Friday, December 24, 2004

Today is the 90th anniversary of the famous 1914 "Christmas truce" on the battlefields of both the western and the eastern fronts during World War One. In Flanders it began with German soldiers lighting Christmas trees and singing
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
Alles schl�ft; einsam wacht
According to Private Henry Williamson of the London Regiment, this is what happened when one pair of trenches were emptied that Christmas Eve.
After a timeless dream I saw what looked like a large white light on top of a pale put up in the German lines. It was a strange sort of light. It burned almost white, and was absolutely steady. What sort of lantern was it? I did not think much about it; it was part of the strange unreality of the silent night, of the silence of the moon, now turning a brownish yellow, of the silence of the frost mist. I was warm with the work, all my body was in glow, not with warmth but with happiness.

Suddenly there was a short quick cheer from the German lines-Hoch! Hoch! Hoch! With others I flinched and crouched, ready to fling myself flat, pass the leather thong of my rifle over my head and aim to fire; but no other sound came from the German lines.

We stood up, talking about it, in little groups. For other cheers were coming across the black spaces of no man's land. We saw dim figures on the enemy parapet, about more lights; and with amazement saw that a Christmas tree was being set there, and around it Germans were talking and laughing together. Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!, followed by cheering.

Our platoon commander, who had gone from group to group during the making of the fence, looked at his watch and told us that it was eleven o'clock. One more hour, he said, and then we would go back.

'By Berlin time it is midnight. A Merry Christmas to you all! I say, that's rather fine, isn't it?', for from the German parapet a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a song I remembered from my nurse Minne singing it to me after my evening tub before bed. She had been maid to my German grandmother, one of the Lune family of Hildesheim. Stille Nacht! HeiLige Nacht!

Tranquil Night! Holy Night! The grave and tender voice rose out of the frozen mist; it was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which one had come through a nightmare: a world finer than the one I had left behind in England, except for beautiful things like music, and springtime on my bicycle in the country of Kent and Bedfordshire.

And back again in the wood it seemed so strange that we had not been fired upon; wonderful that the mud had gone; wonderful to walk easily on the paths; to be dry; to be able to sleep again.

The wonder remained in the low golden light of a white-rimed Christmas morning. I could hardly realise it; but my chronic, hopeless longing to be home was gone. . . .

I walked through the trees, some splintered and gashed by fragments of Jack Johnsons, as we called the German 5�9-inch gun, and into no man's land and found myself face to face with living German soldiers, men in grey unif'orms and leather knee-boots-a fact which was at the time for me beyond belief. Moreover the Germans were, some of them, actually smiling as they talked in English. . . .

The truce lasted, in our part of the line (under the Messines Ridge), for several days. On the last day of 1914, one evening, a message came over no man's land, carried by a very polite Saxon corporal. It was that their regimental (equivalent to our brigade, but they had three battalions where we had four) staff officers were going round their line at midnight; and they would have to fire their automatische pistolen, but would aim high, well above our heads. Would we, even so, please keep under cover (lest regrettable accidents occur).

And at 11 o'clock-for they were using Berlin time-we saw the flash of several Spandau machine guns passing well above no man's land.

I had taken the addresses of two German soldiers, promising to write to them after the war. And I had, vaguely, a childlike idea that if all those in Germany could know what the soldiers had to suffer, and that both sides believed the same things about the righteousness of the two national causes, it might spread, this truce of Christ on the battlefield, to the minds of all, and give understanding where now there was scorn and hatred.
His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Merry Christmas.


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