The Mystery of the Christmas Day Photo Revealed

By: Karen Storwick, Director, Mural of Honour, The Military Museums, Calgary

What was considered to be a minor objective in the offensive to capture Rome during the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, Ortona became the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in Canadian history. On 20 December 1943, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment entered the town of Ortona, engaging in some of the fiercest street fighting during the Second World War. What became known as “Little Stalingrad”, the Canadian infantry took Ortona in 8 days of bitter warfare, quite literally street by street and house by house.

In the decades after the Second World War, a photograph emerged that became a symbol for the battle of Ortona. On December 25th, just blocks from the front line, men rotated back for a shared Christmas dinner then returned just as quickly to the fighting, many killed only moments later. A rare photo of the Christmas dinner being served to the troops became a symbol of civility amidst the horrors of war. It also served as a Regimental icon of the Seaforth Highlanders’ remarkable experience in the Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli on Christmas Day, 1943.

Some years ago, however, doubt was cast on the authenticity of the photo. When closely examined by Seaforth veterans present at the Christmas feast in the church that day, they realized this photo wasn’t their dinner.

The Seaforths ate inside the church nave. The tables were set in long rows, complete with tablecloths, real silver and china, and the two pints of coveted beer. In spite of the fact that the two other regiments from 2nd Brigade, as well as supporting units, were all in the vicinity of the church during the heavy fighting, only the Seaforth Highlanders were lucky enough to be spirited away from battle to enjoy some remarkable moments of peace and good cheer on Christmas Day.

In the classic photograph, a canopy of foliage drapes over a medieval brick fortress wall. This picture was not shot inside a church. Even more telling, the tables in the photograph are arranged in a square. There are no tablecloths, and, most of the men are eating out of their mess tins. Only the odd man has the treasured two bottles of beer that each Seaforth was given with dinner. Furthermore, some men in this photo are clearly wearing shoulder patches from units other than the Seaforths. Too many details in the photograph were inconsistent with the well documented event and had been verified by Seaforth veterans.  It was a natural conclusion. This beloved image, capturing the spirit of that incredible moment in history, was not taken at the Seaforth dinner after all.

Consequently, the photograph was dismissed from the iconography of the Regiment and removed from its annals of history as representative of that historic day. Recent publications of the photo indicate that it was taken at a brigade dinner at an unknown time and unknown location behind the lines. It is now a widely considered fact that the dinner in the photo was not at the Santa Maria de Constantinopoli church "as often said", but at the Divisional Headquarters at San Vito Chientino.

Unaware of the controversy over the Christmas dinner photograph, Ernie Bagstad, a Seaforth veteran who lived in Calgary, proudly showed where he was sitting in the classic photo each year to school children. Ernie is in the upper right hand corner.

He talked about his own experiences during the war and became especially emotional when recalling how he was pulled from the midst of brutal fighting into a church where he was served a real Christmas dinner along with a few other lucky men. He talked about how luck ran out for some of those men when they were killed right after dinner, reentering the line. One of those men sat beside Ernie. The two of them are smiling, seemingly carefree, as they pose for the camera. He remembered the bagpipes playing in the background; a moving rendition of the Seaforth Regimental March, "The Piobaireachd of Donald Dhu".

When he returned home at the end of the war, his father announced excitedly that he had been listening to Matthew Halton’s broadcast on the radio from Ortona on Christmas Day that year. When he heard the Seaforth’s March Past, his heart leapt and he said, “Ernie’s having Christmas dinner”.

You can imagine Ernie’s shock when told the photo had nothing to do with the Ortona Christmas dinner.

As a Military Historian with a proud Seaforth lineage, I was fascinated by the clarity of Ernie Bagstad’s recollection of the event. I took every opportunity I could to get to know this wonderful veteran better and was compelled to action to sort out the controversy. If this was not the Seaforth’s regimental dinner, why was Ernie’s account of dinner that day so consistent with the iconic photograph? When the photograph is enlarged, Ernie’s face is clearly smiling at the camera.

Why was the photo not in sync with the documented report and collective memory of the Seaforth Highlanders’ dinner? If the so-called “Christmas Dinner” photograph was not actually taken at the Seaforth Christmas dinner, where and when was it taken?

I visited Ortona in May 2008 determined to solve the mystery. Armed with the famous photo, I walked the streets of Ortona to ask the locals if they were familiar with the story. Every few feet I would stop and ask them and without hesitation, young and old, the people of Ortona, responding in broken english, confirmed that in the popular memory of the town, this was the Christmas Dinner. They then pointed me in the direction of the church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli. Clearly, the photograph held the same iconographic status in Ortona as it once had for Canadians.

The next step was to find out if the walled structure in the background of the photo still existed. In the school next to the church, I spoke to some of the young teachers who knew the story but couldn’t quite locate the spot. They led me to the office of the old Abbot who presided over the church as, apparently, he knew everything there was to know about the church’s history. He had stepped out for the afternoon so I took down his name and phone number and left that trail for another day.

I wandered over to the church and looked around. It was empty but open and I was able to get a good look at the structure inside and out. I didn’t see anything at all that resembled the architectural details in the photograph. After some time scrutinizing the building a man walked up and asked if I needed assistance. He was the Director of the school and knew the history of the area well. I showed him the picture and asked him about the Christmas dinner. “Sure, sure!” He said in his thick Italian accent. “It was here, inside the church!”. I was skeptical that he understood fully what I was asking and wondered if everyone in Ortona had been brought up to believe this photo represented the Christmas dinner or if he knew more than I did. “Yes, but this photo, it wasn’t taken indoors, can you tell me where it might have been taken?”. “Of course”, he exclaimed, “this photo was taken in the Oratory, I will show you”.

He brought me outside through a maze of little hallways and doors until we arrived in the Oratory, a courtyard just outside the church. He gestured around the square and told me this is where the tables in the photograph were set up. He continued that TWO Christmas dinners had been served that day. The Seaforth’s were served inside the church, but there were others that were served simultaneously outside! The photograph was of the second dinner in the Oratory. Hence the confusion.

But what about the danger of eating dinner outside when battle raged so close to the church? Wouldn’t the soldiers have been too vulnerable to shell fire eating here in this exposed courtyard? The man told me that during the war, the courtyard was surrounded by taller buildings that sheltered it from any incoming fire from the north. To the south, adjacent to the sea, the church was protected by an old fortress wall that no longer exists. In 1960, the Oratory was converted into a children’s playground for the students at the school. The wall was torn down to create more space. In the dirt on a sheet of paper he diagrammed where the Christmas dinner table had been set up relative to the wall which had been torn down.

As I studied the photograph, I discovered that the olive trees hanging just above the Christmas dinner are still there. Even the cracks in the concrete appeared to be in the same place relative to the trees. I felt quite sure that that I was standing on the spot where Ernie Bagstad and the others had eaten and were photographed. Jubilant as I was, I wanted further proof.

The local library is housed in the old convent that the Canadians used as a First Aid Post. I found a local publication with the Christmas dinner photo. The caption reads, “Pranzo di Natale nei pressi della chiesa di S. Maria di Constantinopoli”. The translation: “Christmas Dinner close to the church of S. Maria di Constantinopoli. Good evidence but I still needed more concrete proof versus local legend.

On returning to Canada, I tried in vain for the next several months to find an Italian translator to help me call overseas to talk with the old Abbot of the church. I also enlisted the help of a fellow historian in Ortona to search the Municipal archives for photos and original architectural plans for the church to see if I could find proof that the old Medieval wall in the photo actually surrounded the Oratory. All to no avail.

Then, by chance, while editing the English subtitles of the film, “Ortona, Bloody Christmas”, a remarkable image flashed across the screen. The film was an Italian documentary and there was footage of the Christmas dinner which I had never seen in any Canadian production. Stored in the Italian archives, it was filmed by a French Canadian Army Newsreel camera team. I obtained an unedited copy of the footage, and watched with great delight as I realized this was the definitive proof.

The footage begins with Canadian troops singing Christmas carols in the Oratory, in front of the medieval wall and surrounded by foliage. The cameraman pans to the cookpreparing the meal in the kitchen. Soldiers line up inside the church for soup. Others walk outside to grab their two bottles of beer. The Seaforths are caught on camera inside the church, seated at long rows of tables set with china and tablecloths. Outside in the Oratory, men from a variety of units, including Seaforths, are seated at tables set up in a large square. They look up, wave and smile at the camera. The camera finally pans to a cheerful looking soldier bringing his plate through an arched doorway and stepping back inside the church.

Ernie Bagstad, who was in Dog Company, remembers being ushered over to a place setting at the inside right table before they closed the square with another table structure. He remembers eating out of his mess tin. You can find him in the top inside right corner reaching for the tin.

I was told by fellow historian, Ken MacLeod, that Seaforth Acting Company Seargent Major Jock Gibson, also Dog Company, had always claimed that he looked up during dinner and someone took a photo. You can see Jock at the top left corner of the table.

William Challen, a Seaforth private who enlisted in the army in Windsor, Ontario also attended the Christmas dinner in Ortona. Family members have identified him in the lower inside corner of the photograph. William was killed in action while the unit was on patrol north of Ortona on 27 January 1944.

The riddle now solved, Ernie’s memories have been substantiated may he rest in peace. Some of the Seaforths from Dog Company apparently didn't make it inside the Church for dinner that day and were ushered outside to the Oratory to enjoy their meal. It is worth noting that the Seaforths inside the church were unaware of a dinner being served simultaneously, outside the church. Conversely, the men eating outside seemed equally unaware of dinner being served inside. There was enough distance between the two settings that any one soldier would have had to make a significant effort to wander over to the other dinner. So focused were they on their brief retreat from war raging around them, they had little time to stop and take note of their surroundings. What wasn’t lost on any of them was the poignancy of that moment of true Christmas spirit in the midst of one of the most vicious battles of the Second World War.

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