CHAPER IX.

OUR FIRST CHRISTMAS IN FRANCE.



    THE 25th of December 1915, was to be our first Christmas in France, and as the day approached there was much speculation among our men as to which Battalions would be in the line. At last orders came out that the 13th and 16th Battalions would relieve the 14th and 15th on Christmas Eve. I determined, therefore, to spend my Christmas with the former two. Our trenches at that time were in front of Ploegsteert. The 16th was on the right and the 13th on the left. Taking my bag with communion vessels and as many hymn books as I could carry, and with a haversack over my shoulder containing requisites for the night, I was motored over on Christmas Eve to the 3rd Brigade Headquarters at the Petit Moncque Farm. The day was rainy and so was not calculated to improve the spirits and temper of the men who were going to spend their first Christmas in the line. At dusk I walked up the road to Hill 63, and then down on the other side to Le Plus Douve Farm. It was not a cheerful Christmas Eve. The roads were flooded with water, and the transports that were waiting for the relief were continually getting tangled up with one another in the darkness. To make matters worse, I was met by a Sergeant who told me he had some men to be buried, and a burial party was waiting on the side of the road. We went into the field which was used as a cemetery and there we laid the bodies to rest.
    The Germans had dammed the river Douve, and it had flooded some of the fields and old Battalion Headquarters. It was hard to find one’s way in the dark, and I should never have done so without assistance. The men had acquired the power of seeing in the dark, like cats.
    A Battalion was coming out and the men were wet and muddy. I stood by the bridge watching them pass and, thinking it was the right and conventional thing to do, wished them all a Merry Christmas. My intentions were of the best, but I was afterwards told that it sounded to the men like the voice of one mocking them in their misery. However, as it turned out, the wish was fulfilled on the next day.
    As soon as I could cross the bridge, I made my way to the trenches [Page 118] which the 16th Battalion were taking over. They were at higher level and were not in a bad condition. Further up the line there was a barn known as St. Quentin’s Farm, which for some reason or other, although it was in sight of the enemy, had not been demolished and was used as a billet. I determined therefore to have a service of Holy Communion at midnight, when the men would all have come into the line and settled down. About eleven o’clock I got things ready. The officers and men had been notified of the service and began to assemble. The barn was a fair size and had dark red brick walls. The roof was low and supported by big rafters. The floor was covered with yellow straw about two feet in depth. The men proceeded to search for a box which I could use as an altar. All they could get were three large empty biscuit tins. These we covered with my Union Jack and white linen cloth. A row of candles was stuck against the wall, which I was careful to see were prevented from setting fire to the straw. The dull red tint of the brick walls, the clean yellow straw, and the bright radiance of our glorious Union Jack made a splendid combination of colour. It would have been a fitting setting for a tableau of the Nativity.
    The Highlanders assembled in two rows and I handed out hymn books. There were many candles in the building so the men were able to read. It was wonderful to hear in such a place and on such an occasion, the beautiful old hymns, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The men sang them lustily and many and varied were the memories of past Christmases that welled up in their thoughts at that time.
    I had a comfortable bunk in one of the dugouts that night, and was up next morning early to spend the day among the men in the line. I was delighted to find that the weather had changed and a most glorious day was lighting up the face of nature. The sky overhead was blue and only a few drifting clouds told of the rain that had gone. The sun was beating down warm and strong, as if anxious to make up for his past neglect. The men, of course, were in high spirits, and the glad hand-shake and the words “A Merry Christmas” had got back their old-time meaning.
    The Colonel had given orders to the men not to fire on the enemy that day unless they fired on us. The Germans had evidently come to the same resolution. Early in the morning some of them had [Page 119] come over to our wire and left two bottles of beer behind as a peace offering. The men were allowed to go back to their trenches unmolested, but the two bottles of beer quite naturally and without any difficulty continued their journey to our lines. When I got up to the front trench, I found our boys standing on the parapet and looking over at the enemy. I climbed up, and there, to my astonishment, I saw the Germans moving about in their trenches apparently quite indifferent to the fact that we were gazing at them. One man was sawing wood. Between us and them lay that mass of wire and iron posts which is known as they mysterious “No Man’s Land.” Further down the hill we saw the trenches of the 13th Battalion, where apparently intermittent “Straffing” was still going on. Where we were, however, there was nothing to disturb our Christmas peace and joy. I actually got out into “No Mans Land” and wandered down it. Many Christmas parcels had arrived and the men were making merry with their friends, and enjoying the soft spring-like air, and the warm sunshine. When I got down to the 13th Battalion however, I found that I had to take cover, as the German snipers and guns were active. I did not have any service for that Battalion then, as I was going to them on the following Sunday, but at evening I held another midnight service for those of the 16th who were on duty the night before.

    The only place available was the billet of the Machine Gun Officer in the second trench. It was the cellar of a ruined building and the entrance was down some broken steps. One of the sergeants had cleaned up the place and a shelf on the wall illuminated by candles was converted into an altar, and the dear old flag, the symbol of liberty, equality and fraternity, was once again my altar cloth. The Machine Gun Officer, owing to our close proximity to the enemy, was a little doubtful as to the wisdom of our singing hymns, but finally allowed us to do so. The tiny room and the passage outside were crowded with stalwart young soldiers, whose voices sang out the old hymns as though the Germans were miles away. Our quarters were so cramped that the men had difficulty in squeezing into the room for communion and could not kneel down. The service was rich and beautiful in the heartfelt devotion of men to whom, in their great need, religion was a real and vital thing. Not long after midnight, once again the pounding of the old war was resumed, and as I went to bed in the dugout that night, I felt from what a sublime height the world had dropped. [Page 120] We had two more war Christmases in France, but I always look back upon that first one as something unique in its beauty and simplicity.
    When I stood on the parapet that day looking over at the Germans in their trenches, and thought how two great nations were held back for a time in their fierce struggle for supremacy, by their devotion to a little Child born in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years before, I felt that there was still promise of a regenerated world. The Angels had not sung in vain their wonderful hymn “Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace, Good Will towards men.” [Page 121]