By Gregory Clark, December 19, 1931
The rumor was abroad in the regiment that the new Lieutenant Maybee Basset still believed in Santa Claus.
And, with some humor, everybody waited to learn what Sixteen platoon was going to do about it. For Sixteen platoon being the tail-end of any regiment, and marching next to the sick, lame and lazy, was always a collection of rogues and rascals that could be depended upon to do something about anything.
Mr. Basset was the newly-arrived officer of Sixteen. And the Weasel was his batman.
“I seen him,” said the Weasel, in his soft, sly voice, “saying his prayers. In his kit I found two suits of silk underwear. It was pink.”
Sixteen platoon, sitting, lying and lounging in the hay of its billet barn, received this juicy morsel of news with suitable uproar.
Nifty Smith, the prize fighter, who always lay back on his elbows like a boxer in his corner, said:
“I don’t mind that. That pink stuff. I think it’s time they was somebody different in Sixteen. The last two lieutenants we have had has been loud and yellow. I like this big guy Basset.”
“He writes letters,” said the Weasel, “all the time. To his mamma, I think.”
“I think he’s going to do all right,” said Schwartz, the cheese-eater, “but the regiment says he still believes in Santa Claus and I guess we got to do something about it.”
“We’ll be in the line for Christmas,” croaked Tobacca-chewin’ Martin hoarsely. “We ought to have a Christmas party for him. Maybe a Christmas tree. Or a little stocking hung on the parapet or something.”
“He’s soft lookin’, but I like him,” said Nifty Smith.
The Wessel, who had been batman for longer than anybody could remember, whom nobody loved because of his tattling ways, and whose sly voice always seemed to pick silences into which to creep, now said:
“I know a padre I can get a Santa Claus suit from. I’ll take it up the line and we can put on some kind of a razz for him.”
“We could take him,” said Tobacca-chewin’, eagerly, “out on patrol and he could capture Santa Claus!”
“There’s a swell idea,” said the Weasel, amid a chorus of agreement.
“You be Santa Claus,” said Schwartz, the cheese-eater, to the Weasel.
“Sure, if you birds will undertake that his gat hasn’t got any bullets in it!”
“That won’t be hard!”
So, on the eve of Christmas, when the regiment marched up the line, Lieutenant Basset walked at the head of the swaggering line of Sixteen platoon, little dreaming that he was to be the hero of another of that notorious platoon’s exploits.
The Weasel had the Santa Claus suit in his pack-sack. He had been unable to get one from any padre, but a French family a few miles back – so he said – which had been interested in theatricals before the war, had gladly fixed him up.
In secret, the platoon had all inspected the outfit, and the Weasel had put some of it on. It was old St. Nick himself.
We went in on the Loos-Hill Seventy front; and at Hulluch, where our front was, the No Man’s Land was barely fifty yards across.
“I wonder,” said Nifty Smith, who studied the ground, “if they is enough room for our little Christmas show?”
“Sure, there’s room,” said the Weasel, who had put himself heart and soul into the drama. “I got it all figured out. Christmas Eve, we can do some singing. You remember last Christmas? You could hear Fritz singing all over the line. Well, I know a German song. It goes like this: ‘Stille nacht, heilige nacht! I’ll teach it to you. Well, while we are singing this, and Fritz is singing it back at us, I can sneak out just a little way and lie there. Then you birds crawl out with Basset and just when you get close to where I’ll be, you leave him. I’ll make some sound and he can capture me. And in the dark he won’t know until he gets me back into the trench that I’m Santa Claus.”
“He’ll Be Scared Stiff”
“It sounds swell,” said Schwartz. “We ought to have somebody there, the colonel or somebody, to congratulate him.”
“As soon as we go out,” said Nifty Smith, “we could send word to the other officers that there was something funny on our front. And ask them to come and wait until Basset comes in.”
It was all settled.
And Lieutenant Basset, the day before Christmas, stood innocently in his trench, his kind, friendly face beaming as he listened to the talk of his men. He was a large, shy fellow. Dreamy and far away. One of those good-natured big clumsy men who never could be made into soldiers.
“And tonight,” said Nifty Smith, the prize-fighter, “we can hear them singing. And we can sing back at them.”
“Doesn’t it seem absurd,” said Lieutenant Basset, “sitting a hundred yards apart singing Christmas hymns and killing each other.”
“My idea,” said Tabacca-chewin’ Martin, “would be to sneak out into No Man’s Land about the time their singing is at its best and lob a few bombs into them.”
Lieutenant Basset looked horrified.
“Sure,” said Schwartz. “The colonel would be tickled pink.”
“Would he really?” asked the lieutenant. “He spoke to me rather sharply a couple of days ago about my word of command. If I went out and bombed them while they are singing, he would be pleased, eh?”
“Sure,” chorused the elite of Sixteen platoon, who should have been sleeping at midday instead of gossiping with their new and inquisitive officer.
“And would some of you go with me?” asked Basset.
“We’d all go,” said they.
And like a large, happy child, Lieutenant Basset left them smiling amongst themselves.
It was dark shortly after five o’clock Christmas Eve. And a few lazy flakes of snow were falling to create a little atmosphere of Christmas. But to the shadowy figures who stood-to-arms in that little bit of Hill 70, part of the long line of millions of men who stood facing each other unseen across a wide and unhappy nation, there was little thought of Christmas it was just the same old thing.
In a disused and battered dugout the conspirators of Sixteen were gathered quietly. The Weasel was putting on his Santa Claus suit. A quartet under the leadership of Bunson, the stretcher bearer, were softly practising “Stille nacht, heilige nacht,” which was only the old hymn, “Silent night, holy night,” only with a lot of funny words which the sly and widely travelled Weasel taught them.
“I got two bombs,” said Nifty Smith to the Weasel, “with the detonators took out of them. They’re for Basset. Then, I got hall a dozen pistol shells that I drew the bullets out of, and took out the powder. I’m going to tell him, just before we set out, that I got some new stuff for my pistol and I’ll change these for what is in his gun.”
“Don’t make any mistake about that,” said the Weasel, rather breathlessly. “I don’t want my head blown off by no Basset.”
The Weasel, it was arranged, was to go out at ten o’clock while the quartet lustily sang “Stille nacht” into the still air. He was to be given full hour to get set in a shell hole straight out from the place he went through our wire.
“The reason I want a whole hour,” said the Weasel, “is so there won’t be too much activity. If we all go out within a few minutes of each other, Fritz might notice it and start shooting up our little Christmas pantomime.”
“And at eleven,” said Tobacca-chewin’ Martin, “we’ll come out, crawl straight ahead about twenty yards, until we hear you say Psst! Then we let Basset go on an attack you. Suppose he beats you up?”
“He won’t. I’ll surrender,” said the Weasel. “He’ll be scared stiff and it’ll be me who will lead him back into the trench. But make dead sure his pistol’s a dud.”
Sixteen platoon thought ten o’clock would never come. Every time Lieutenant Basset came through the trench, they held their breath. But about nine-thirty the lieutenant and to Corporal Perry:
“The colonel has sent for me. I won’t be back until ten-thirty or eleven.”
And Sixteen breathed easy.
“His nibs,” said Tobacca-chewin’ Martin to the Weasel where he was concealed in the old ruined dugout, “has been called down to B. H. Q. He won’t be back until half-past ten.”
“I’ll be waiting for you straight out twenty-five yards whenever you come out after eleven,” said the Weasel. He was stiff with excitement.
The Boys are Speechless
At ten o’clock, Sixteen platoon spread itself out to see that no strangers should be in its trench while a comic spectacle appeared: Santa Claus himself, in whiskers and crimson bathrobe and pink fur cap, was hustled through the trench and out over the parapet at the little lane in the wire through which patrols pass into No Man’s Land.
“Start singing,” said Santa Claus breathlessly, “in about five minutes.”
And the quartet drew themselves together and started taking deep breaths.
As Santa Claus faded into the dark there was silence for a moment, broken only by the soft and sudden appearance in their midst of Lieutenant Basset.
“Keep still,” he whispered sharply.
He stepped smoothly on to the firestep and stared after Santa Claus.
Tobacca chewin’ Martin was close to him.
“All right,” said Lieutenant Basset in low whisper. A curiously changed lieutenant; a big, lithe strong lieutenant, from whom all innocence and goofiness had been wiped away as with a rag.
“Take this watch,” said Lieutenant Basset to the stretcher bearer and song leader, Bunson. “In three minutes from the time we go over here, start to sing. Understand? And sing until we come back. Don’t fail!”
His voice was like a Vickers gun.
“Come on, Martin,” said the lieutenant. And with Tobacca-chewin’ right on his heels, the lieutenant pulled himself out of sight over the parapet.
The boy’s stood speechless. But Nifty Smith was the first to swallow.
“Look at that watch,” he warned.
And in moment, the quartet was harmonizing in the finest barber shop manner, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.”
The music rose as softly into the night as the snow flakes drifted down
At the end of the first verse, there came, faintly and full, from the German trenches, the sound of men’s voices repeating the same tune.
Nifty Smith, Schwartz and the corporal were on the firestep staring tensely into the night.
“Start again!” hissed Nifty, as the far away song ended.
The quartet repeated the verse. “Louder,” said Nifty.
Once again, the Germans repeated the tune back to them, and once more the Bunsen quartet soulfully roared the tune into the night.
But half way through the verse, the watching figures on the firestep flattened to their rifle butts. And then through the gap in the wire came Tobacca chewin’ Martin bent low as he dragged a heavy thing behind him.
The heavy thing was the Weasel. His Santa Claus disguise was gone, and around the Weasel’s mouth was bound white bandage.
Tobacca-chewin’ slid the limp body into the trench and snarled everybody to silence. In silence, he frantically unwound his puttee and with it, he trussed the Weasel from head to foot, and then knelt low to listen to the Wessel’s breathing.
“What’s going on?” demanded Schwartz, at last, out of the gang of silent and startled men.
“Watch out there!” commanded Tobacca-chewin’ fiercely. “We gotta go back, Nifty and you and me, and help Mr. Basset when he comes. Keep up that singing. And see nobody fires, whatever happens. Corporal, Mr. Basset’s orders, see nobody on the flank does any firing. All companies on both rides of us are warned. Just look after our own company.”
“What’s happened to the Wessel?” asked the corporal.
“Detail somebody to watch him. Don’t let him move,” said Tobacca-chewin’. And with a gesture, he led Nifty and Schwartz over the top and out into that still, music-filled darkness that was more terrifying than if it were filled with fire.
Suddenly, into the quiet little twisty trench that was Sixteen’s piece, there arrived a squad, a mob, a regular guard of officers. Below their steel helmets glowed the red and gold gorget patches of the mighty staff. The regimental colonel was with them. One very small, aged officer led them. And they stood looking down at the Weasel.
The harmonious quartet faltered and prepared to vacate this part of the earth for more lowly regions. But the little old man with the snow-white moustache rasped :
“Sing damn it!”
And they sang.
The Big Surprise
The little old man stepped up on the firestep and watched into the night.
Four, five, six times, the quartet repeated their Christmas carol across No Man’s Land, and as many times, it was sung back to them, faintly, by the Germans.
And suddenly, the little old general dropped off the firestep and said: “Here they come!”
Lieutenant Basset came first, low and swift like a great hound. Behind him came Nifty and Schwartz, gripping between them a helpless figure over the head of which had been pulled a sandbag. And his feet dragged like those of one sorely hurt. Last of all came old Tobacca-chewin’ Martin, and they slid into the trench all of a heap.
Lieutenant Basset whipped the sandbag off. And there, bare-headed and speechless with fright and fury, stood a German officer.
“Herr Major Rupprecht,” said Lieutenant Basset. “I beg to introduce number of the general staff of the First Army.”
Herr Major Rupprecht staggered back against the trench wall and raid his hand to the back of his head.
“I — I — gentlemen –” he said, and sat down with a bump on the firestep.
“How did you get him, Basset?” asked the old general.
“Just the way you planned it, sir,” said the lieutenant. “I followed the Weasel, as they call him here, and when he called to the trench where the Germans were singing and got an answer, I slugged him, changed into his Santa Claus costume, went in and met Rupprecht, who was actually waiting in the front line trench, good chap.”
“I gave him the Weasel’s package. We will presently see what is in it. Then we had a very jolly drink. And I then informed Rupprecht that perhaps he would like, personally, to bring in complete new Stokes mortar of the latest pattern, complete with sample shell, and a couple of other things he would like to have, which I had secreted just outside the wire. For a moment, I feared he was going to send someone else with me. But all at once, visioning, perhaps, a special order pour le Merite, he slapped me on the back and said I was a capital fellow. And like two schoolboys we slipped out of the trench, into No Man’s Land. And then, shaking him by the hand and wishing him good luck until we met again, I clubbed him on the head and here he is.”
“Has he the stuff the Weasel, as you call him, had written for him?” asked the old general.
“I got it out of his pocket, sir. It’s quite a good sized package. Maps in it, too.”
“Who brought the Weasel in?” and the old man.
“This good man, Martin,” said Mr. Basset. “Martin has been in my confidence from the first day I joined this platoon.”
“We shall let Martin hear from us later,” said the old man.
And with Rupprecht walking amongst them, as though he were one of them, the squad of brass hats filed out of the trench. Mr. Basset, before following, shook hands with Martin, Nifty and the others.
“I had only short visit with you, men,” said he, “but I enjoyed it. Good luck to you.”
Behind remained one cold, black-jawed officer.
“Put this man,” said he to Corporal Perry, “on a stretcher and detail a party to carry him out with me.”
They lifted the mummy shape of the Weasel on to a stretcher, hoisted him and followed after the staff.
“Do you know that last guy?” asked Schwartz, as the little remnant of Sixteen stood dazed in their no longer dreary trench. “That’s the provost marshal. I seen him once at a wall party down at Doullens. One of those early morning wall parties.”
The first German shell of the alarm screamed over the trench.
The night across No Man’s Land, the still, holy night, leaped suddenly and frantically to life with flares, Maxims, shells.
And Sixteen, save for Nifty on the Lewis gun, ducked into the earth.
Editor’s Notes: In case it was not clear, Lieutenant Basset (as Provost marshal and in charge of military police), was undercover to catch the Weasel. Jimmie Frise provided the illustrations.
A batman in the military is a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal servant. This position was much less common after World War One.
A firestep is a built into each trench, cut into its wall some two or three feet from the trench floor. The purpose of the firestep was to enable each occupant of the trench to peer over the side of the trench through the parapet into No Man’s Land in the direction of the enemy trench line.
A puttee is a covering for the lower part of the leg from the ankle to the knee, wrapped like a bandage. This was standard in British and Canadian troops in World War One.
The German officer was perhaps expecting a Pour le Mérite, a German medal or order of merit (despite the French name).