By W. E. Turley, First C.E.F.
December 15, 1926
“Out since Mons” blinked all the way across the Channel in the dark. The salt spray lashed his wet cheeks. He was a tough nut – No. 3427, Pte. William A. Smith, of the Royal Gloucestershire Reg. “Out since Mons” they called him when he was mucking about up the line. His mother would call him “Will” in the morning. His chums would call him “Billy,” and the children in the village where he hailed from would think of famous funny pictures born of the war and laughingly point him out as “Old Bill.”
“Well,” the warrior, who was homeward bound on Christmas leave, murmured to himself as he thought of home and Christmas Day, “they can call me what they bloomin’ well please so long as they don’t call me too late for breakfast Christmas morning, and so long as I can eat mother’s plum pudding and mince pies at dinner, and so long as they let me drink my fill of mulled ale at night.” He smiled down at a walloping wave. “They can call me ‘Fritz’ for all I care,” he confided to the tossing waters. “I don’t care – Home for Christmas – S’Trewth – who’d ha’ thought it?”
Folkestone and London meant nothing to Bill. His eyes were ever looking westward. He was what they called a shire man, a “clodhopper,” a yokel, bred in the Severn valley, simple, strong, stolid, and wondrously calm in the face of deathly danger. There were roads in the west country he wanted to tread, wayside mills he would halt at, folds and forges to linger by. Seven days to do it in. The smell of wet fern in his nostrils from the common lands, the song of birds, the stories by the fire, the wagoners and cowmen he could converse with in the village inn. He was a soldier – home from the wars. Not the kind of soldier who had worn the suit of mail that stood in the hall of the Squire’s house. Just a common foot soldier. No dashing knight. Merely one of the long line of yeomen who had borne the brunt for Britain for a thousand years.
He was a soldier, and a mighty good one at that, so when he found himself in the train which was to carry him within five miles of his home he did what most home-going soldiers do. He went to sleep. At a wayside station a talkative man got aboard the carriage in which he rode.
His entry disturbed the slumbering soldier. The stranger proffered a cigar. Bill lit it and looked out at the green meadows and fat kine. “Just back from the front,” I see, remarked the donor of the smoke. “Yes,” Bill replied. “Must be awful out there,” sympathized the civilian. “Aw,” grunted Bill. “Out since Mons?” queried the traveller. “Um-um,” said Bill. The man in the mufti talked a lot about the Mons affair. He knew all about the horrors of warfare. He told Bill how bad things were on the Somme. He explained the solving of the munitions problem. He glorified Lloyd George. He excused his absence from the front on the grounds of physical unfitness for war, but assured the somnolent soldier that he was doing his bit right at home.
Bill believed him. He said so. That was all he said. By that time his mind was several miles ahead of the train. He was greeting his mother and dad. The intruder persisted in his questioning of William. He implored the soldier to enter into details of engagements the Gloucesters had won fame in. Bill squirmed uneasily in his seat. For a full minute he silently watched the landscape sliding by the window of the compartment the two men rode in. The civilian tapped him urgently on the knee. “Tell me about Mons,” he insisted; “I read all about it – and the other shows you fellows were in, but tell me about Mons.”
“Well, if you want to know,” responded Bill heavily, “it was a bit ’ot; that’s all I knows about it” – and, having said so, he stretched himself on the seat, threw away his cigar butt, closed his eyes, and shut his ears to the babblings of his companion.
Bill had a mighty good time on Christmas day. The carol signers came at dawn and roused him with:
“Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant;
Come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;
O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him;
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”
Bill had sung that carol many times in boyhood. It never sounded quite as sweet as it did that morning. He jumped out of bed to chime in, and discovered a little huskiness in his voice. Dry, clean sheets sometimes caused front line soldiers to take cold after sleeping in the damp dug-outs of Flanders. But Bill was down at the open door, his arms around the neck of his mother when the carol singers commenced the second stave of their harmonious greeting:
“All hail the power of Jesus’ name,
Let angels prostrate fall
Bring forth the royal diadem
And crown Him, crown Him,
Crown Him Lord of all.”
To Bill it seemed that not even the angels in heaven could sing any better than the children next door to him then. They were singing an old favorite:
“Sing we all merrily, Christmas is here,
Days that we love, best days in the year;
Bring forth the holly, the box, and the bay;
Deck out the cottage for glad Christmas Day.”
His mother was weeping gently. She explained that she was so glad to have him there when the children were caroling she just had to cry, and he let it go at that, though he smiled happily when the children burst into song again with:
“Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green;
Here we come a wandering so fair to be seen.”
He enjoyed every word of it, just as he reveled in the more stately measure of the village choir a little later in the day when their voices blended in grand old Noel.
“It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old;
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold.”
That night, when the lamps were lit and the yule log blazed in the open fireplace, his grandfather came to sit with the rest of the family and lend his quavering voice to the songs and hymns, carols and chanteys of rural England. All ate and drank their fill. All were merry that night, though a mournful cadence crept into their tones when singing:
“Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies His head with the beast of the stall;
Angels adore Him in slumber reclining;
Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all.”
Just before he went to bed, family and friends all sang together a carol which sent Bill bravely back to the horrors of war, nobly into the shadows of the valley of death, and gloriously into the realization of the promise which seemed to stand forth with such special emphasis that Christmas night:
“There may we hope, the angelic hosts among,
To sing redeemed a glad triumphant song;
He that was born upon this joyful day,
Around us all His glory shall display;
Saved by His love, incessant we shall sing,
Eternal praise to heaven’s Almighty King.”
* * *
He had not been in the trenches forty-eight hours after returning from leave before a sniper’s bullet entered his right shoulder as he crawled, and ploughed through the length of his body, emerging at the left hip, and leaving him face down to the wet earth till a comrade found him there next day – a corpse returning to the soil from which he sprang.
In the pocket of his blood-stained tunic, along with his service Testament, was found a popular penny edition of “Christmas Carols.” Those quoted in this story were underlined, and when one who stood beside his grave returned to the village from whence Bill came he was told that the carols indicated had all been sung when Pte. William Smith, of the Royal Gloucestershire Regiment, spent his last leave at home.
“He never mentioned ’em,” said the soldier who talked to Bill’s mother, “and I never heard him sing any of ’em. When he came back I asked him if he’d a good time, and he said, ‘O, aw, it was a bit ’ot Christmas Day,’ and I thought perhaps he had been drinking. Good old Bill, he was a rare game ’un – a credit to his mother – and I’ll wager he sings them carols every Christmas time in heaven.”