Square jaws, trench music and a grim Christmas story


I’m still looking for, and finding,  anecdotes about British soldiers and their songs and music. Here’s a story from The Square Jaw, the English translation of La Mâchoire Carrée (1917), an account of fighting in the British part of the line, by the French journalists Henry Ruffin et André Tudesq. It compresses a lot of the tropes of the trenches into a small space – Singing, communication across No-Man’s-Land, the ‘Hymn of Hate’, the British soldier’s love of sarcastic parody, ritual attacks and counter-attacks, boredom…

Among the Germans, a homesick Silesian began to sing some of the carols of his own country. His voice rose freshly into the fresh night. At the same time on the English side, a Highlander, stirred by the sweetness of the autumn evening, blew a few shrill notes upon his fife. The voice of the man and the fife supported one another, and so a concert began, a concert of old songs, the simple happy songs of the peasant. The English shouted to the Germans, “Give us Gott Strafe England!” and the Germans obliged with the “Song of Hate.” “Encore! Encore!” cried the Highlander, whose fife was seeking to catch the air that the enemy was singing. The song began again, the fife supporting it. Then it was taken up by all the English. But to what sort of a rhythm! The “Song of Hate,” slow as plain song, had suddenly become, as it crossed the trenches, a crazy, jerky, rollicking ragtime, a tune for the can-can. The Germans supposed that they were being chaffed. By way of applause, they let fly a shower of bombs. To this compliment the English replied in kind. Then the night closed down upon a boredom more dreadful than ever.

The original French edition, one notes, was published by Thomas Nelson. The firm had strong connections with Wellington House (Buchan was the firm’s literary advisor, and later a co-director), and I suspect that this volume in praise of the ‘square-jawed’ British and Empire troops  was probably encouraged into being as a British initiative. It told the French what I suppose they wanted to hear, that the Brits (the Scots especially) were both tough and implacable

For example, the last chapter is a grim Christmas anecdote a long way in spirit from the ‘Christmas truce’ stories that are so popular these days:

The setting is not a Biblical one. If, indeed, this cursed spot can possibly recall the Book of Books, we must search the chapter of immortal horrors in the Book of Revelation.

No vegetation will grow there within the next ten years; no ghost of a tree or shadow of a house; the moon reveals the troubled earth whose chalky mud is as a festering sore.

There is universal destruction, as though a huge tidal-wave, overrunning the plain and the valley, had been struck by God’s anger and checked in the full force of its rolling waters. The evening of the last day could bring no greater melancholy. Three horrors rule this strip of land—Fright, Death and Frost. A bitter cold night with a starry sky—such was Christmas in “No Man’s Land.”

And what of “man”? Here we have a Scotsman from the mountains, gaunt, dour, wiry, with lynx-like eyes, the lusty chest of a woodman and the soul of a hermit. Like hundreds of thousands and tens of hundreds of thousands of his brother-soldiers, he had held the line in front of Ypres, Loos and Arras. Like the soldiers of England, Ireland and Wales, he had known the mist of Flanders, the marshes of the mine country, the mossy peat of Artois. Like his fellows, he is weary. With his grey-steel helmet, the leathern, fleece-lined waistcoat and the leggings of buffalo-hide which show up the muscles of his legs, you might think he was a centurion of the Roman Empire. Like all the others, his name is Tommy.

This Christmas Night Tommy has a care. The “bonnie Highland lassie” whom he was courting in the good old days, when Highlanders had not yet earned the ferocious nick-name of the “square-jawed,” had written to him that morning asking for a souvenir. A souvenir!

Those of you who have not seen Tommy, notwithstanding the certainty of punishment, bartering his regimental badges or buttons in exchange for a kiss from some village beauty, can hardly understand this superstitious worship of “a souvenir.” That word sums up all the dangers, hardships and glories of war, and is considered the surest of love tokens. But for soldiers of His Majesty’s Guards the real souvenir is the one snatched from the enemy in mortal combat. The day after the Battle of the Ancre—that is, the day after the attack and victory—I saw little groups of men scattered over the battlefield indifferent to hostile barrages and machine-gun fire. These men, crawling from shell-hole to shell-hole, looked only on the ground. They were souvenir hunting.

Now for our story. Tommy is in a listening post—a crump-hole between the two trenches surrounded with barbed wire. The Germans are 30 yards in front and the British 10 yards behind him. He hears the enemy’s observers behind their loopholes stamping their feet to keep them warm. Small clouds shade the moon. A heavy silence pervades the frozen earth. This Highlander is alone in “No Man’s Land.”

Is he thinking of the Christmas turkey, brown and crackling in its juice, which has been carefully fattened at the farm at home; of the plum-pudding, aflame with brandy, done to a turn by his bonnie lassie? Is he thinking of the dying embers and the midnight kiss, stolen or given—who knows? No; Tommy is simply thinking of “souvenirs.”

Twice already, but in vain, he has searched his crump-hole. He can’t find the smallest relic. Creeping under the knife rests, and separating with care the ring of wire which the British call “trench concertina wire,” he drags himself on his stomach through the wire system. These iron blackberries catch hold of him and prick him. He likens himself to one of those great trench rats on a poaching foray.

Suddenly his hand falls upon a human form. The body is cold—a corpse! He remembers, a week ago, an evening patrol was caught by our artillery fire, and this is one of them. “No Man’s Land” in this sector is not particularly healthy, and grave-diggers are dispensed with. This dried-up corpse was so much part of the landscape that Tommy had not noticed it. He now looks at it with a friendly eye. “Poor old Boche! Poor old lump of souvenirs!” Tommy is a simple fellow. He goes straight for what he wants. He first thought he would take the identity-disc. That would be a fine souvenir; but the corpse has no arms, so he gives up that idea. “D——d artillery that spoils even corpses!” he grumbles, and then feels for the legs. Perhaps the old Boche keeps a knife in his right legging. “Damn again! There is no right leg—nor left either!” If only a sharp breeze were to lift the clouds from the moon, the wide-open eyes of the observers would discover in “No Man’s Land” a great lusty Highlander, white as a sheet or as the whitest of white Pierrots.

Suddenly our Highlander is seized with a mixture of horror and rage, added to which there is a feeling of weird pride. The living and the dead have made a ghastly Christmas bet.

Tommy hovers over this wreck of a man. He seizes the Boche’s head—of course, the helmet, badges and bandolier have disappeared.

The corpse, as though from the depths of the other world, gives a horrid laugh. Tommy forces his fingers into the grinning mouth, but the jaws shut with a spring—like a mousetrap. False teeth! Tommy, exasperated, seizes the grim trophy.

The bonnie lassie will receive shortly a gold brooch inscribed with her name and Tommy’s. She will wear it proudly at church. She will make her friends jealous without anyone ever suspecting the real history of the souvenir. Perhaps it is as well!

Now this is not a Christmas story, but a real fact, which happened on the evening of “Everyman’s” Christmas among the outposts before Grandcourt.

Tudesq and Laffin
Tudesq and Laffin

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