Here is an account of Christmas 1916 and New Year 1917 by the star of the music hall stage Harry Lauder from his book “A Minstrel in France.”
I think it is one of the most moving stories of that Christmas 1916. Harry’s son Captain John Lauder of the First 8th, Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders was killed in France on 28th December 1916.
Here he recounts with heartbreak the Christmas he had and devastating news that followed.
That winter I was in the big revue at the Shaftesbury Theatre, in London, that was called “Three Cheers.” It was one of the gay shows that London liked because it gave some relief from the war and made the Zeppelin raids that the Huns were beginning to make so often now a little easier to bear. And it was a great place for the men who were back from France. It was partly because of them that I could go on as I did. We owed them all we could give them. And when they came back from the mud and the grime and the dreariness of the trenches, they needed something to cheer them up–needed the sort of production we gave them. A man who has two days’ leave in London does not want to see a serious play or a problem drama, as a rule. He wants something light, with lots of pretty girls and jolly tunes and people to make him laugh. And we gave him that. The house was full of officers and men, night after night.
Soon word came from John that he was to have leave, just after Christmas that would bring him home for the New Year’s holidays. His mother went home to make things ready, for John was to be married when he got his leave. I had my plans all made. I meant to build a wee hoose for the two of them, near our own hoose at Dunoon, so that we might be all together, even though my laddie was in a home of his own. And I counted the hours and the days against the time when John would be home again.
While we were playing at the Shaftesbury I lived at an hotel in Southampton Row called the Bonnington. But it was lonely for me there. On New Yea r’s Eve–it fell on a Sunday–Tom Vallance, my brother-in-law, asked me to tea with him and his family in Clapham,
where he lived. That is a pleasant place, a suburb of London on the southwest, and I was glad to go. And so I drove out with a friend of mine, in a taxicab, and was glad to get out of the crowded part of the city for a time.
I did not feel right that day. Holiday times were bad, hard times for me then. We had always made so much of Christmas, and here was the third Christmas that our boy had been away. And so I was depressed. And then, there had been no word for me from John for a day or two. I was not worried, for I thought it likely that his mother or his sweetheart had heard, and had not time yet to let me know. But, whatever the reason, I was depressed and blue, and I could not enter into the festive spirit that folk were trying to keep alive despite the war.
I must have been poor company during that ride to Clapham in the taxicab. We scarcely exchanged a word, my friend and I. I did not feel like talking, and he respected my mood, and kept quiet him self. I felt, at last, that I ought to apologize to him.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me,” I told him. “I simply don’t want to talk. I feel sad and lonely. I wonder if my boy is all right?”
“Of course he is!” my friend told me. “Cheer up, Harry. This is a time when no news is good news. If anything were wrong with him they’d let you know.”
Well, I knew that, too. And I tried to cheer up, and feel better, so that I would not spoil the pleasure of the others at Tom Vallance’s house. I tried to picture John as I thought he must be–well, and happy, and smiling the old, familiar boyish smile I knew so well. I had sent him a box of cigars only a few days before, and he would be handing it around among his fellow officers. I knew that! But it was no use. I could think of John, but it was only with sorrow and longing. And I wondered if this same time in a year would see him still out there, in the trenches. Would this war ever end? And so the shadows still hung about me when we reached Tom’s house.
They made me very welcome, did Tom and all his family. They tried to cheer me, and Tom did all he could to make me feel better, and to reassure me. But I was still depressed when we left the house and began the drive back to London.
“It’s the holiday–I’m out of gear with that, I’m thinking,” I told my friend.
He was going to join two other friends, and, with them, to see the New Year in in an old fashioned way, and he wanted me to join them. But I did not feel up to it; I was not in the mood for anything of the sort.
“No, no, I’ll go home and turn in,” I told him. “I’m too dull tonight to be good company.”
He hoped, as we all did, that this New Year that was coming would bring victory and peace. Peace could not come without victory; we were all agreed on that. But we all hoped that the New Year would bring both–the new year of 1917. And so I left him at the corner of Southhampton Row, and went back to my hotel alone. It was about midnight, a little before, I think, when I got in, and one of the porters had a message for me.
“Sir Thomas Lipton rang you up,” he said, “and wants you to speak with him when you come in.”
I rang him up at home directly.
“Happy New Year, when it comes, Harry!” he said. He spoke in the same bluff, hearty way he always did. He fairly shouted in my ear. “When did you hear from the boy? Are you and Mrs. Lauder well?”
“Aye, fine,” I told him. And I told him my last news of John.
“Splendid!” he said. “Well, it was just to talk to you a minute that I rang you up, Harry. Good-night–Happy New Year again.”
I went to bed then. But I did not go to sleep for a long time. It was New Year’s, and I lay thinking of my boy, and wondering what this year would bring him. It was early in the morning before I slept. And it seemed to me that I had scarce been asleep at all when there came a pounding at the door, loud enough to rouse the heaviest sleeper there ever was.
My heart almost stopped. There must be something serious indeed for them to be rousing me so early. I rushed to the door, and there was a porter, holding out a telegram. I took it and tore it open. And I knew why I had felt as I had the day before. I shall never forget what I read:
“Captain John Lauder killed in action, December 28. Official. War Office.”
It had gone to Mrs. Lauder at Dunoon first, and she had sent it on to me. That was all it said. I knew nothing of how my boy had died, or where–save that it was for his country.
But later I learned that when Sir Thomas Lipton had rung me up he had intended to condole with me. He had heard on Saturday of my boy’s death. But when he spoke to me, and understood at once, from the tone of my voice, that I did not know, he had not been able to go on. His heart was too tender to make it possible for him to be the one to give me that blow–the heaviest that ever befell me.
It was on Monday morning, January the first, 1917, that I learned of my boy’s death. And he had been killed the Thursday before! He had been dead four days before I knew it! And yet–I had known. Let no one ever tell me again that there is nothing in presentiment. Why else had I been so sad and uneasy in my mind? Why else, all through that Sunday, had it been so impossible for me to take comfort in what was said to cheer me? Some warning had come to me, some sense that all was not well.
Realization came to me slowly. I sat and stared at that slip of paper, that had come to me like the breath of doom. Dead! Dead these four days! I was never to see the light of his eyes again. I was never to hear that laugh of his. I had looked on my boy for the last time. Could it be true? Ah, I knew it was! And it was for this moment that I had been waiting, that we had all been waiting, ever since we had sent John away to fight for his country and do his part. I think we had all felt that it must come. We had all known that it was too much to hope that he should be one of those to be spared.
The black despair that had been hovering over me for hours closed down now and enveloped all my senses. Everything was unreal. For a time I was quite numb. But then, as I began to realize and to visualize what it was to mean in my life that my boy was dead there came a great pain. The iron of realization slowly seared every word of that curt telegram upon my heart. I said it to myself, over and over again. And I whispered to myself, as my thoughts took form, over and over, the one terrible word: “Dead!”
I felt that for me everything had come to an end with the reading of that dire message. It seemed to me that for me the board of life was black and blank. For me there was no past and there could be no future. Everything had been swept away, erased, by one sweep of the hand of a cruel fate. Oh, there was a past, though! And it was in that past that I began to delve. It was made up of every memory I had of my boy. I fell at once to remembering him. I clutched at every memory, as if I must grasp them and make sure of them, lest they be taken from me as well as the hope of seeing him again that the telegram had forever snatched away.
I would have been destitute indeed then. It was as if I must fix in my mind the way he had been wont to look, and recall to my ears every tone of his voice, every trick of his speech. There was something left of him that I must keep, I knew, even then, at all costs, if I was to be able to bear his loss at all.
There was a vision of him before my eyes. My bonnie Highland laddie, brave and strong in his kilt and the uniform of his country, going out to his death with a smile on his face. And there was another vision that came up now, unbidden. It was a vision of him lying stark and cold upon the battlefield, the mud on his uniform. And when I saw that vision I was like a man gone mad and possessed of devils who had stolen away his faculties. I cursed war as I saw that vision, and the men who caused war. And when I thought of the Germans who had killed my boy a terrible and savage hatred swept me, and I longed to go out there and kill with my bare hands until I had avenged him or they had killed me too.
But then I was a little softened. I thought of his mother back in our wee hoose at Dunoon. And the thought of her, bereft even as I was, sorrowing, even as I was, and lost in her frightful loneliness, was pitiful, so that I had but the one desire and wish–to go to her, and join my tears with hers, that we who were left alone to bear our grief might bear it together and give one to the other such comfort as there might be in life for us. And so I fell upon my knees and prayed, there in my lonely room in the hotel. I prayed to God that he might give us both, John’s mother and myself, strength to bear the blow that had been dealt us and to endure the sacrifice that He and our country had demanded of us.
My friends came to me. They came rushing to me. Never did man have better friends, and kindlier friends than mine proved themselves to me on that day of sorrow. They did all that good men and women could do. But there was no help for me in the ministration of friends. I was beyond the power of human words to comfort or solace. I was glad
of their kindness, and the memory of it now is a precious one, and one I would not be without. But at such a time I could not gain from them what they were eager to give me. I could only bow my head and pray for strength.
That night, that New Year’s night that I shall never forget, no matter how long God may let me live, I went north. I took train from London to Glasgow, and the next day I came to our wee hoose–a sad, lonely wee hoose it had become now!–on the Clyde at Dunoon, and was with John’s mother. It was the place for me. It was there that I wanted to be, and it was with her, who must hereafter be all the world to me. And I was eager to be with her, too, who had given John to me. Sore as my grief was, stricken as I was, I could comfort her as no one else could hope to do, and she could do as much for me. We belonged together.
I can scarce remember, even for myself, what happened there at Dunoon. I cannot tell you what I said or what I did, or what words and what thoughts passed between John’s mother and myself. But there are some things that I do know and that I will tell you.
Almighty God, to whom we prayed, was kind, and He was pitiful and merciful. For presently He brought us both a sort of sad composure. Presently He assuaged our grief a little, and gave us the strength that we must have to meet the needs of life and the thought of going on in a world that was darkened by the loss of the boy in whom all our thoughts and all our hopes had been centred. I thanked God then, and I thank God now, that I have never denied Him nor taken His name in vain.
For God gave me great thoughts about my boy and about his death. Slowly, gradually, He made me to see things in their true light, and He took away the sharp agony of my first grief and sorrow, and gave me a sort of peace.
Sir Henry Lauder (4 August 1870 – 26 February 1950), known professionally as Harry Lauder, was a notable Scottish entertainer, described by Sir Winston Churchill as “Scotland’s greatest ever ambassador!”
For more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Lauder