Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas from The Flying Curmudgeon

The sickly sweet smell was everywhere. It penetrated the soldiers' nostrils and clothing. It saturated the food they ate.

There was no escaping it.

In the moon-scape which was "No-Man's Land," bodies were everywhere. As it would mean imminent death to anyone brave (or foolish) enough to stick his head above the trench-line, there the bodies lay...

...and rotted.

The young British soldier stared through the periscope. He could see the body of the German he had killed the morning before, the branches of the dead man's camouflage illuminated by the sun setting at his back. It was a close call - he had caught the German trying to sneak into their trench just before sunrise, hoping to catch them asleep.

The overcast layer that had cast a pall of darkness the night before had suddenly broken, the last of the full moon revealing him crawling across the desolation.

If the Tommie had not been alert, it could have been him lying dead, instead of the Kraut. A well-placed round from his model 1913 Enfield ended the German's life.

For a moment, he felt a twinge of regret.

Did this dead soldier have a family back home? Was there a wife or girlfriend waiting, caressing a picture of her beloved as he proudly posed in his uniform? Could his parents have imagined such a lonely death for their son?

("Frohe Weihnacten, Mein Leibling," she says with a sigh. Giving the picture a kiss, she places it back on the mantle. "Merry Christmas, My Darling.")

"Sorry, Fraulein, your Liebling won't be coming home any time soon," the British soldier said aloud. "Better find another."

It was Christmas Eve, 1914.

The fighting had raged on the Western Front for months. After the heady, initial days of the German thrusts towards Paris that autumn, the slaughter at the Marne and at Ypres had ended any notion of romance or glory both sides had foolishly entertained, in the wake of Ferdinand's assassination the prior summer.

Now it was about killing, pure and simple. Good men thrown into the meat grinder, as generals measured their "success" in yards, or at times, even inches.

(The "War to End All Wars" would rage for four more years until at the "11th hour" of the "11th day" of the "11th month," it finally would come to an end.)

After trying to grab a few hours of sleep - no one ever really slept, it was too cold and miserably wet for that down in the trenches - here he was again, back on watch.

The last of the sun's rays were disappearing behind him when he noticed some movement across the wasteland in the German lines.

"Blimey, what the devil is Jerry up to now?"

He studied the Germans through the periscope for a minute or so, unsure of what he was seeing.

Stepping away from the eye-piece, he shook his head and rubbed his eyes, making sure he wasn't seeing things. He looked through the periscope once more.

"I don't believe it. It looks like the bloody Germans are putting up bloody Christmas lights."

At that moment, he began to hear it. Softly at first, within a minute or two, the melody was unmistakable.

"Stille nacht...heilege Nacht..."

A couple of white flags, attached to broken pipes appeared above the German lines, and one by one, the Germans started to climb out of their trench. They tentatively made their way towards the British lines, the crudely assembled flags of truce leading the way.

For his part, the British soldier, joined by a few of his mates, cautiously crawled out of his trench and met the young Germans in the middle of No Man's Land.

So began the fabled Christmas Truce of 1914.

For a brief, surreal period, the slaughter came to an end, that night so long ago, and into the next day - Christmas Day. The young British and German soldiers helped bury each others' dead, exchanged gifts, and even engaged in a few improptu soccer matches. In one, the Germans beat their British rivals 3-2.

In most places along the line, the truce held throughout the day.

Captain J.C. Dunn, the Medical Officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers related how the fighting restarted at his section of the front:

"At 0830 (the next morning, the 26th) I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with 'Merry Christmas' on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with 'Thank You' on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again."

Though these accounts may seem unbelievable, they are not without historic precedent. During the American Civil War, rebel and Yankee soldiers would routinely trade tobacco for coffee, and other items they could not otherwise obtain.

There are other accounts of similar incidents during the Second World War.

The movie A Midnight Clear was based on a such an incident from France in 1944. http://www.amazon.com/Midnight-Clear-Peter-Berg/dp/6302588626

These accounts speak to the vagaries and ultimately, the tragedy of war.

Young men, their lives before them, have at times been compelled to kill each other, rather than live in peace and brotherhood.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, TFC prays for the day in which our Lord finally establishes His peace among nations, and it is no longer necessary for men to kill each other.

Merry Christmas.


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