Thursday, November 13, 2014

Christmas 1914, did it really happen?

I've just seen Sainsbury's moving Christmas advert that recreates a rare truce that happened Christmas day in 1914, during world war one. A fantastic advert that reminded me of the sacrifice of so many and of a story I wrote a few years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

Christmas 1914, did it really happen?

There was always denial it happened, but I was there and can tell you that it did. The spirit of Christmas of 1914 took hold of us all, and brought peace.
It was Christmas Eve and we had just had our tea. I sat on a small wooden box with my back against the makeshift wall of the trench. My heavy boots were covered in mud, the damp seeping through them chilling me to the bone when I first heard it.
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nach…”
It drifted across from the Hun trenches not more than a hundred yards away. It was only then it dawned on me that not a single shot had been fired for hours. The sound drifted across the eerie stillness of no man’s land, I did not recognise the words but as I heard more, I knew the tune. ‘Silent night, holy night…’
I smiled to myself at the thought of the men sitting huddled together in the freezing cold singing carols in this, the most inhospitable of places. We were told of how the evil Hun was out to murder us, to kill us in our sleep and of how they wanted to destroy everything we stood for. But in reality, they were men just like us. I stood up, peeped over the top of my muddy wall, and was surprised to see a line of lights along their trench.
The voices from the far off trench dropped away, I thought at first that was it, that the silence, or gunfire would return. Singing started up again, but this time it was our own men.
“O come all ye faithful…”
I looked around and through the dirty muddy faces and saw something that I had not seen for such a long time, men smiling. The song finished and a few comments were shouted back and forth between the trenches but the guns, remained silent.
Dawn broke on Christmas day, men whispered Happy Christmas to one another. The freedom of night had given away to fear, and men kept their voices as well as their heads low once again. I decided to have a peep over the trench once more at the Hun, thinking they too must have been wary of what the daylight may bring. When I looked across the muddy field that so many had died in, I was shocked to see a lone German soldier walking towards our line with his hands held his in the air. I could see him smiling, and as the gentle breeze moved the early morning mists, I could hear him calling out.
“Ha…ppy Christ…mas,” he shouted out in English, with the words broken up with his German accent.
I do not know what came over me, I had done it before I even realised. I now stood on the top of our trench facing him. I looked down at my pals starring up at me, their eyes wide and full of shock. I turned and raising my hands, I smiled.
“Happy Christmas,” I shouted as I walked towards him.
We met in the middle of no man’s land, two men divided by language. He smiled at me and patted his front pocket to indicate he was going to put his hand in to retrieve something.
I smiled and nodded.
He slowly pulled out two cigarettes and handed one to me.
I stretched out my hand and took it. I then patted my pocket to let him know the same. His eyes lit up as I pulled out a box of matches.
Leaning forward, I struck the match against the coarse side of the box and it lit first time. I cupped the match and held it up for him to inhale on the cigarette that was now hanging from his mouth. A few small puffs of smoke exhaled from the corner of his mouth as he muttered something I did not recognise. I paused before moving the match towards my own cigarette. We had all heard the stories of the third light being unlucky. The first light was when the match stuck against the side of the box, the second when you shared it and the third was when you lit your own. They always said snipers would look for this, the first would catch their attention, the second would allow them to take aim and on the third, they would shoot.
The German soldier, who stood before me, must have realised why I hesitated. He stepped in closer, standing directly between the Hun’s trenches and me. He was showing me there was nothing to fear, and so I inhaled as I lit my cigarette and laughed as I threw the spent match to the ground.
I looked around as others were now walking out to meet us, men from both sides walking out into no man’s land. Greeting and smiling at one another. Singing broke out again, followed by laughter and some even exchanged gifts. One soldier to the left of me handed a German an orange, his muddy face lit up as he was handed back French post cards of women in lingerie.
“Paris, Oh la la,” the Hun said laughing.
Someone, I do not know if it was us or one of them, produced an old football. There must have been over a hundred men from both sides running around after the old leather ball. There was no referee, no score kept, just men having a kick about. I must have run about playing shouting and laughing with the others for nearly an hour, but I never once touched that ball, there was just too many enjoying themselves.
As dark drew nearer, men slowly returned to their trenches. I found my new German friend, the one that bravely walked out into no man’s land alone. We shook hands and parted company.
Dawn broke on Boxing day, and still not a shot had been fired. Even with the threats from our commanding officers, telling us we were to kill the Hun, not make friends with him. No one picked up a gun. Men from both sides snuck out from the trenches like before but not the amount that had done so on Christmas day.
Peace lasted for three days before some General who was twelve miles behind the lines must have decided he wanted to move his drinks cabinet another ten feet nearer to Paris, gave the orders. Shelling started up again, the explosions shattering the peace that had stood for three days. The Hun returned fire immediately, their generals must have been eager to end the unofficial ceasefire too.
The magic of Christmas, and the peace it brought to the men fighting in the trenches for their countries in 1914, was officially over.

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