From the Life Story of Mary Bannister Russell:

"One morning about 7:30 a.m. I was coming down stairs for breakfast when the silence was split with loud roars. Shells were flying overhead and people were filling the streets shouting "the Germans have come, the Germans have come." Mother was kneeling on the floor in front of a huge brown basin about the size of a small wash tub in which she was mixing the ingredients for our usual big Christmas cake. Leaving the dry mixture, she told Prue and me to stay indoors while she left to see if help was needed.

The firing lasted about half an hour, and it proved to be the first overt act of modern warfare. Heretofore wars had been conducted according to rules in which civilians were protected; but from this point on, rules were forgotten and civilians were part of the spoils of war as far as the Germans were concerned. Four German warships had fired broadside on our defenseless city, coming to the coast under the protection of the fog. Hundreds of innocent people were killed, their blood flowed down the streets, and the populace rushed to get into the country.

"Well," said mother, as she returned home and reported that the dead and wounded had been carried into schools and churches, "if I have to run I’m not leaving my good cake for any German." So she proceeded to finish baking the mixture. The day quieted down, the defense became alert to these sneak attacks, and an era of bloody, senseless cold blooded killing of any and all had come into existence."

The story below may be a somewhat fictionalized account of the event recorded above, but is probably quite accurate in its description of the extent of the damage from the bombardment and the folklore surrounding the traditional Christmas Cake. The character "Mrs. Morley" represents Mary’s mother, Prudence Morley Bannister, Mary represents herself, and "Lois" represents Mary’s younger sister, Prudence.– Editor, Clyde B. Russell

Twenty Four Hours

by Mary Bannister Russell



The tide of the North Sea was running high one November night in 1914, and a heavy wind had whipped the crest of the waves to a foamy lather, as they beat relentlessly against the rocky coast of West Hartlepool. The great ocean was in an angry mood, seemingly it resented the wisdom of men who had built the huge cement wall which kept it within bounds, thus assuring the safety of the city’s inhabitants.

A short distance further inland, on a quiet street, a doorbell tinkled gaily as customers went in and out of the grocery store of Mrs. Morley. She greeted them all with a cheery smile or a few words here and there, born in the depths of a heart that understood these people and their problems. Hers was a personality which drew people towards her as a magnet draws steel, and as she wrapped up the many purchases she included with this one a little wisdom; with that one some sorely needed encouragement, according to the responses of her great soul.

When the last customer had departed, she put out the lights of the store and stepped outdoors for a few moments. The moon was hidden behind heavy clouds, a thick fog was creeping inland from the ocean, and the warning notes of the fog siren broke the stillness of the night. Well she knew the dangers of the fog to those who were on the ocean. Had not her husband earned the family living on the deep these many years! She could hear the dull boom of the surf breaking on the rocks. Woe betide the Captain this night who did not heed the siren and keep his ship well out to sea, away from those treacherous rocks. A sigh escaped her, but with a prayer in her heart for the absent husband at sea and for the son in the trenches of war, she turned indoors to the cheery living room behind the store.

"Finished for the night, Mother?" asked Mary, the older of the two girls who were busy with their sewing. "Aye, lass, and a wild night it is for those on the sea. These fogs are treacherous enough, but now that the sea is full of those mines and submarines likely to send a ship to the bottom at any time, ‘tis a hard life for sailors these times."

"Perhaps Dad will be safe in the Orient by now, Mother, and in just a few weeks he will be with us again for Christmas."

"That’s right. Mary, we must get at the Christmas cake tomorrow. ‘Tis high time it was baked if it is to be nice and mellow for Christmas Day. We will bake a smaller one for George and if he must spend Christmas day in the trenches a bit of cake will help to cheer him up. Now get up early, both of you, and you will be able to help to stir it and make your wish before you leave for work.

"There can be only one wish for me," said Lois, the fair haired baby of the family. "If only this war was over it would be heaven everywhere. Even so, we are not suffering the actual bombardments that Belgium is getting."

"You’re right, m’lass, but let us retire and don’t forget we make the cake tomorrow."

Bright and early the next morning Mrs. Morley could have been seen bustling around a large earthenware disk. It was fully 22 inches wide and about the same depth, getting narrower towards the base. Already it was half full of the many good things that make an English Christmas cake, and now she was ready to add the beaten eggs, a large basin full of them. This was the time for each member of the family to take a turn stirring, while silently making a wish, and the girls were coming downstairs even now.

"Breakfast is waiting girls, you must hurry and then help me with the cake before you leave for work."

Chairs were pulled back, but alas, that breakfast was never eaten, for just as they were about to sit down, there came a deafening roar. "Gracious, Mother, is that thunder," asked Mary. Hardly were the words uttered than they were drowned in volley after volley of terrific noises. All three rushed to the streets, to find them filling rapidly with screaming, half-clad people.

"The Germans have come," was about the only information available from the hysterical, screaming mob. Then came another boom followed by a sickening crash, and as they gazed, petrified with horror, a street of houses sheltering about forty families, fell over one by one before their eyes, as a row of nine pins falls before the ball flung by a child. Fragments of exploded shells flying through the air struck so many frantic people that blood flowed in the streets.

"If they hit the gas storage tank we are doomed," said one, a cripple, running here and there on his crutches seeking the shelter that was nowhere to be found."

West Hartlepool, Mary's home, was just across the Nort Sea from Germany
West Hartlepool

"There are five of them, five German warships firing broadside." This from a half-clad woman, half carrying, half dragging two little ones, seeking to lengthen the distance between herself and her abandoned home on the ocean front.

Pandemonium reigned. Hell was loose upon a people entirely unprepared, with no means to defend themselves, for what seemed an eternity. And yet, when the guns were silenced and the enemy had withdrawn into the fog that had covered his approach, the clock on Mrs. Morley’s mantelpiece had advanced just twenty two minutes.

"Stay with the store, Mary and Lois, let no stranger enter until I return. I will go to assist wherever I can." All day the good woman worked, men were at the front, it was up to the women now and they carried the wounded and dead from the streets into the churches and schools that had escaped damage. Little children who should have been entering the schools with joy and laughter to continue their lessons were carried in dead.

Father Simpson, Mrs. Morley’s neighbor, was killed with shrapnel as he chopped sticks in his yard with which to light a fire, and was joined in eternity almost immediately by his wife and family who had been smothered in their beds by the falling roof.

A look of grim endurance took the place of the smile on the face of Mrs. Morley as the day wore on, and after chaos was reduced to a measure of order she left the groups of mourning people and hastened to rejoin her girls before nightfall.

Breakfast still sat on the table, the eggs still awaited the hand of skill to add them to the contents of the earthenware bowl. The girls had waited hour after hour in great anxiety and were now delighted to minister to their mother’s comfort, as she related the day’s events. There were rumors that the enemy would return, in which case they had better abandon the house and seek safety further inland. Air raids were as yet unknown, safety seemed to lie in leaving the coast. Discussion arose as to what should be taken and what left.

As the brave woman looked around the home trying to appraise the value of this and that, her eye fell on the unfinished cake and the loving sentiments and traditions of generations past rose high within her soul as she said "Girls, get ready to stir the cake, we will finish it tonight and if we must leave this home we will take our cake, for the ones who wrought this havoc today could not appreciate an emblem of love and peace."

The cake was mixed and within a short time the room was filled with the odor of baking spices; spices symbolical of those carried by the wise men from afar and laid in the manger of the Prince of Peace some two thousand years ago. The seeming futility of His message lay like a pall on the hearts of the little family as they prepared to retire, reviewing together the sudden destruction and the changed destinies wrought by an enemy of peace in the short space of twenty four hours.

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