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CHRISTMAS ON A BATTLESHIP 1907

( By the Rev.G.Goodenough Chaplain of H.M.Dockyard ,Sheerness )

 

Whatever may be the case ashore , the seamen and marines of the Royal Navy know how to make Christmas when it comes around , a time of good cheer. And in this they are only keeping up a jolly tradition of long standing in our ships of war.

 

The Rev. Henry Teongue, chaplain of  H.M. ships Royal Oak and Assistance in the reign of Charles 11gives us in his interesting diary a charming account a Christmas aboard his ship. “ At early dawn the great day was ushered in with the sound of trumpets . In due course the ships company assembled for prayers and sermon ,which was followed by a mighty dinner and , said the chaplain “ we ended the day with much civil myrthe

 

Nowadays we don’t wake our men  in the Navy with the sounding of trumpets but  we still keep up the custom of  a right Merry Christmas .Let me describe such a Christmas as I once experienced in the flagship of the Channel Squadron.

The coming great event cast its shadow before in the laying in stocks of hams- dear to the heart of the blue jacket – turkeys , geese , and fresh beef , vegetables , fruit nuts , biscuits etc.  Then , on Christmas Eve ,all but the absolutely necessary work of the ship was suspended, the hands were “ piped down “ and everybody was free to prepare the birds and joints for the galley, stone the raisins and  mix the duff , and last , and not least to decorate the mess deck with chains and chandeliers of coloured paper and trophies of photographs and curios.

I had a couple of cardboard alphabets , which were in great request for cutting out mottoes , and had to work away with the scissors till my fingers ached . Hard as we all worked – and never were there more cheerful workers – we had to ask for “ extra lights “to enable us to finish our preparations , and it was past midnight before we turned in , tired ,  but happy in anticipation of the forthcoming festival.

On Christmas  morning the Church Pennant was duly hoisted as early as possible , and we went to church on the upper deck , dispensing with the usual arrangements of chairs for the Offices and capstan bars or buckets for the men , for it would have been a shame to disturb the festive arrangements of the mens messes.

The Christmas morning service is not a long one .The Chaplain’s sermon did not occupy many minutes , so nobody minded standing for this. Of course we had the proper Christmas hymn  ” Hark the herald angels sing “ , “ While shepherds watched “ and “ Oh, come all ye faithful ! “ And splendid it was to hear the dear old words rolling forth from hundreds of lusty voices.

Church over, then came a pause , and then the ceremony of the day begins with the appearance of the Master-at-arms to announce  that the mess deck is ready for the visit of the Admiral , Captain , and Officers. Up strikes the band with “ The Roast Beef of Old England “ and off we start , headed by the Admiral and the Captain to make the round of the messes , partake of the mens hospitality , and exchange hearty greetings with them.

As we come to each mess  there stands to receive us two of its members , one with a plate of Christmas pudding – or plum duff – to give it its naval title , and the other with cake,  nuts and biscuits . It is usual for each officer to take toll in this way from  every mess , so that as we get on with our journey we become loaded with sticky treasures . I did not however , bargain for having my pockets turned into receptacles for pudding and cake by a mischievous  messmate .

“ A Merry Christmas to you sir “ greets us all as we pass , and  we are equally ready with the cheerful and friendly “ The same to you , and many of them “ , No sooner had the last officer quitted the mess-deck then all hands  fall to with a will ,and the feast goes merrily on. In the Ward room and the Gun room there are healths to be drunk and Christmas good cheer  to be enjoyed too, though not perhaps of the same gargantuan order as prevails on the ,lower deck . Then out comes pipes and cigarettes and yarns are spun and jokes cracked until one by one we drift off to quiet spots for a “ stretch off the land “ or “ shut eye “ and by-and-by no sound is heard , save , perchance the murmureus  breathing of  some comfortable sleeper.

At six o’clock the word is passed  “ Carol service on the upper deck “ . Some of my messmates had prophesied  that this would be a failure , but I replied “ After such a feast and a sleep , the fellows will wake up a bit  cross – you cannot expect their digestions to stand such a strain without a mild protest – and then they will want something to interest them . I  am sure they will come ,  And I was right  . The men flocked up and we had a charming little lantern service  .The service over , everybody settled  down  pleasantly throughout  the ship , the Officers to their dinner the men to snacks of supper , accompanied by the twanging of mandolines   “ and “ all kinds of music “ .Later on we had a capital sing-song  , and thus brought to a close our happy day “ with much civil myrthe “