taylor’s thoughts were widespread at the time, as the phrase ‘over by Christmas’ came in to the popular vernacular. Thus, Mr Taylor encouraged readers to make Christmas brighter and infuse it with more joyousness than usual. He insisted that,
“We in this distant portion of the Empire are enjoying unexampled prosperity and freedom from the dreadful effects of wars … Trade and industries at home and throughout the empire are flourishing. And in our own Dominion there is every prospect of a good harvest and record exports during this coming season.”
On the same page is a section dedicated to the ‘tasteful’ Christmas decorations at the Ashburton Hospital. These consisted of flowers, evergreens and Chinese lanterns. All inpatients were given a stocking, presents and a good Christmas meal of poultry – a luxury at the time.
In the rest of the community there was business as usual with a film screening at His Majesty’s Theatre, a tennis tournament in the Domain and an Ashburton Bowling club tournament on the Green.
Christmas comfort 1915
1915’s Christmas message brims with hope for peace by the next Christmas but is tinged with the sadness of those who have already lost their lives. Mr Taylor tries to comfort those who have already lost loved ones by writing,
“Christmas will be chastened with the most sorrowful recollections of dear ones who have passed forever from the pale of mundane affairs. But the sorrow will be less acute because of the noble cause for which the sacrifices have been made, and if in their grief the bereaved ones can in time, think impersonally of their losses, they may find consolation in the philosophy that teaches that though Nature is careless of a single life she is jealous in the preservation of the race.”
Mr Taylor then wishes his readers a ‘pleasant and profitable Christmas and an Enjoyable New Year’. There is no further mention of the festive hospital or Christmas sporting activities, his thoughts have turned elsewhere. Advertising too, is more subdued and about more practical gifts, such as clothes.
By December 23, 1916 the world has slumped into its third Christmas at war. Mr Taylor’s editorial writes about the war’s progress in a despondent tone, with little mention of Christmas. The abject horror of what is happening in the world seeps through the lines on the page,
“Two new belligerents – Italy and Romania – have since that time become involved in the terrible maelstrom of shot and shell and flashing bayonets. It is a mockery, under such conditions to speak of the message of peace and good will. The best we can hope for is a speedy termination of the war and a peace under conditions that will for centuries prevent a repetition of the misery, bloodshed and awful waste of human effort which the world has witnessed for nearly 30 months.”
A determined Christmas
December 24, 1917, the fourth Christmas editorial at war. The toll of the bloody and drawn out war is expressed in a change in Mr Taylor’s focus and wording. He seems to have moved from horror to numbness and gritted determination. As he writes, “[unlike] 1914 and 1915 the world has become accustomed to the stupendous changes that have taken place in our customs and habits”. Mr Taylor was now talking about how the world has become accustomed to war. Significantly, he writes this message just weeks after the dreadful Battle of Passchendaele (31 July – 10 November 1917), where on October 12, New Zealand had suffered its greatest loss of life on any one day in its history.
Mr Taylor patriotically continued, “the present xmas season finds the British Empire … united and … resolute in determination to crush the German Military menace.” He closes his final Christmas editorial with,
“There appears to be a general agreement that there can be no peace till at least the middle of 1919, but it is better to continue fighting for a decade in order to completely overthrow the Germans, than to give up now because of the present sacrifices the war is entailing, and thus ensure a harvest of sorrow for our children’s Children.”
The following year his hope would be fulfilled – at last a peaceful Christmas to celebrate.
Who was Mr Taylor?
Thomas David Taylor married Alice Evelyne Hughes in 1897 and they started a family together. Alice became involved with Red Cross and Plunket. Thomas worked for the Ashburton Guardian. He became associate editor in 1913, then editor in 1914. Thomas left the paper in 1918, as he was seconded to the defence force in Wellington. He later wrote a book called, New Zealand’s naval story: naval policy and practice, naval occasions, visiting warships. A Justice of the Peace in Wellington, he died in 1951.
By Vanessa Coulter
- The masthead of the Ashburton Guardian during the time that Mr Taylor was editor.
- An advertisement for appropriate items for Xmas gifts during wartime, which ran daily in the Ashburton Guardian in the lead up to Christmas 1917.
- A more cheering advertisement for Christmas and New Year gifts, from the Ashburton Guardian, 1915.