Men of War
1914: A Christmas Eve Memory
Life in the trenches for a soldier in the Great War was brutal, allowing for no peace or rest. But then the sounds of a familiar Christmas carol are heard from across No Man’s Land one Christmas Eve.
Up until that moment, the thing that stood firmest in my thoughts was how cold my hands were. Fingerless gloves of wool — modified so as to allow us to make better use of our rifles — did little to stave off the Belgian winter night. Nestled in my palms and held in place by bare fingertips was a tin cup full of tea someone had made. I, like many of the others, debated on whether to drink and let it warm us on the inside, or hold it a few minutes longer in hopes of restoring a bit of warmth to our hands. In the end, we chose to drink it, for we believed our hands to be a lost cause. Hopefully, someone would light a lantern, or build a small fire, but with the Jerries just across the way, we didn’t hold out much hope for that happening any time soon.
A steady breeze worked its way through the trench, bringing with it the occasional scent of unwashed bodies (although by this time we scarcely noticed such things) and the faint aroma of pipe tobacco. I shifted my tin cup to one hand and pulled my wool scarf, a gift from my parents back in England, a little tighter around my neck. I took my last sip of tea, then pulled the scarf up over my nose.
I let my eyes close, hoping for a moment or two of rest, but without the reassuring faces of my mates, I was soon reliving the battle of the past couple days. Bullets that now rested in the earth, the wooden supports of our trench, or the bodies of our fallen were whizzing past my ears once again. The sounds of rifle report, screams of pain, the curses of the soldiers, and the weeping of the dying that had long since died away echoed in my ears yet again. I sought to focus on anything from the present and leave the past behind in my quest for sleep.
I didn’t know if this strange new sound was real or imagined. I opened my eyes to see if anyone else heard those soft words; a few of my mates were starting to lift their heads from their chests and listen.
We looked at each other first, then up and down the trench, seeking the source of these strange, but somewhat familiar, words. Finding no source, we slowly began to stand and lift our ears closer to the top of the trench. There was a measure of disbelief in our eyes as we looked at each other. Surely, the words were not drifting across No Man’s Land.
“Alles ist ruhig…”
“All is bright,” a nearby officer whispered.
The shock of the words hit us as sure as though they were fired by an enemy sniper. Jerry was singing Silent Night.
The officer, a leftenant with a rich baritone voice, unleashed the next line, “Round yon virgin, mother and child,” with a passion that easily carried his words across the way to the enemy trenches. The response was a moment of silence, and we began to wonder if this innocent act had been taken as an intrusion of sorts by the Germans.
But the silence was only for a moment, then the German voices rose to almost choir-like volume. The leftenant took it as an invitation and joined in. In the space of another line, many other English voices up and down the line joined in as well.
Cautiously — for fear this was some sort of trick to lure us into a false sense of security intended to lower our guard — an old sergeant climbed the ladder just high enough to take a peek over the top. He remained perched there for a moment, then climbed back down; his eyes were wide and, though he would later deny it, moist with almost-shed tears.
“What is it?” someone asked.
“Trees,” the sergeant whispered. “Dozens of small Christmas trees.”
“You saw Christmas trees?” someone else asked.
“Only the tips, but they look to be decorated with small candles,” he replied.
“Shhh,” I urged, preferring to hear the remainder of the carol.
The conversation fell silent, but I noticed others were climbing the ladder to take a peek across the way. I even took my turn.
After a while, the singing died away and silence began to settle in. Everyone, on both sides of No Man’s Land, could sense a calm no one had felt since the outbreak of war this summer.
From across the way, we heard a voice call out to us, “Fröhliche Weihnachten.”
The sergeant climbed the ladder; he looked at the leftenant, who gave him a nod. “Merry Christmas to you as well!” he called out. He remained on the ladder for a few moments more, gazing up at the stars. We all found something else to catch our attention as he wiped his eyes before climbing back down the ladder.
I had just adjusted my hat and scarf when a corporal made his way among us refilling our tin cups. I nodded in gratitude and let the cup nestle in my palms once again. Taking the occasional sip, I leaned my head back against the trench wall and closed my eyes. This time, there were no cries or curses, nor whizzing of bullets, only the gentle humming of Silent Night from someone nearby, possibly the leftenant.
The tea didn’t take long to cool down in the cold Belgian air. I opened my eyes and finished it off in two good drinks.
With my now-empty cup still resting in my hands, I closed my eyes again, whispered a prayer, and slipped off into a pleasant nap filled with dreams of a world of full of peace.