Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: SING (08/16/18)
TITLE: Now the Truce Can be Told...
By Noel Mitaxa
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Outside the village, cold, mud-soaked English soldiers were already experiencing the numbness of boots and battledress that were constantly damp. Their silent attention was fixed on the enemy troops across No Man's Land - a morass ploughed up by shellfire strewn with shattered trees, tree-roots, and tattered uniforms - when they heard Christmas bells sounding from a church.
And then, singing…
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar…
“Jerry’s singing ‘Silent Night’,” whispered Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather to the puzzled faces of his men, “we can match that, lads;” as he launched into a British reply…
God rest ye merry, gentlemen;
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day…
Teutonic strains of:
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blatter… drifted back to them…
Tentatively, Corporal George Wavell peered over the parapet and turned back to his mates, “They’re not just singing about a Christmas tree, they’ve actually got one over there, decorated with candles and everything!”
Clambering up to join him, they saw a white flag waving, and heard calls of, “Merry Christmas, Englishmen!”
“Merry Christmas to you!” they shouted back; and soon both sides began hesitantly emerging from their trenches, to meet in the murderous, scarred wasteland. They exchanged food, tobacco and alcohol, and buttons and hats as souvenirs. Artillery had fallen silent, allowing breathing space for burial parties to retrieve recently-killed soldiers, and to even hold joint services.
French soldier, Gervais Morillon, described a similar episode between French and German troops in a letter to his parents: "The Boches waved a white flag and shouted 'Kamarades, Kamarades, rendez-vous.' When we didn’t move they came towards us unarmed, led by an officer. Although we are not clean they are disgustingly filthy. I am telling you this but don’t speak of it to anyone. We must not mention it even to other soldiers."
His colleague, Gustave Berthier, also wrote: “On Christmas day the Boches made a sign showing they wished to speak to us. They said they didn’t want to shoot.... They were tired of making war, they were married like me, they didn’t have any differences with the French but with the English.”
Alfred Anderson, billeted in a farmhouse away from the front line, was the last surviving Scottish war veteran, and he vividly recalled Christmas Day:
“I remember the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early that afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
German Lieutenant Johannes Niemann’s diary records: "I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy!”
And from the diary of Captain Robert Patrick Miles:* “We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day. A sort of truce exists between us and our friends in front, but only here – because on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas' to us. We shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines.
"Here the agreement came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. They were all fraternizing in the middle and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.”
The truce remained a vivid memory throughout the war for German soldier Richard Schirrmann,** who wondered whether "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided in future with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other."
This miraculous truce was sown in song, and it demonstrated how music has the power to span politics, race and even hatred. This was the only such truce - less than four months into a war that had begun as an adventure. But the adventure soured; to paint a new picture of the depth of human misery, cruelty and enduring trauma beyond its four years. But this spontaneous experience absorbed over one hundred thousand German, French and British troops; and it lasted in some sectors until New Year’s Day.
*Miles died in action only five days later, on December 30th 1914.
**In 1919, Richard Schirrmann founded the German Youth Hostel Association.
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