|1914 Christmas Truce. German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment with British soldiers of Royal Warwickshire Regiment in No Man's Land. Photo by UK Govt. now in public domain.|
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As we were unpacking the decorations for our first Christmas together, Tim picked a blue cylinder out of the box and proferred it with raised eyebrows.
"Really? A decorated gun shell for Christmas? Does Stuttgart have some meaning I'm not aware of?"
I cradled the object in my hand. "Yes, it does. My great-grandfather treasured this; he said it was the one gift he'd gotten that held the true meaning of Christmas. There's a story behind it. Let me show you what he wrote at the Home before he died."
We'd been in the trenches for three months. You can't imagine the sort of cold that sinks into your bones when you're living in the mud, exposed for days and nights on end. And the shelling! It was enough to drive you right round the bend sometimes. It was early on, and we still talked about the war as though it would end in a matter of months.
For some of us, it was our first time away from home. We were men, fighting a war, and we were boys, missing our families and the comforts of a warm fire and a Christmas tree. While we saved bits of paper and labels from tins to make chains, and scavenged branches to erect sad little trees on the parapets - this was before the land had been shelled into complete barrenness - I also thought about those poor blokes lying dead a few hundred feet away.
We had not been forgotten, of course; many received packages from family, as well as Princess Mary boxes* with a greeting from King George V. 'May God protect you and bring you safe home.' It's a bit of a paradox, I suppose, that those reminders brought both happiness and sorrow, as they made 'home' seem a place imagined in a long ago life.
That Christmas Eve we shared food and token gifts amongst ourselves, and were just posting the new watch when a familiar tune floated through the air. We were, you see, so close to the enemy trenches that we could hear each other quite well in the icy air. The melody was Oh Christmas Tree, although the words were in German; my friend Joe took up the tune immediately, and before long we were all singing together. The Germans began to sing more loudly, and before long our side was belting it out in a sort of good-natured competition. When the song ended, there was shouting from both sides; not the bloodcurdling yells of 'going over the top', but cries of guten nacht, hello, Merry Christmas, and some ribbing among the men about their respective musical talents.
Eventually I fell asleep, and was roused at 4 to stand watch. There was a lot of movement over in the enemy trenches, and to my surprise a figure slowly materialized on a far parapet. A German soldier was holding up some sort of stick with a cloth attached.
'You not shooting. We not shooting', he called. Another figure appeared next to him. Slowly, they began to walk toward the No Man's Land which was between us.
Joe was awake as well, and I pointed at the Germans. 'You think it's a trap?'
He booted his chum Lionel awake. "Hey, what do make of this?"
Lionel peered over the top as well. "Hell, they're probably just as cold, lonely and miserable as we are. I'll slip out and you two keep an eye peeled." And with that, Lionel slithered out, first lying there, then rising to his knees with his hands in the air. 'Guten tag! Guten tag! Gesundheit!'
So we approached each other, as word spread and more men on both sides left the relative safety of the trenches for the wide open land between. We called to each other, in our own languages, in the broken bits that we knew of the other's, and in the universal signs of smiles and outstretched, weaponless hands. We met, not as soldiers but as men, brothers for a short time engaged in that most sacred yet bitter task, which no one should have to perform on Christmas Eve.
We buried our dead.
The ground was frozen like iron, and though we struggled and swore the burial was also done with humility and tenderness. Though we could have used the boots and overcoats, there were none who saw fit to take them. We extracted from their pockets the papers and letters, photos and mementos from those they'd left behind. I saw one German soldier holding a picture in his hand; and he showed it to me, his eyes unabashedly wet. 'Kind'. He reached into his own pocket and produced a similar photo; the children bore a remarkable resemblance.
On an impulse, I produced a tin with a few cigarettes in it. He opened it and removed one, then handed it back. 'No, for you,' I answered, gesturing that he should take the entire thing. Somehow, I wanted to give a gift, a real gift, springing from nothing but goodwill. I wanted it to feel like Christmas. With a smile, he accepted it and rummaged around. 'You,' he said as he produced a small painted gun shell. He flipped up the top - it had been made into a lighter - and the flame danced in the night. 'You,' he said again, placing it in my hand and closing my fingers on it.
Both sides were waking and stirring as first light broke on the horizon. The strains of Silent Night/Stille Nacht floated gently over the battlefield. Heilige Nacht/Holy Night.
Never has the phrase 'Peace on earth, goodwill to men', meant more than in the midst of a terrible war when men sent to hate and kill reached out to each other in peace and friendship.
Together, Tim and I used that gift from long ago to light the candles on the table.
* "Princess Mary boxes" were metal boxes engraved with an outline of Princess Mary and filled with chocolates and candies, cigarettes, a picture of Princess Mary and George V's greeting to the troops.
While this is a fictional story, there are many accounts of the WW1 Christmas truce of 1914 which occurred spontaneously at various points on the front lines.