Christmas Underground


THE day began as its predecessors. At 6.45 the sergeant’s whistle pierced our sleep. ‘On your feet, wolves!' he shouted, and flung up the blanket that covered the abri’s entrance. Protestingly we drew ourselves out of our woolen warmth into the cutting dampness of underground. Our teeth chattered as we wound our putties. It was n’t till later, when we were standing about the field kitchen burning our lips with tin cups of coffee, that a voice suggested, ‘ Merry Christmas.’ The proper answer given and received was ‘Merry as hell!’

Our feet squelched in the liquid mud that chilled us through the rubber, and from habit we gazed at the dun waves of earth which undulated toward the lines. Distant guns struck like hammerblows at the leaden sky. Someone cursed the mail. There was reason. Since our division had moved back en repos sixteen days ago we had had not a letter. Furthermore, we had had no pay. Half of us had no tobacco, and the other half had too little to lend. Without ‘work,’ without our sources of illusion, we were miserable. We lived in the timbered cellar of a squashed granary and we moved through the routine of repos cold and complaining.

The day continued indifferently. We stood inspection and our feet went numb. Surrounding an iron marmite we chipped the skin from slimy frozen potatoes. ‘Fry ‘em up, cook!’ we begged. We quarreled as to whose turn it was to search for firewood. ‘ General’ Wallace, so called because he washed more often than Pershing, heated a pail of water and took a bath in his rubber basin. ‘Drip on your own blankets!’ we protested, angered by his virtue, and were delighted when the basin collapsed. The Lieutenant had been seen driving off in his staffcar. ‘Trust him!’ we growled, thinking of our empty stomachs. ‘Back to Noyon for a good meal! ‘

Our gloom deepened with the early dusk. Christmas was not an event on this calendar. We lay humped in our blankets, thinking of warmth and home, or sat about the stove ‘crabbing’ in a chorus of contempt. With elaborate irony O’Brien read aloud the headline from an old Times: ‘Boys At Yaphank Suffer In Rain.’ In a far corner a mouth organ whined sourly. ‘Oh, shut up, can’t you!’ Beside a candle Vosberg read and surreptitiously munched some chocolate. Where he had gotten it we did not know. It was too small to share. But we damned him in our envy.

The cook appeared. ‘It’s snowing,’ he remarked. We did not care about that. ‘ What’s for supper?’ we asked. ‘Stew.’ ‘What, no fried potatoes? No rice pudding? Hell, is n’t it Christmas!’ ‘No lard. No rice. Stew,’ said the cook laconically.

‘ I want four men up here,’ called the sergeant from the abri door.

Those of us who climbed up into the night found the sergeant beside the rattling staff-car. Silently he flicked his torch into the tonneau. It was bulky with canvas mail-sacks. ‘ Ye-ah! Mail!’ we shouted as we hauled them out. And beneath the sacks on the floor were two cases of golden-neck bottles.

‘Who ‘ll trade Fatimas for Camels?’ ‘Hank, see what m’girl made me — knitted ‘em herself. . . . ' ‘Aspirin, castor oil capsules, and Foot Ease: there’s a merry present for you! . . . ‘ ‘Who ‘ll have some fudge? . . .’ ‘Say, will you listen to this: “Oh, Dick, how I can picture you, wandering through No Man’s Land, lantern in hand!” How do they get that way! . . . ' ‘Here ‘s looking at you, Slim! . . .’ ‘“Add a cup of milk, butter size of walnut, and serve hot.” Great idea that. . . .’ ‘Is that soap or candy?’ ‘Cripes, Sally Winslow’s engaged!’

We sat in the aureole of a lantern hung from the beams. Two splintered doors laid on empty fuse-cases served as our table. The stove’s belly glowed a dull red. The warm air was scented with the freshly opened sweets, the soap — almost a Christmas fragrance. We read the familiar handwriting on our packages, then tore open the paper and fingered the dainty tissue within (Wow, how dirty our hands were!); we dropped the red ribbons round our necks—and drew forth our presents! The marmite of stew steamed on the table, and our tin cups were filled again and again with nectar. No wine will ever taste quite like that from our old tin cups, stained black in the inside with their blend of coffee, pinard, and rum. Licking the gravy from their knives, some slit open their letters while they ate; others kept the packet in their breast pockets for private reading. Our letters as much as told us we were heroes and the champagne gave us strength to believe it. Hunger was surfeited. We were warm at last.

‘Rabbit’ Kindall, who had nine aunts, climbed on a box and claimed the knitting championship. He exhibited a worsted helmet without any face. ‘See, you put it on, and there you are — safe as an ostrich.’ And a cootie string. ‘A what?’ we shouted. ‘I ‘ll read the directions: “Dear Robert, I am sending you a cootie string. It was recommended to me by Mrs. Keswick. We have been told that you boys tie them about your waist. The cooties are attracted to the worsted, and when the trap is full all you need to do is hang it on a tree and come away refreshed.’” ‘Try it!’ we cried, rocking with laughter. A specimen was obtained without much difficulty and placed on a sheet of paper, close to the ‘trap.’ With one look at the worsted it fled in the opposite direction.

And now the mouth organ was in a frenzy and the ‘Kentucky Colonels’ (Privates, Second Class) were clogging. We sang. We sang of Rinky Dinky, Madelon, The Tattooed Lady, and other warriors too humorous to mention. We sang: —

I want to go home,
I want to go home!
The bullets they rattle; the cannons they roar,
I don’t want to go to the Front any more.
Take me over the sea
Where the Allemands can’t get at me.
Oh, my! I don’t want to die.
I want to go home !

But Tom, our tenor, and the biggest man in the Section, had fallen asleep beside the stove. ‘Wake up, Tom. Come and sing, Tom — it’s Christmas.’ Tom shook himself and climbed to his feet. ‘Goin’ out t’ get th’ Germans,’ he announced thickly. In this mood, swaying slightly, his big fingers stretched rigidly open, Tom frequently sought ‘the Germans.’ But never found them. We sang on.

We had subsided into our blankets and with candles beside us were reading our mail when there sounded the clump of boots on the steps. Tom appeared in the doorway. If he had not found the Germans he had certainly found the snow. It marked him where he had fallen. ‘Merry Christmas, Tom,’ someone called. ‘Stars are out,’ said Tom, gazing at us solemnly. We waited in wonder. His fingers were closed: a good sign. Then he braced himself and threw back his head: —

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep . . .

His big beautiful voice reverberated through the abri. Hardly one of us but knew that hymn by heart. It is the hymn of all Christmas.

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.

We would have stopped him had we been able. Goose flesh came on our cheeks. Those who as children have heard their mothers sing will know how we felt. Tom sang every verse.

We blew out the candles and drew the blankets up to our ears. ‘Goodnight, Tom.’

We heard Tom sing these same words in church this morning. His hands were closed on the pew in front, and his wife reached nearly to his shoulder. Hearing him singing so, we thought on those other times seven years since, and had hardly finished by the close of the sermon.