Christmas 1943

It’s Christmas time, 1943, in Ortona, Italy. Capt. William H. Melhuish of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada is writing a letter to his mother.

“It must have been about midnight,” he writes, “when I was awaked from a restless sleep. The guns again! Their deep-throated roar, the whistle of shell overhead, the ‘whoomph’ at the end of their journey—that was nothing new. But there was something else in the air, a most unusual sound. It took me several seconds to realize I was not dreaming carols! Good old Christmas carols—boy, did they sound great!

“The average soldier of the line gets little opportunity, if any, to hear music, and here were carols coming out of nowhere. (I found out next morning that the BBC Choristers had been picked up by the radio in a nearby office truck.) I forgot all about the guns and just lay in my bed thrilled.

“But what a queer mixture of love and hate! In one ear, as it were, came the roar of great guns hurtling death through the night. In the other the joyous music of carols with the message of good cheer.”

A poem accompanies the letter:

Last night as I lay on my cot ’neath the stars
The still of the dark was broken by Mars
With a crash and a roar the guns had begun
To spit forth their death from the neighboring Hun
The air was soon fill’d with the scream of the shell
The sky a blood-red like the fire lights of hell
O, what has come over this world so war-worn
For this is the even on which Christ once was born?
And then, as if answering this frail human cry
The sound of sweet voices was heard in the sky
The voices of children so merry and bright
Brought the carols of Christmas to gladden the night
The message they brought e’en the guns could not still:
“There’ll be peace soon on earth to men of goodwill.”
I smiled as I turned on my cot ’neath the stars
The music of God drown’d the music of Mars

The letter and the poem are available on a small printed card from the Vancouver City Archives.


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