Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Miracle 1914

It was still freezing hard on Christmas Eve. We had been detailed for what seemed to be a perilous fatigue in no man's land going out between the lines to knock in posts in a zigzag line towards the German front line. Around the posts wire was to be wound.

On this wire, hurdles taken from a shed were to be laid. Then drying tobacco leaves, hung on the hurdles (as the leaves had been in the shed), would give cover from view should it be necessary, in an attack, to reinforce the front line.

What an idea, I thought. It would draw machine gun fire. It was about as sensible as the brigade commander's idea for the December 19 attack across no man's land,f`or some men to carry straw palliasses, to lean against the German wire and enable men to cross over the entanglements. As for the knocking-in of posts into frozen ground, that was utterly wrong! And in bright moonlight, 40 yards away from the Alleyman!

After our platoon commander, a courteous man in his early 20s and fresh from Cambridge, had outlined the plan quietly, he asked for questions. I dared to say that the noise of'knocking in posts would be heard. There was silence; then we were told that implicit directions had come f'rom brigade,and must he carried out. We debouched f'rom the wood, and were exposed. After an initial stab of fear, I was
not afraid. Everything was so still, so quiet in the line. No flares, no crack of the sniper's rifle. No gun firing.

Soon we were used to the open moon- light in which all life and movement seemed unreal. Men were fetching and laying
down posts, arranging themselves in couples, one to hold, the other to knock. Others prepared to unwind barbed wire
previously rolled on staves. I was one who followed the platoon commander and three men to a tarred wooden shed, to fetch hurdles hung with long dry tobacco leaves,
which we brought out and laid on the site of the reinforcement fence. And not a shot was fired from the Ger-
man trench.

The unbelievable had soon become the ordinary, so that we talked as we worked, without caution, while the night passed as in a dream. The moon moved down to the treetops behind us. Always, it seemed, had we been moving bodilessly, each with his shadow. After a timeless dream I saw what looked
like a large white light on top of a pale put up in theGerman lines. It was a strange sort of light. It burned almost white, and was absolutely steady. What sort of lantern wasit? I did not think much about it; it was part of the strange unreality of the silent night, of the silence of the moon,now turning a brownish yellow, of the silence of the frost mist. I was warm with the work, all my body was in glow, not with warmth but with happiness.

Suddenly there was a short quick cheer from the German lines-Hoch! Hoch! Hoch! With others I flinched and crouched, ready to fling myself flat, pass the leather thong of my rifle over my head and aim to fire; but no other sound came from the
German lines. We stood up, talking about it, in little groups. For other cheers were coming across the black spaces of no man's land. We saw dim figures on the enemy parapet, about more lights; and with amazement saw that a Christmas tree was being set there, and around it Germans were talk- ing and laughing together. Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!, followed by cheering.

Our platoon commander, who had gone from group to group during the making of the fence, looked at his watch and told us that it was eleven o'clock. One more hour, he said, and then we would go back.

'By Berlin time it is midnight. A Merry Christmas to you all! I say, that's rather fine, isn't it?', for from the German parapet a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a song I remembered from my nurse Minne singing it to me after my evening tub before bed. She had been maid to my Ger- man grandmother, one of the Lune family of Hildesheim. StiLle Nacht! HeiLige Nacht! Tranquil Night! Holy Night! The grave and tender voice rose out of the frozen mist; it was all sostrange; it was like being in another world, to which one had come through a nightmare: a world finer than the one I had left behind in England, except for beautiful things like music, and springtime on my bicycle in the country of Kent and Bedfordshire.

And back again in the wood it seemed so strange that we hadnot been fired upon; wonderful that the mud had gone; won- derful to walk easily on the paths; to be dry; to be able to sleep again. The wonder remained in the low golden light of a white-rimed Christmas morning. I could hardly realise it; but my chronic, hopeless longing to be home was gone.

The post arrived while I was frying my breakfast bacon, beside a twig fire where stood my canteen full of hot sugary tea. I sat on an unopened 28-Ib box of 2-ounce Capstan tobacco: one of scores thrown down in the wood, with large bright metal containers of army biscuits, of the shape and size and taste of dog biscuits. The tobacco issue per day was reckoned to be 5,000 cigarettes at this time, or 'L4 Ibs of tobacco. This was not the 'issue' ration, but from the many 'Comforts for the Troops' appeals in newspapers, all tobacco being duty free to our benefactors at home.

There was a Gift Package to every soldier from the Princess Royal. A brass box embossed with Princess Mary's profile, containing tobacco and cigarettes. This I decided to send home to my mother, as a souvenir. 'There's bloody hundreds of them out there!' said a kilted soldier to me as I sat there.

I walked through the trees, some splin- tered and gashed by fragments of Jack Johnsons, as we called the German 5·9-inch gun, and into no man's land and found myself face to face with living German soldiers, men in grey unif'orms and leather knee-boots-a fact which was at the time for me beyond belief. Moreover the Germans were, some of them, actually smiling as they talked in English. Most of them were small men, rather pale of face. Many wore spectacles, and had thin little goatee beards. I did not see one piclzelhaube. They were either bareheaded, or had on small grey pork-pie hats, with red bands. Each bore two metal buttons, ringed with white, black and red rather like tiny archery targets: the Imperial German colours.

Among these smaller Saxons were tall, sturdy men taking no part in the talking, but regarding the general scene with detachment. They were red-faced men and their tunics and trousers above the leather knee-boots showed dried mud marks. Some had green cords round a shoulder, and under the shoulder tabs. Looking in the direction of the mass of Germans, I saw, judging by the serried rows of figures standing there, at least three positions or trench lines behind the front trench. They were dug at intervals of about 200 yards. 'It only shows,' said one of our chaps, 'what a lot of men they have, compared to our chaps. We've got only one line, really, the rest are mere scratches.' He said quietly, 'See those green lanyards and tassels on that big fellow's shoulders?
They're sniper's cords. They're Prussians. That's what some Saxons told me. They dislike the Prussians. "Kill them all," said one, "and we'll have peace".' 'Yes, my father was always against the Prussians,' J told him.

One of the small Saxons was contentedly standing alone
and smoking a new and large meerschaum pipe. He worespectacles and looked like a comic-paper 'Hun'. The white bowl of the pipe bore the face and high-peaked cap of 'Little Willie' painted on it. The Saxon saw me looking at it and taking pipe from mouth said with quiet satis- faction: 'Kronprinz! Prachtiger Kerl!' before putting back themouthpiece carefully between his teeth. Someone told me that Prachtiger KerL meant 'Good Chap' or 'Decent Fellow'. Of course, I thought, he is to them as the Prince of Wales is to us.

A mark of German efficiency I noted: two aluminium buttons where we had one brass button on our trousers. Men were digging, to bury stiff corpses. Each feld grau 'stiffy' was covered by a red-black-white German flag. When the grave had been filled in an officer read from a prayer- book, while the men in feLd grau stood to attention with round grey hats clutched in left hands. I found myself standing to attention, my balaclava in my hand. When the grave was filled, someone wrote, in indelible pencil, these words on the rough cross of ration-box wood: Hier Ruht In Gott fin Unbekannter Deutscher Held. 'Here rests in God an unknown German hero', I found myself translating: and thinking that it was like the English crosses in the little cemetery in the clearing within the wood.

I learned, with surprise, that the Ger- man assaults in mass attack through the woods and across the arable fields of the salient, during the last phase of the Battle for Ypres, hadbeen made by young volunteers, some arm in arm, singing, with but one rifle to every three. They had been 'flung in' (as the British military term went) after the failure of the Prussian Guard, the elite Corps du Garde, modelled on Napoleon's famous soldiers, to break our line. And here was the surprise: 'You had too many automatische pistolen. in your line, EngLische friend!'

As a fact, we had few if any machine guns left after the battle; the Germans had mistaken their presence for our 'fifteen rounds rapid' fire! Every infantry battalion had been equipped with two machine guns, of the type used in the South African War of 1902; with one exception. That was the London Scottish, the 14th Sattalion of the London Regiment, which had bought, privately before the war, two Vickers guns. These also were lost during the battle. Another illusion of the Germans appeared to be that we had masses of reserve
troops behind our front line, most of them in the woods. If only they had known that we had very few reserves, including
some of the battalions of an Indian Divi- sion, the turbanedsoldiers of which suffered greatly from the cold.

The truce lasted, in our part of the line (under the Messines Ridge), for several days. On the last day of 1914, one evening,a message came over no man's land, carried by a very polite Saxon corporal. It was that their regimenta(equivalent to our brigade, but they had three battalions where we had four) staff officers were going round their line at midnight; and they would have to fire their automatische pistolen, but would aim high, well above our heads. Would we, even so, please keep under cover, 'lest regrettable accidents occur).

And at 11 o'clock-for they were using Berlin time-we saw the flash of several Spandau machine guns passing well above no man's land I had taken the addresses of two German soldiers, promising to write to them after the war. And I had, vaguely, a childlike idea that if all those in Germany could know what the soldiers had to suffer, and that both sides believed the same things about the righteousness of the two national causes, it might spread, this truce of Christ on the battlefield, to the minds of all, and give understandingwhere now there was scorn and hatred.

I was still very young. I was under age, having volunteered after the news of the Retreat from Mons had come to us one Sunday in the third week of August 1914. Our colonel had made a speech to the battalion, then in London, declaring that the British Expeditionary Force of the Regular army was very reduced in numbers after the 90-mile retreat which had worn out boots and exhausted so many, and was in dire need of help.

And now the New Year had come, the frost was settling again in little crystals upon posts and on the graves and icy shell holes in no man's land. Once more the light-balls were rising up to hover under little parachutes over no man's land with
the blast of machine guns, and the brutal downward droning of heavy shells. And the rains came, to fall upon Flanders field, while preparations were in hand for the spring offensive.

Henry Williamson


Joel said...

I look forward to this post each Christmas. As a history major, I'm fascinated by this time period and every year you keep the story alive and remembered.

Anonymous said...

Peace to all.