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ONE hundred years ago the nation marked the third Christmas of the Great War, or the First World War which it generally became called when the Second World War started in 1939.

There were no significant Christmas celebrations in Colchester. Church services were held, but little more. There was nothing to be joyous about because in the course of 1916, with the bloody Battle of the Somme and elsewhere, several hundred of the town’s young men had lost their lives.

A book published after the war recalled: “Christmas shopping was extraordinary. The usual bright tempting windows were in darkness; the name of the shop and the fact it was open glowed in coloured letters illuminated by transparencies on the blinds; the streets were blackness itself; within, the shops were very well lighted.”

The military population of Colchester Garrison sometimes reached 40,000 troops at any one time, virtually the same as the town’s permanent civilian population. Soldiers prepared themselves to be sent to the Western Front in Belgium and France, many of them never to return to Britain. Soldiers wounded in battle were brought to Colchester’s St Botolph’s station by train to be taken – often in St John Ambulance Brigade ambulances – to Colchester Military Hospital, Essex County Hospital and several emergency hospitals which were set-up.

Twenty-five years later, Christmas in 1941 was the third of the Second World War. Britain was still on full alert in readiness of a possible Nazi invasion. Across many parts of England, there had been catastrophic loss of life and huge damage caused by German bombing raids.

In Colchester we can get a flavour of what life was like 75 years ago thanks to the diary of E J Rudsdale whose personal account of the six years of war (1939-45) has been published – “Journals of Wartime Colchester” edited by Catherine Pearson.

Eric John Rudsdale was a curator at Colchester Museum and exempt from military service. He was a pacifist, but contributed to the civilian war effort by being a special constable and air-raid superintendent at Colchester Castle - the vaults were the oldest man-made shelters in Britain. The “S” shelter sign is still displayed at the top of the steps just inside the entrance of the Norman Castle, leading to the almost 2,000-year-old vaults below of the Roman temple to Claudius.

Rudsdale was also engaged in administrative work with the local branch of the Essex War Agriculture Committee, which was tasked to increase food production in this part of the county. He lived with his elderly parents in the New Town area of Colchester.

The following are extracts of his diary for December 1941: Monday 22: Christmas cards now have pictures of bombs, aeroplanes, tanks, wardens, etc, all decked out with holly, snow and all the usual decorations. There is even Father Christmas in a ‘tin hat’.

Christmas Eve: Tonight took the evening off, although there was much to be done, and went to see a Marx Brothers film at the Playhouse. The streets were packed with howling mobs of soldiers and ATS girls (Auxiliary Territorial Service). Everywhere one saw drunken soldiers sprawling on the pavements, or reeling along, singing.

Army lorries were going slowly up the High Street, collecting those men who were quite incapable. The inert bodies were being heaved over tail boards, respirators and tin-helmets following with a metallic crash. I noticed the civil police kept well in the background.

Christmas Day: At home most of the day. Mother still managed to provide a ‘Christmas dinner’, turkey, plum pudding, everything. She has never failed yet, and I don’t believe she ever failed in the last war.

New Year’s Eve, Wednesday 31: So ends 1941 and so we look into the vague vista of 1942, a year which will no doubt bring as many disasters and terrors as that now finished. Colchester has been very lucky indeed, in fact since two days in the autumn of 1940 there have been few really terrifying moments and the wail of the siren no longer turns my stomach.

If this luck holds until the end of the war, it will be a wonderful thing.

SIR BOB RUSSELL