This has been my first Christmas absolutely alone – quite an achievement because over my lifetime I’ve spent 118 Christmases with at least one other person hovering nearby in some capacity or other. Such persons, when I was a boy, were my Mater and Pater. In the Army when at war they were my fellow officers and the men under my command. Most of my other Christmases were with my wife Gladys and less often my son Albert and other more distant family members. In recent years while on the run in America and Mexico I celebrated Christmas with my men, Mikey Squeaky and Freddy.
Those whom I’ve spent past Christmases with are all now certainly dead, possibly excepting Mikey Squeaky and Freddy. I’m not in touch with them because I could no longer abide them by the time I left Mexico. Should they be dead and I could know about it I would feel happy because they are potentially able to tell the police about our killing of the men whom I’ve spoken of in past postings, and of the fact that I’m still alive.
While I’ve had memorable Christmases, the one I most remember was the Christmas of 1914 when, as a young second lieutenant, I was holed up in a trench in France with lots of other officers and men.
On that Christmas Eve the Germans opposite our lines had stopped shooting. I thought: what in God’s name is going on? Our side stopped shooting too. I supposed there was no point in continuing to shoot if no-one was shooting back.
Looking over at the German lines fifty yards away I saw lights on their parapets, and also small Christmas trees dotted along them. Then I heard “Stille Nacht”, “O Tannenbaum” and “Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen”. The cold crisp air seemed to magnify the sounds as they floated from the German lines to ours. I began to weep. I couldn’t help it. I have always found German carols ineffably moving.
The men on our side began singing carols too – English carols like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and assorted others. The Germans stopped singing when we began to sing. When they began to sing again, we stopped. At midnight they shouted Christmas good wishes to us. We shouted Christmas good wishes back.
In those wee hours after, in the relative silence, I had my first relaxing sleep in many weeks, and only awoke as the dawn broke.
In the morning a priest came into our section of the line and led a service with Holy Communion and hymns. After the service there was breakfast, after which letters from our Maters and Paters across the Channel at home were distributed to us from huge mailbags. Every one of us also got a tin on which was a carved likeness of the Princess Mary. On opening my tin I saw tobacco, pencils, sweets, a Christmas card from the King and Queen, and a photograph of the Princess Mary.
I had received two letters that day, one each from my Mater and Pater. Their loving words so contrasted to the hell I was stuck in, that I again began to weep. Because an Englishman can never be seen to weep, I turned my face away so no-one could see my weeping. I noticed other men with faces turned away, who held letters. Were they, peradventure, hiding their weeping also?
The Germans shouted out for us to come over and join them in celebrating Christmas Day. I found this idea abhorrent. To treat the Enemy as a friend, even if for one day, would mock the deaths of the thousands of my fellow Englishmen who had died in order that the Boche be defeated. Although I had not died, I had endured months of living in a watery and very muddy trench, that often stank from the rotting bodies of my dead comrades, on whose remains rats fed. This wasn’t the half of it, for I lived in the daily knowledge that my next minute could be my last. I could never know which of the millions of German bullets directed at our positions was destined for me.
My comrades obviously felt as did I, for, in answer to the German invitations they shouted back that they, the Germans, should go to hell, that the Kaiser was not a nice man, and other pleasantries. Nonetheless, that we didn’t shoot at the Germans on that day meant that we had entered into an unsanctioned de facto truce with the Enemy. Perhaps this, by itself, mocked the deaths of my comrades? Were they, from the place of their Eternal Reward, mutely imploring us to keep shooting no matter what, until the Boche should crawl home to his Fatherland in abject defeat?
You must understand, I was very young then, barely twenty. My brain was thus not yet fully formed. I had even rejoiced when war was declared in August. I couldn’t wait to go to the front and send the Hun packing. It would be all over by Christmas.
On that Christmas Day, with my dreams of an easy victory shattered beyond redemption, I didn’t know that in other sections of the line, our soldiers had celebrated that Christmas Day with the Enemy in No-Man’s land. Together they buried their respective dead, exchanged presents, shared wine, and even played games of impromptu football. What would their dead comrades from the place of their Eternal Reward, have thought?
The next day we began again shooting at the Boche, who began again shooting at us………