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Real Answers™
kw73
Copyright: © 2008 Kendall Wingrove
750 words

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT:  THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914

By: Kendall Wingrove

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields."

Even the boldest playwright would hesitate to create such an unusual scenario -- amidst the mud, stench and slaughter of a widespread war, sworn enemies drop their guns and celebrate Christmas together.

 

Such a gathering could never happen, but it did in 1914.  On the front lines in Flanders, men just a few hundred yards apart had spent months aiming to kill at every opportunity.  Suddenly they emerged from their trenches and shared meals, exchanged addresses, swapped gifts and even played games. 

 

Author Stanley Weintraub chronicles the astonishing chain of Yuletide events in his exquisite book, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.”  The renowned military historian offers numerous details about this almost forgotten, yet true, story.

 

Everything started when German soldiers lit candles on small Christmas trees. Then Allied and German troops began serenading each other during Christmas Eve.  An informal truce spread along much of the Western Front.

 

Before he died at the ripe old age of 109 in 2005, Alfred Anderson, the last surviving soldier present at the impromptu ceasefire, described the scene.

 

“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” Anderson said.  “All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machine-gun fire and distant German voices.  But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see…It was a short peace in a terrible war.”

 

Anderson was fortunate.  Although wounded in 1916, he survived the conflict.  Millions perished as the vast battles of attrition continued, wiping out a generation of Europe’s most promising youth. 

 

But there was a short respite from the mindless killing.  As the opposing camps came together, fellowship and generosity ruled the day.  Ever present, however, were somber reminders of where they’d been and where they were headed.

The ‘no man’s land’ between the enemy trench lines was filled with corpses.  Many bodies had been there for weeks.  In several locations, permission was granted to remove the dead to rear-area cemeteries.

 

J. Esselmont Adams, a chaplain of the 6th Gordon Highlanders, used the holiday pause to bury Scots Guards killed in a failed attack a week earlier.  Adams and a German commander settled upon a joint service.  Soldiers from both sides gathered the bodies in the 60 yard space between them.  Adams selected the 23rd Psalm and an interpreter wrote it out in German. "The Lord is my shepherd” quickly became “Der Herr ist mein Hirte.”

Afterward, a German commander handed Adams a cigar as a souvenir.  Chaplain Adams returned the favor by giving him a copy of the "Soldier's Prayer" that he had retrieved from the lining of his hat.

 

"Shield us in danger's hour...incline their hearts to think of Thee," said a common prayer distributed in 1914 that went on to exhort enduring hardness, suffering and death as "good soldiers of Jesus." 

 

Removing his hat, the German commander put the cherished slip of paper in it.

 

"I value this because I believe what it says," he told Adams.  

 

Such scenes were replicated elsewhere.  The friendship between the fighting men on both sides was so amiable that it struck fear in the high commands.  Generals quickly squelched the brotherhood among the regular troops.  The outbreak of peace was anathema to the entrenched powers and officers quickly threatened retribution to anyone caught fraternizing with the enemy.

 

As the holiday season ebbed, war began anew.  The winter of discontent gave way to a spring of despair as the fields under Flanders filled quickly with losses and more crosses.

 

Weintraub’s moving volume is a testament to how ordinary men can bond with one another despite all efforts of politicians and generals to the contrary.  By following the example of the loving child whose birth is celebrated on Christmas Day they navigated the path through the no man’s land that separates love from hate and earth from eternity.  And the crosses at Flanders remain a somber reminder of the sacrifice made by many of those soldiers and the Lord they served to the end.

 

Kendall Wingrove is a free-lance writer from East Lansing, Michigan.

"Real Answers™" furnished courtesy of The Amy Foundation Internet Syndicate. To contact the author or The Amy Foundation, write or E-mail to: P. O. Box 16091, Lansing, MI 48901-6091; amyfoundtn@aol.com

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