John and I just spent Thanksgiving with my brother, Steve, and his family in Andover, Massachusetts. On Friday afternoon, with our bellies full of leftovers, we drove back to Vermont, a three and a half hour drive. It gave me a lot of time to think about the Thanksgiving holiday of which I knew very little beyond the Pilgrim story. I wondered if the service men, like my great uncle, celebrated it back in 1918? My uncle never mentioned it in his letters, and he was pretty good about mentioning food in his letters (either the need for it or what they just ate for dinner). Were turkeys, an American native bird, even common in Europe back then?
Well, as usual, once you start digging a bit on the internet you find a wealth of information. The first thing that popped up was a picture of a couple of servicemen eating what looks like a burnt turkey. That’s the only picture I could find from WWI and it looks staged, but it’s likely that servicemen in the US camps had a turkey dinner on November 28, 1918. It wasn’t an official national holiday back then, but it was celebrated as a day of thanks giving with turkey being the favorite on the menu. And given this was after the Armistice, they certainly had a lot to be thankful for.
I also found a Thanksgiving menu for a U.S. company in France, and sure enough they had roast turkey on the menu with all the fixings. It turns out that the American turkey had been introduced in England in the early 1500s and slowly became a favorite in the royal courts of Europe. By the 1700s, as turkey became more popular for the Christmas holidays, farmers from the countryside would conduct turkey drives, walking flocks of turkeys (300-1000 birds) to the London market.
A little more digging on the internet revealed that turkey drives were common in Vermont too. Back in the early 1800s before railroads, Vermont farmers would drive thousands of turkeys to the Boston markets for Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas. Back then it took about 3 weeks of walking the turkeys to get there. While we’ve all heard of cattle drives, turkey drives sound kind of crazy. They didn’t ride horses either. They walked behind the turkeys to keep them moving. A wagon with supplies and tents would accompany the drive.
Anyway, eating turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas was pretty much ingrained in the American culture by WWI, so it’s not surprising that servicemen would be given this special treat. I’m still not positive my uncle Harry did in Belgium, but if he missed out, I have no doubt, he made up for it the following year.