December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
A World War I soldier writes home about the Christmas holiday in his hospital, "one of the merriest, happiest seasons of my life"
December, 1918; the war was over. There was special reason for cheer that Christmas, particularly for those who had done the fighting, even for those who had been cut down and now waited for their wounds to heal in France before returning home. It shines through the following letter, written on January 10, 1919, from a hospital in Mesves, France, and recently discovered by Rita Cheronis of Deerfield, Illinois, who was kind enough to pass it along to us. The writer is Lieutenant Angélus T. Burch and the letter is addressed to his family in Kansas. Burch went on to become a journalist and at one time was associate editor of the Chicago Daily News. It would be nice to imagine that this engaging young man ended up marrying “The Light of Heaven.” But he didn’t .
A couple of letters ago I promised to tell you something about the Christmas holidays in a hospital. For me it was one of the merriest, happiest seasons of my life, despite the mud and rain, and the skeleton of home-sickness that is always skulking around in some dark closet of our minds.
In each ward there are about fifty beds, arranged in two rows, with an aisle between, to fit the long, narrow buildings. Somewhere about the middle of the room there is a stove, generally surrounded by a poker game. In my own particular ward there were only two bed patients. One of them bunked next to me—a captain with a broken femur and numerous holes in him. … The other one is a young lieutenant named Burtram. He has a broken foot, a broken arm, and the ball of his hip joint is shattered by a rifle bullet in the socket. The story of his wounding—he got his three shots separately, and it took all of them to put him out of action, proves that he has a fine nerve, too. But he is very uncomfortable, with much infection, and has a horrible bed-sore. … The result was that when Burtram didn’t sleep, none of us did; it was worse because they were trying to wean him from the morphine. The rest of us mostly all recovered and awaiting orders, or only slightly wounded. … Personally, I was always better off. Smith and I loved to go to La Charité without leave; and there were the fine evening dinners at the Frenchman’s in Bulez —forty francs for four; and there was Mary Alexander’s friend, the Red Haired Girl that went trout fishing with me.
But the ward in general had nothing to do except play poker and curse the medicos—unless it was to play black-jack and curse the quartermasters, or to play pinochle and curse the military police. They led an idle life, without exercise, composed entirely of some combination of cards and curses. …
The Christmas spirit began to make itself known in these surroundings several days before the event. There was a subtle change in the atmosphere, due partly, perhaps, to the secret importations of cognac on an increasing scale, but more, I think, to something spiritual rather than spiritous. The Red Cross people started to organize scout parties for Christmas decorations nearly a week in advance of the day. There is fine wooded country all around Mesves, with lots of evergreens- pine and spruce and fir—and some holly. Mistletoe is the commonest thing in the world. Great bunches of it, like monstrous birds’ nests, hang on all the trees. You can get bushels of it for the climbing after it.
Quite a lot of competition developed between the different wards and the different hospitals in the matter of decorations. We tacked up pine branches wherever a nail would hold. Somebody got a lot of red and green paper streamers and bunting and strewed them all over the place. The morning before Christmas there was a life-sized, genuine Christmas tree set up in every ward, and the nurses and the Red Cross workers spent the whole day trimming them with tinsel and candles and toys and all manner of cheerful junk. … The flowing bowl and bottle passed clandestinely from hand to hand. When I went out that evening to dance with The Light of Heaven, as the red-headed one was familiarly known to me, the nurse and the two bed patients were the only sober ones left in the place—and there were some doubts about them, except the nurse. Poor Burtram, who had not groaned or whimpered the whole day, was actually singing—he who could hardly speak for weakness ordinarily. My impressions were confirmed by the orderly the next day when he said, “By God, if I’d of give him another sip of that toddy, he’d a been out climbing trees!”
I bought a pair of boots to go to the dance in, having no footwear left except my Fort Sill hobnails that were on me when it happened, back in November. It was a fine dance; and The Light of Heaven is the lightest, most responsive partner that I ever had. They had it in one of the Red Cross recreation huts, on a well-waxed concrete floor. You wouldn’t believe that you could put a waltzing surface on concrete—but you can. There was a whole band up on the stage, and they played wondrously. To make the evening complete, I quarreled with an engineer lieutenant, slightly awash with good cheer, who bothered Mary Alexander. We abused each other in some of the most uncomplimentary language I have ever heard, and we were filled with a great desire to punch each other’s heads; a captain came up and led him away by the scruff of the neck, e’er my valor was put to the test, which was God’s mercy, for he was a big man. In short, it was a merrie, merrie night of galantine, and I had a regular heluva time. …
Well, when we parted The Light of Heaven called me God’s Child and gave me three Christmas presents. Three, mind you. I took ‘em home all wrapped up, and because it was past midnight, and thereby lawful, I took ‘em into the office and unwrapped ‘em, even in the presence of the night nurse. One was a marvelous little cannon, with a limber that unhooked and little horses that unhitched. One was a whole box full of the finest fudge I ever ate, and the third was a little Kodak picture of herself in a kind of a belt-buckle frame. I carry it still—not next my heart, but in my pocket book with my “soap wrappers” (as we call the French money). …
I gave Miss Randall—which is the Light’s real name—a whole bag full of dolls and toys and figs and dates and such like things, for the fun of seeing her unwrap each new surprise. But I didn’t want it all to be a joke, so I gave her roses and a green vase to put them in also. That was before the dance. After the dance I gave her a little crystal phial of “Houbigants Quelques Fleurs” perfume, put up in a blue box, and another blue box in exactly the same style of Houbigants “Quelques Fleurs” powder—they are made as a combination, with exactly the same scent, and they are the very finest in France, which is to say, in the whole world.
Early the next morning, before it was light, a sextette of nurses from our hospital, all dressed in white, came with candles in their hands and stood beside our Christmas tree and sang, “Holy Night, Silent Night.” My God, it was beautiful. I tell you that there was more than one of us almost had to bury his emotions under his pillow. …
Well—we all cursed them for waking us up (after they had left the ward, of course), and then went back to sleep. The day nurses and orderlies let us be till about ten thirty, when they brought in strong black coffee, that was good for all of us, tho’ more necessary for others than for me, who am a Kansan and a total abstainer. After that the orderlies swept out the bottles, and we got ready for dinner. For once it was a real dinner, with all the turkey you could eat. Beside every man’s plate, moreover, was a proud can of Lowney’s chocolates, that didn’t cost a cent.
Somebody discovered that my cannon would shoot matches with considerable accuracy and force. That afforded us infinite entertainment. One brilliant artillery officer even found out how to make it shoot with incendiary effect. The procedure was as follows: Load the projectile match and pull back the spring. Then place a lighted match in front of the muzzle and release the spring. The projectile match passes thru the flame and is ignited! With luck it will remain alight throughout the trajectory. With this redoubtable weapon the artillery officers attacked the infantry officers, and at least succeeded in attracting their attention after successfully burning up a newspaper which one of them was reading.
That night I took The Light of Heaven and her ukulele over to Base 72—Mary’s hospital. On the way we found a quartette of enlisted men serenading aimlessly and at large. They had fine voices and a good assortment of stuff, so we fell them in and marched them with us to do minstrelsy to our huts. They stayed the whole evening, and added the last touch of merriment to one of the merriest Christmas days I ever had.