A Christmas gift from the First World War

Museum of the Order of St John Emily Bourne, Learning and Access Officer

This year we are all preparing to celebrate Christmas in extraordinary circumstances, and there’s no doubt that gifts exchanged will take on extra significance as a token of joy at the end of a challenging year.

In the Museum, it is possible to find another Christmas gift presented amid unprecedented times at the height of the First World War. This matchbox was one of many given to each officer who worked at the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, southern France, by the Order of St John in recognition of their dedication and service.

Two matchboxes branded with the St John Ambulance logo and with photographs of a wartime hospital.

The hospital was established by the Order of St John when war broke out in 1914 and was staffed by trained medical staff and Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses. It provided medical treatment to casualties from the front line and became recognised as one of the most efficient hospitals in the country.

During the hospital’s operation, weekly reports were sent back to the Order’s headquarters at St John’s Gate and these records provide a fascinating insight into the unique experiences of the people who treated and were treated there. While conditions were often difficult, the weekly report dated 29th December 1915 details the modest festive celebrations which brought yuletide cheer to patients and staff alike. The report describes how extra rations of sausages and fish were served at breakfast, the men decorated with evergreens and flags, and a concert was given by the Sisters, Nurses and Officers for the patients.

The matchbox given to the officers was engraved with the name of the hospital and the date, and would have been a small luxury received amidst the horrors of the First World War. In 2020, this little matchbox is a tender reminder of how small gestures can bring little moments of pleasure in an uncertain world.

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