|Christmas in the Regiment|
|Written by Atlantic Branch Patron|
Christmas is a time when we all think back to the years we spent together in the regiment during the Christmas season.
Some of those memories are probably a little dim now.
That may be partly due to age but more likely because of those ‘two bottles of beer per soldier’ for the battalion and company Christmas gatherings that went on for the best part of three weeks in December every year. Although probably mathematically impossible, that issue of beer frequently resulted in just about everyone groping their way back to the quarters when the party was over.
How six or seven hundred soldiers could get hammered on ‘two bottles of beer per soldier’ is something I have never been able to quite figure out.
However, we always remember where we were at Christmas - in Hanover, Aldershot, Korea, Gagetown, Werl, Cyprus or any number of places in between.
The memories of those times, both with our families and without them, always seem to come flooding back at Christmas. Christmas dinners in the battalion were served by the officers, sergeants and warrant officers in the early days in Aldershot and Gagetown and during our operational tours overseas. The visits to the outposts in Cyprus by the commanding officer and the regimental sergeant major….company Christmas parties …..New Year’s eve and New Year’s Day….Christmas leave that was never long enough and those soldiers with nowhere to go who remained at ‘home’ in the barrack block.
Above all there was a tremendous sense of family in The Black Watch at Christmas and it was evident everywhere – the visit to the messes – parties in the Red Hackle Club – Christmas dinner in those outposts in Cyprus scattered around the island between the Greeks and Turks – in a mess in Korea – at a platoon gathering in a German gasthaus or simply getting together in the quarters to celebrate with each other.
Everyone who served in The Black Watch has a story about Christmas in the regiment.
The Christmas dinner, when the officers, sergeants and warrant officers traditionally served dinner to the soldiers, was always an event marked by a few incidents.
One member of second battalion, in Aldershot, probably with a little head start in the quarters, having consumed his two beers and at least another half-dozen or more from those of the non-drinkers sitting nearby, sought better service during the dinner in a somewhat unconventional manner when Lieutenant-Colonel Watson passed by while serving dinner. Using the nickname the troops gave the commanding officer, he demanded another serving in a somewhat unorthodox manner in a voice loud enough that was heard by just about everyone in the mess hall.
“Hey, ‘Blinky,” he shouted, just as the regimental sergeant major was passing by his table with an empty tray. “Get your arse in gear and let’s have a little more turkey over here.”
As he was being dragged off to the guard room, a half dozen of his table mates stood, raised their bottles of beer and called to him in unison.
“Merry Christmas Ernie.”
A soldier in first battalion was asked by his platoon commander how he spent the holidays.
“I spent Christmas with mother,” he replied piously. “It was the best Christmas I ever had.”
He was challenged on that a few days later when the priest from his home parish called his company commander, wondering why he had failed to show up at home for Christmas.
“Mother” it turned out was the nickname he had given to a hooker he met in the Piccadilly Tavern in Halifax during a brief stop-over on his way to Cape Breton.
Corporal Danny Graham spent an hour or so in the officers’ mess on Christmas Eve in Cyprus in 1969.
He arrived in the mess uninvited and unannounced, after spending a few hours in the canteen, to have a drink with any officer that happened to be there. The deputy commanding officer was the only one in the mess and in the spirit of Christmas, ordered Danny a drink but Rabbit Sinclair, the bar steward, was not amused nor given over to the Christmas spirit and did his best to send Graham packing. Danny had his drink with the deputy commanding officer and then staggered into the night to continue his rounds of Camp Maple Leaf with ‘Rabbit’ still muttering behind the bar.
How the regimental sergeant major reacted when he arrived in the sergeants’ mess a few minutes later has never been recounted but, by all account, Danny was remarkably subdued for the next couple of days.
The annual visit to the sergeant’s mess before the Christmas dinner was an event from which dozens of stories emerged and which helped introduce young officers to the danger of trying to match drink for drink with their platoon sergeants. The subalterns tried to get their own back when the sergeants, in keeping with tradition, visited the officers on New Year’s Day but there is no evidence any actually succeeded.
Not long ago, I asked an old soldier who had served in The Black Watch from the first days the regular battalions were raised, what he remembered most about Christmas in the regiment. I expected him to mention Korea, Germany or Cyprus but I was somewhat surprised by his answer.
“The children’s Christmas party,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.
Every family will recall that event. The battalion tapped into the unit fund, organized a party for the youngsters and gave them each a toy to take home.
It was set up by the regimental sergeant major along with the sergeants and company sergeant majors with the single soldiers providing the work party and always with the assistance of Melvin Arsenault the pioneer platoon store-man. Melvin couldn’t escape since the stores were in the drill hall which was the only place in the barrack lines where five hundred or so small people and their parents could gather.
“We had five children and we didn’t have much money in those days,” the old soldier recalled. That party and the gift the battalion gave to each of our children helped make Christmas a lot better for all of us. Our family never forgot those Christmas parties.”
I thought about that. His answer to my question surprised me a little, but it made sense.
I can recall a Christmas party, which our elder daughter didn’t attend because she was barely four months old. As I was leaving the drill hall after the party was over, Fred Blakeney, the regimental sergeant major at the time, stopped me.
Like all regimental sergeant majors, he knew far more than I realized and he knew our child was too young to be there.
He reached into a box of toys and handed me a large shiny multi-colored metal top. It was one of those things that you pump and spin. It was a perfect gift for a small baby.
“Here,” he said, “for your little girl- Merry Christmas.”
Later, our daughter went to many battalion children’s’ Christmas parties with other youngsters whose fathers served in the regiment. She is still friends with many of them and that toy the regimental sergeant major gave me that Christmas over a half century ago became the “Black Watch top.” It was passed on to her sister and survived in the toy box for many years – long after everything else had been lost, destroyed or given away.
That little girl now has grown children of her own. I have often thought what a pity it is that our grandchildren were never able to experience that small Christmas interlude in The Black Watch that meant so much to all of the children in our regiment.