Home for Christmas
When the boys went off to fight that first year, we thought it would be over fast. Everyone said they would be home for Christmas. It didn’t work out that way. Indeed it did not.
That year Wilfred was in France. No, not like that, not fighting at the Marne. He was tutoring Lord W’s two rowdy boys in Bordeaux. He was always the brightest of my children, such a lover of words, and gentle-like and kind. Not the sort that was meant to fight. Of course it wasn’t the easiest time for me, knowing my oldest was in a country at war, even if he was far from the front.
But it was Harold I worried about most then. Harold was in the merchant navy so I never laid my head on my pillow without praying for his safety, praying for Jesus to send an dreadful angel with a fiery sword to guard his ship against the U-boats. That first Christmas it was just me and Tom and Colin, who was too young to fight, and Mary. It was a sad Christmas, knowing that so many families didn’t have their sons at home. And already a couple of the boys on our street had died.
In 1915 Wilfred came home from France and signed to train as an officer with the Artists Rifles. I was a little surprised. He was so strongly against killing I thought he might not join at all, or at least that he might go to sea, like his brother. I could only pray that God would keep him from the fighting. He took the train from London to spend Christmas day with us, so it was only Harold that wasn’t with us that year. When he left I cried for fear that I might never see him again. So many young men had already been lost.
In 1916 Harold was called up for the Royal Navy. The U-boats had hit shipping very hard in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and he was needed to help defend the merchant fleet. It hurt my heart then to imagine he might drown at sea, and there were many times I didn’t know where he was. If I hadn’t had the comfort of my prayers, I would have gone mad with worry.
That was the year of the Somme as well. I thanked God every day that Wilfred spent this side of the channel. The lists of sunken ships and army dead were too hard to see and Harold’s peril was always with me, a heavy rock in my apron pocket as I went about my day, a sharp rock under my pillow at night.
When my neighbor Judith got a telegram that July, she banshee-shrieked so loudly that Mary and I both came running. She sobbed in unmitigated spasms and would not open it. I tried to calm her until Mary could run to the market and find her husband. We all knew what the telegram would say.
Harold could not be with us on Christmas day in 1916, but he came the third week in December. Wilfred had leave as well that Christmas. We had our Christmas dinner early, on the day that all three of my sons could be there, and the night Harold left after Tom had gone to sleep, all my fears escaped and trampled me like a runaway carriage. I left our bed and paced and sobbed uncontrollably. Harold was off once again to sea with all its watery hazards; Wilfred was bound for battle-torn France in January; and Colin, who was working at a farm outside of town talked endlessly of enlisting in the Royal Air Corps as soon as he was old enough. He was in love with aeroplanes. I was in terror that I would never have all my children together again. I thanked God that he had given me Mary, at least so I would not be left childless by this horrible war.
As I feared, Wilfred was not the sort to manage the rigors of battle. He could not be hardened and so he was broken. First he had a concussion and I hoped they would send him home. So many things weighed on him. His letters were full of mud and rats and stinking bodies. He had lost men and was particularly stricken by a boy that was blinded while keeping watch. But after his head injury healed, they sent him back.
The truth is, Harold’s letters never had much detail, but Wilfred’s made me feel his hurt so deeply that I began to worry more for his gentle soul. No night passed without me saying prayers for both of them, but I often wished that Wilfred had gone to sea and Harold to the trenches. I believe Harold could have borne it better.
Then Wilfred was sent back again. His C.O. said he was sick. Shell shock was what they called it, and we had all heard about it. Men broken by their war experience. I suppose I wasn’t surprised; I knew my boy. He wasn’t made for war. He was home for Christmas that year, but he was deeply changed. There seemed to be a flatness about him, an indifference to all things. He didn’t return to France until August, and he won a medal for bravery in October.
I can never forget the day of the Armistice. By 1918 we had come to feel that the boys never would be home for Christmas, not all of them, not all at once anyway. I have friends who never spent a Christmas after 1913 with their boys; so you see, I was lucky. But when Mary came in that morning and told us that the Germans were going to sign for peace, well I was thinking what all the mothers in Shrewsbury, all the mothers in England who still had sons on the continent were thinking: this time they really will be home for Christmas.
Of course we were all wondering if the war would really be over, or if it was just a rumor, but at eleven o’clock the church bells began to ring. That was it then, and the knock at the door would be neighbors coming in to share in the celebration. Mary answered it and came back into the house pale and stricken. In her hand was a telegram. “Who?”
“Wilfred, Mum, Wilfred.”