Thanksgiving in the Somme
As I get out the rolling pin and the pumpkin puree to make the pie for a Thanksgiving dinner that’s going to be somewhat (read: very much) smaller than usual, I’ve been thinking of other unusual Thanksgivings in unusual times– like the Smith College Relief Unit’s Thanksgiving dinner in the Somme in 1917.
By November of 1917, the muddy season was well underway, and the women of the Smith College Relief Unit were knee deep in mud, always cold, always wet, driving from village to village in their open trucks with the rain blowing in their faces. To top it off, their trucks, which they relied on to get from place to place and do their work, had pretty much broken down on them.
“But, alas!” wrote one unit member home from the war zone. “The Ford truck had an accident after its first day of service with all its fine new parts, the White is in Paris awaiting solid tires, and even the Jit [their Ford jitney, affectionately abbreviated] gave us trouble one day.”
It would have been a pretty grim Thanksgiving, far away from their families, but the Canadian Foresters came to the rescue, ignoring little things like national differences, and inviting the Smith College Relief Unit to their chateau (which actually still had walls and a roof and doors and stuff, unlike the chateau at the Smithies’ headquarters at Grecourt), for a Thanksgiving dinner and dance.
But how to get there with no trucks? The Red Cross stepped in and loaned the Smithies a truck and driver for two days. “Last night, Thanksgiving, on top of carting beds, armoires, and stores all morning and goats in the afternoon, [Dave the Red Cross driver] cheerfully took eight of us off to the wilds to enjoy a fine dinner and dance given us by Canadian officers in their lovely old chateau.”
Naturally, the Smithies worked all the day, going from village to village, delivering supplies and livestock, seeing patients, teaching classes, before struggling into their very best waterproof boots and least dirty blouses and piling into the truck to be carted off through the ravaged roads to the Foresters’ headquarters.
“It was a strange experience, one we shan’t forget in a hurry,” wrote one Unit member.
In the early autumn dusk, the Canadians’ chateau, complete with moat, sat there in the woods like something out of a fairy tale. The foresters had decorated the grand grey-paneled salon with holly and mistletoe and a big, blazing open fire in the baronial fireplace. Candles glimmered around the room. The Foresters had somehow stumped together their sugar rations to come up with tarts, pies, and plum pudding to round off the feast. There was a menu at each place with an American flag on the front and a dance card in the back, and when the meal was over, they danced a Virginia reel on the parquet floor, the Smithies “in cowhide boots, wool stockings, our now disreputable Unit suits, and our best apologies for clean waists and ties.”
“Our Canadians are certainly good friends and bring us the leavings of their wood to burn,” wrote the assistant director of the Unit. “They come to tea every Sunday and are just now in a fit of the blues because they are afraid they will have to move just after finding us. I always thought they rather looked down on Americans. Europe has changed their ideas it seems….”
Here’s a picture of their buddies, the Canadian Foresters.
It was the first time the Canadian Foresters came to Smith Unit’s rescue, but it wouldn’t be the last… but you can read about that in Band of Sisters!
The Canadians making an American Thanksgiving for the Smithies out in the desolation of the war zone (complete with American flags drawn on the menus!) always makes me tear up a little. And if that isn’t the spirit of Thanksgiving, I don’t know what is.
Here’s hoping that however unusual it may be, and however far away your loved ones may be this year, your Thanksgiving is a joyful one filled with unexpected blessings and unexpected kindnesses. And possibly some pie.
Bless those Canadians!
This was a fantastic book! Thank you for sharing your gift of writing and this bit of history!