One Hell of a Christmas

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This story tells of life in the British Army with the 23rd Indian Div. Burma during the massive retreat from 1943

Submitted: June 16, 2017

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Submitted: June 16, 2017



One Hell of a Christmas.


A story


Geoffrey Kennell


There was nothing magical about the dawn of my Christmas Day 1943.  Like most days it rained, and the humidity was more than stifling.  We four were camped somewhere South of Chittagong in Burma. Stragglers they called us, or soldiers left behind in the massive British retreat from Rangoon.

We had lost every possession we had and only the will to get back to civilization prevented us from lying down and dying where we stood.

I watched Digger Gardener light his first cigarette for the day.  He grimaced as he lit the slender pod of damp tobacco, then stretching his legs he began to burn off several leeches that had become attached to him during the night.  He swore beneath his breath, then seeing me awake, he called.  "Ken, check my ass, I think there`s a bastard stuck to my bum."

This ritual had become part of our morning ablutions, tho` what the creatures fed on beats me, we were so emaciated, I doubt whether they had much of a meal.  I pulled the jungle green mosquito net off my body and gave him a hand and then we reversed the procedure.

Blondie Marsden and Neville Smith came awake together.  Neville, a medic with a beri-beri foot, now swollen to gigantic proportions, sat up and farted.  There was an immediate response, "Shhh, for Gods sake, they`ll hear that in bloody Rangoon!"

Mention of the word God, brought us four to our senses,  for it was of course,  Christmas Day.

"Merry Christmas Digger, Blondie, Nev,"  I greeted.  "And may you have many more!"

Blondie reacted as I knew he would, "Not like this I hope, you got any bum paper?"

"Use the bloody grass… I do," I confessed.

Corporal Gardener`s sunken cheeks attempted a smile.

"So ain`t you goin` to open `yer present Smithy?"

"What bloody present, don`t tell me you went shopping at Harrods last night?"

We folded our nets and pushed them into our side packs, the only webbing that we had left.

"How about Rita Hayworth wrapped in cellophane?"


"Mae West without the wrapping mate, I reckon…"
The conversation was cut short by a twig snapping somewhere in the vastness of the putrid jungle around us.

We froze like statues for several seconds waiting for that final burst of machine gun fire that would see the end of us all.  It never came. 

Instead a tapir lumbered past, its beak-like snout held high.  Had we been up wind, the animal would have avoided us like the plague.

Blondie Marsden shook his head, "There goes our Christmas dinner mate, you can eat them things."

"How the Hell do we kill it?"

We all fell silent.

Killing was a dirty word to us and the animal was forgotten in seconds.

Smithy was in bad pain.  We could smell the festering swelling that his foot had become.  Slowly he began to unwind the field dressing.  "Oh shit, this hurts." We watched in silence.  Beri-beri left unattended would kill a man in just a few weeks.  Smithy`s foot had turned black, and even his toes were not recognizable any more.

"It`s looking better mate,"  I said, thinking I`d cheer him up.

Digger agreed, and so did Blondie Marsden.  "Yeah, you`re going to be all right."

We peeled three bananas and sliced a whole papaya for breakfast, and after we had finished Blondie Marsden  lounged back on a soft tuft of grass and mimicked our Colonel.  "Anyone for a cigar chaps?"

The poor bastard was one of the first to go crossing the Irrawaddy River.  We had arms and ammunition then.  Now, even they had been long since abandoned together with our large pack and side arms.

"What do you do on Christmas morning at home Geoff?" asked Digger.

I replied with a quick, "Not much,"  mainly because it was too painful for me to think about.  Four years in the army, and stationed in S.E. Asia squeezed every ounce of Christianity out of a man. 

"We all put on our overcoats and walked across the common to the “Feathers.”  The frost would freeze `yer ruddy moustache before you got to the door of the tavern.  Then we`d drink until lunchtime, and stagger back to my Ma`s place for Christmas dinner. "

Digger remained silent.  We knew he was deep in thought. 

Blondie lit a Japanese Kooa cigarette.  Me and my Ma dressed up in our best clobber. Ma would put on her Easter bonnet and…"

I burst out laughing, "Easter bonnet at ruddy Christmas, what about…"

My tongue had been far too loose and I realised that perhaps it was the only hat his Mother had.  "Then what?"

 We would walk off to our Chapel, but first we`d pay our respects to my old man`s grave, we always did `cos he died on a Boxing Day"

A sudden surge of nausea flooded through me, and I shivered.  Dengue fever was like that.  My guts seemed like they were twisted in a knot, and I gasped with the agony of yet another attack.  My fourth in as many days.

"You all right Ken?"  Blonde asked.

"Yeah, I`m all right mate."

The rain had stopped.  Neville Smith rewound the filthy field dressing on his foot and made an attempt to stand.  It was no use, and we all knew that he would have to be carried if we were to move on.

Digger Gardner heard it first. "What the Hell is that?"  he said quite out of the blue.

"What?"  we all asked.

"I thought I heard music."

 My heart sank.  Digger was hallucinating again, probably malaria, I thought.

Blondie cocked his head to one side. "Dammit, I can hear it too, listen."

We all knew how to listen, it was second nature to us.  Through the  raucous call of the  macaws and parrots, a million swarming insects, the birds and animals that lived in the fetid swampland, I heard it too.

Somewhere I heard the sound of a brass band playing "Once in Royal Davids City."

A smile lit Smithy`s face, the first in many a month, as he too heard the beautiful old carol. "Must be coming from a village?" I reasoned.

Digger disagreed. "They`re all ruddy Buddhist around here mate, where will you find a ruddy Christian in this God forsaken place?"

"I agreed, "you`re probably right, but…"

"But what, we ain`t imagining this are we?"

For some reason my heart was beating faster, and my mind sang in tune with the song, "Mary was that Mother mild, Jesus Christ that little child."

Blondie volunteered first, "I`m going to do a recce, it can`t be that far from here."

We all knew how far sound can travel in the jungle, a kilometer, maybe two, then again, was this some evil trap, leading us all to our death?

"I don`t think it`s safe Blondie, we all know the drill, stay together, they`ll pick you off from one of those trees before you`ve gone a few meters."

Then we heard "The First Noel, that the Angels did say."

Digger Gardener began to hum the tune now, and I whistled along with him.

Neville had slumped down in the wet marshland at our feet.  Racked with pain his lips moved to the words, he hadn`t the energy to sing.

"Have you got the direction Blondie, I reckon over there, by that clump of tapioca trees."

"I think you`re right Ken, what about a little walk in the woods then Mates?"

Smithy lifted his arm, "Here, wait a bit mate, don`t leave me, I mean, it`s Christmas and.. and…"

"And what Nev?"  Digger could be cruel at times.

Tears of sheer terror showed in Smithy`s eyes.  Terror of being left alone to die in that God awful place.

 I knelt beside him on all fours, he couldn`t have weighed more than eighty pounds,  "Climb up onto me Smithy, we`ll go piggy-back."

`Course, that`s when the music stopped!

We set off anyway, stopping every hundred meters or so, taking turns  carrying our sick friend.  I`m not sure what went on in the minds of my muckers (mates), but I can remember clearly what went on inside my own head.

Whether the carols were playing or not didn't seem to matter anymore.

Like the three wise men following that star, I kept going, following the uplifting words and tunes of all the Christmas Carols I could remember.

We came to a clearing, and for one short moment, I thought it might have been an enemy stronghold.  I was wrong.

As we entered the compound we were greeted by the happy smiling faces of Burmese villagers who ran to help us.

Unbelievably, Digger, myself, Blondie Marsden and Neville Smith had wandered into a leper colony, run by a Christian belief organization!

Dr. Chin, the only English speaking person there introduced himself, "This record player belong my father,"  he explained in broken English.  "Only have one record, Christian Carol song, we play only on Christmas Day, then put away for next year."

"You`re a doctor?" I enquired.

Chin wagged his small round head, he must have been all of seventy, "Certainly me Doctor, Taipei University, and Christian like father."

Lying on beds with sheets and blankets, we sipped fermented rice wine from empty coconut shells, ate spoonfuls of chicken and rice and listened to Carols until late into the night.

Some might call it a best ever Christmas.  In actual fact it was simply a nightmare of a Christmas with a happy ending.

Still, I cannot bear to think about it, and I mourn the poor souls, the many thousands of weary war torn soldiers like myself, who failed to hear Dr. Chins Christmas message, played on that ancient wind up gramophone.

Alas, they never came home.  We did.

Dr. Chin removed Smithy`s right foot on the following morning. 

I stayed with him until after he came round from the operation.  The dawn chorus had just begun.  Opening his eyes Smithy grabbed my arm.

"Geoff,"  he whispered.

"That was one Hell of a Christmas."


Geoffrey Kennell©

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