The strongest of all reminiscences, that of Chistmas past.
‘The Somme then? Back to dry feet and cold comfort.’ Jimmy Drummond watched his Colonel contemplate the news. Aird was sluggish. Slow to comprehend; begrudging of comment or opinion. He tried again. ‘Making room for our American friends, Sir? Letting them take their turn, so to speak.’
‘They’re welcome to this butcher’s shop.’ Aird kept his eyes on the dispatch; scanning, deciphering. ‘Rail. Again. First and Second of January. Marshalling in Amiens. Offensive Operations around St Vaast.’
‘In Reserve for Christmas then, sir? The men certainly need it.’
‘No. I’m sorry Jimmy.’ Alastair lifted his head. ‘The Brigade are ordered to hold the line here. The rest of the Division to reserve, whilst we remain till relieved on the thirty-first.’
‘Hogmanay? Have they no sense of the enormity of their callous disregard?’
‘Captain Drummond!’ The colour rose in his cheeks, the first sign of animation in days. ‘Guard that tongue of yours, Jimmy. It might win a cheer from the men, but it does nothing for their morale, this constant criticism of the Staff.’ Aird returned to the dispatch. The Captain slumped into the makeshift seat. He lit a cigarette and drew heavy strength from the smoke.
‘Our losses over the year have left us depleted. The gaps unfilled; men stretched to an exquisite breaking point, and now… We tell them they’re to remain on the line throughout Christmas, whilst their pals celebrate in Ypres. Oh; and then we’ll move on their one special day of the year.’
‘Supply them all with whisky, Lord Elcho.’ Aird’s voice bit with contempt. ‘Isn’t that your answer to all the ills of life? Retreat? Retreat into an alcoholic haze of self-pity?’ It was the colonel’s turn to draw on his cigarette.
‘D’ye remember the kippers?’ Stewart Gourlay leaned against the sandbagged corner. Aird and Drummond were at Division HQ and their batman had time on his hands. ‘It wiz before you joined us, Rab. 1915, Christmas, near Amiens.’
‘Tomorrow it’ll be two years to the day.’ Brodie’s smile told of all their subsequent losses. ‘I can still taste the fish. And the fresh bread, the eggs.’ The smile widened, brightening the trench’s gloom. ‘Martin. So typical o’ the man. He had that way with the ladies; the men too. ‘A got them frae a lad frae Yarmouth.’ And he did. A dozen kippers, from deep in the bowels o’ France.’
‘And Jimmy spent Christmas wae Aird, up at thon big hoose. Strange that?’ Stewart struggled with some mental picture. ‘Strange how a cowardly wee laddie should now be a hero; a decorated hero.’
‘Wheest, man! Just remember where ye are wae that mooth o’ yours.’ Brodie’s voice was savage, angry; though in no way did it question his private’s assertion, only his timing. ‘Douglas? Time to collect the rum ration. Take that arsehole wi ye.’ A thick forefinger stabbed at Stewart, though they all saw the malice had departed. The pair buckled up their greatcoats in preparation for the cold march to the rear. ‘Maybe a smile Corporal, eh? It’s Christmas Eve. Your Saviour’s birthday? Strong rum and a wee reading frae your bible, maybe?’ In recent days they’d come to notice the changes in Black Douglas. Stewart gave his Sergeant a weak smile; tacit apology for his pal’s melancholy.
‘Cold chimes and Christmas cheer;
the Bells are in the sky.
Venus near Earth ventures.
Her sisters, round the moon,
begin the harlequin dance.
As gaudy Yuletide minstrels,
Sweet-toothed and Saxon,
sing ancient Wassail!
It’s spice and fruit;
pudding, punch and pinelogs.
Table laid to feast.
Fire laid to flame.
And Earth receives her King.’
Brodie looked at his three pals. Ten minutes to midnight and no-one slept. They all answered an unspoken summons to vigil. ‘It’s maybe not his best, but it talks of Christmas, sure enough. Shall we have some of the oranges, Douglas?’ The bag of oranges had been a gift from Jimmy Drummond. They were given one orange each; the rest held over for Christmas dinner.
‘I’ve never had one o’ these. Seen them on the top shelf in the Coop windae.’ Stewart fondled the fruit, turning it end on end. ‘What Ho Lord Elcho? Shall we take these to the peasants? Hither page and stand by me.’ The voice was perfect, music-hall posh. Funny, and yet no-one laughed. ‘C’mon; for fuck sake. It’s a joke. Good King Wenceslas?’ He shrugged then made careful study of his own fruit.
‘There’s something sinful about eating fruit. Something erotic.’ Juice ran across Rab’s chin, and he watched his pals take the same guilty pleasure from the gift. Brodie stood on the firestep watching the sky and, one by one, the rest stepped up to join him.
‘I thought there wid be a ceasefire, Brodie. No?’
‘No, Rab. Maybe that first Christmas. The old boys, the regulars; they would have us believe it.’ Brodie’s laugh was sour. ‘But then this is our first Christmas at the front, which is strange in itself. I don’t think they’ll stop the shelling on our account, lowly shepherds as we are.’ Venus stood close to the earth and in dull monotone, Douglas recited the Christmas story. The arrival of Aird and Drummond put him out of an obvious misery.
‘Merry Christmas, Sir.’ The two officers stood in the middle of the group taking the Christmas greetings of their men.
‘Sar’nt Major? Shall we make the rounds of the men?’ The smile was tentative. A first for the Rifles, seeing Alastair Aird; merchant’s son from Anstruther, break the frown. As the Western Front quietened into Christmas morning, the German gunners fired a star-shell into the sky above no-man’s land. This gift floated for long minutes, illuminating upturned faces.
‘Celestial Light.’ Their Captain’s remark brought the low murmur of approval. Tight, white smiles warmed the frosty air, and Drummond handed a bottle to Douglas. ‘For the men. French Brandy. Good quality.’ He monitored their reaction. ‘No… It’s like a good whisky. Believe me…’ Brodie left with the two officers whilst Rab worked the cork from the alcohol.
‘Well did ye see that arrogant wee bastard, Aird?’ Stewart’s smile was devilish. ‘A smile? Must have been too much red meat up at Division. Shall we make the rounds of the men, Sargeant Major?’ The mimicry was perfect. Even Douglas raised a grin. The brandy launched Christmas 1917, and for a time, the cutting cold was driven off.
‘Here. What aboot the cake?’ Rab’s mother had sent him a clootie dumpling. Heavy; rich in fruit; robust enough to have survived the tortuous journey from Scotland.
‘It goes really weel wae the French whisky.’ The laughter was unconfined. It felt good. Conspiratorial. Their thoughts flew across the miles. ‘Here’s tae them that’s hame before us.’ Stewart’s toast was brightened by the second star-shell.
Before the dawn of Christmas Morning, the German bombardment drove down the choir of angels. The watchful shepherds scrambled to the firing step. An ecstasy of fumbling. The line came unbidden to Brodie. From a poem he didn’t recognise. Apt for a Christmas stand-to.
‘I imagine they might come for us when their bombardment stops. Perfect timing, don’t you think, Sir?’ Aird gave curt acknowledgement to his adjutant; unheard above the cacophany. ‘Almost as though Gerry knows of our imminent departure. The handover to the colonials.’
‘If that’s the case, they’re a week early, Jimmy. If they keep this up there won’t be anything to hand over to the Australians.’ The mordant humour was unusual for the Colonel, so Drummond laughed for the two of them. As if to prove his C.O. prophetic, a large section of the trench collapsed, a hundred feet from them. The crump crump of the heavy mortar had been followed by violent reverberation. The blast beat at their ears and a downpour of earth pattered against tin helmets. ‘Better go see what’s happening up there, your Lordship.’
Jimmy Drummond bullied a path through the floor of the trench; an alley-way for the stretchers. A sombre audience, pushed to the firing step, stood above the dead and dying.
‘Don’t the bastards know it’s Christmas?’ Stewart turned to look at his corporal. ‘Well?’ Douglas shook bowed head, putting his friend to shame and silence.
‘This is man. Men who do this in the name of their own jealous, merciless God.’ Douglas looked beaten. ‘It’s not made worse because…in some mysterious way… we celebrate the birth of a saviour.’ His voice rose. ‘We worship the Son of Man and massacre his children through the whole year.’
‘Sorry, pal…I know it’s no your fault.’
‘Isn’t it, though?’ Douglas looked away from the stretchered bodies. ‘Isn’t it…’
In the early afternoon the shelling shuddered to a sharp silence.
‘Stand To! Stand To!’ Men rose from the dubious shelter of the trench floor. And the line of poetry came to Brodie, along with the rest of it.
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria Mori”