Christmas has always been a magical and happy time for me. My mother loves Christmas and it’s a trait that has happily rubbed off on me. But I am always conscious that for others it is a sad and lonely time, a time when they are separated for loved ones, away from home or alone. The story below is my take on one such Christmas.
As a child I loved Gareth Brookes. My parents were big fans and we listened (and sang badly) in the car. One of my favourite songs was his version of ‘Belleau Wood’. I was always intrigued by the story, by the emotions. My husband introduced me to Tommy Fleming’s ‘Christmas 1915’ and it has always done the same, tugged at my heart strings and jerked the tears. As an English teacher war poetry is one of my favourite genres. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ provided that same intrigued. How did those soldiers feel, away from home, living in the fear and despair?
‘Silent Night’ is a combination of my love of those songs and that poetry.
I hope you enjoy.
All is calm and eerily bright. Nestled in a nook, as comfortable as I can make myself, my heavy duty jacket wrapped tightly around me, I look up. The sky is an inky black, dotted here and there with the brightest of stars and a silver moon illuminates the trench in front of me. It’s cold, but welcomingly dry. The frost glistens and twinkles on the muddy grass in the moonlight and I breathe in deeply; cold, smoke free air. It’s strange and wonderful all at once. I reach inside my pocket to pull out my battered and bursting notebook, this evening is to be remembered, to be reworked and written about when I return home. But how do I find the words?
The calm and the quiet, the clear skies and my resting body. There is a peace that I have not felt for months. The silence is deafening, a world away from the constant noise of our everyday, no booming, no roaring, no deathly screams and oh it is beautiful; ringing in my ears. No one talks, no one utters a sound, just that sweet, sweet silence. I can’t remember the last time I heard nothing. I can’t remember the last time I sat, the last time I truly rested. But tonight I do.
In this stillness my mind wanders, I think of home, of my mother, of the mad flurry that would have been our warm kitchen on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass, sweet tea and ham sandwiches; soft white bread with tough crusts and sweet honey glaze. The fire kept going for one night and one night only. Oh for the warmth of that fire now! The touch of her hand on my face and the sound of her voice in my ears. Oh for the love of my mother. I see her sad eyes, I feel her loneliness, it won’t be the same this year. She breaks my heart the most, she is the one I think of when I go over the top, the one I fight hardest to stay alive for, the one I fear for the most. Death does not frighten me, I’ve seen enough of it here, and when it comes I hope it comes quick and easy. But I will not break her heart, I will come home.
Oh how the night is still, the stillest I have known on the frontline, it’s surreal and a little unnerving, the silence echoing. Everyone is still, taking this moment, missing family, friends, contemplating life and what is to come. I pull my jacket tighter. This is not a Christmas I could ever have imagined, or a Christmas any of us would have chosen, but it is the Christmas we have and there is the stark possibility for some of us that it may well be our last. Many of us are not going home, some of us will die tomorrow, we know that, it is our reality, but the night is still and the sky is bright and there is hope.
I scribble my thoughts, I dream that one day I will write about all this, I will tell the world what it was like, how we fought, how we cried and how we laughed. How we made ourselves keep going and stuck together. I scribble as I know I will forget these quiet moments, they will be swallowed by the death, the green haze of terror, the burning flesh and bloodied mud, the screams of death and the pleading of the dying. But there are these moments, a time to think and clear your head, to dream of home and to look forward. I am still here, I am still fighting, I’ve lost many, they sleep in heavenly peace, but I am still here and there is still hope.
It’s funny how your mind works, how you can live in the hell we do and still look forward. We don’t have the time to think mostly, and life is lived on the edge, fighting for survival and not for your country. We fight to survive. The war will not be won by us poor sods on the frontline, we are the sacrifices, and we are no fools, we know we are the pawns. Funny how a quiet moment in the storm sends me all philosophical. I peer down the trench and in the dark I see all the glowing embers of cigarettes rationed for just this moment. The Christmas Truce. The amber lights glow softly, gently moving from resting to mouth, the dancing of our Christmas lights. I breathe in the clear crisp air, deep deep into my lungs. All is calm.
The silence is broken in the distance, I’m confused and shake my head; a single voice, a cough, and then a clear and beautiful tenor fills the air. The words are strange, and harsh, but the melody is pure and true and I know it. It makes me think of Midnight Mass and Tommy from the village filling the church with his sweet song. I stand to hear the song more clearly, it is, the voice is singing Silent Night and with fear and an unexplainable compulsion I mount the trench, over the barbed wire and stand on no man’s land. I have no idea why I have done this, but he made the effort to sing, I feel I’m making the effort to stand with him. It could be my last decision, but it feels right.
The space between us is empty, lit clearly in black and white, like a scene from one of those silent movies in the picture houses. The frost glistens on the frozen mud, redundant tin hats and tracks of barbed wire, it’s strange to see it like this, to stand and think about crossing the line instead of running with intent and fear in a haze of smoke and gunfire. I take a deep breathe, calm my nerves and step towards the far trench. Others watch me and in turn mount the trench and follow me. We slowly, silently walk towards the voice, drawn towards it and one by one each of us joins in. Silent Night rings around the battlefield in English, French and German and in the distance I see the German soldiers too have joined us and walk towards us, free of weapons, tin hats tucked under arms, cigarettes glowing in the moonlight.
Snowflakes fall gently, dancing in the still air, fragile and delicate; as fragile as the truce we are now enjoying, but we smile as we draw nearer to each other. The song rings out and as we meet, the night falls silent again and then laughter and voices fill the air. I stretch my hand forward and shake hands with a German soldier around my age. His hair is blonde and his eyes a clear blue. His hand is warm. I can’t remember the last time I shook someone’s hand, I’ve shot, strangled and beaten, but I’ve not touched another human in such a genuine, welcoming way in so, so long. His fingers tighten around mine and there is an understanding; he is my brother, he is my friend. In these precious moments of peace we are all brothers, the youth of our generation, with hopes and dreams. We are all the same, there is no enemy, there is just this perfect Christmas peace. I pull him towards me and hug him tightly. This night will end, the guns will start again, tonight is for living and for loving. We are the same. All is bright.
We speak different languages, but we have words here and there and in my worst possible German I wish him a Frohliches Weihnachten. He chuckles and smiles, and then in equally broken English wishes me ‘greetings for the Christmas’. There is a warmth that I have not felt, we both reach into our pockets and pull out what we have to offer, I have hoarded cigarettes, the only gift I have and he hands me a metal hip flask, we exchange and I sip the wine and he lights the cigarette. He shows me a worn photo of a pretty young woman and a tiny baby and there are tears in his eyes. How hard must it be to be away from a wife and son? I shake my head when he motions as if to ask do I have children and I think fondly of my mother. She would be proud of me tonight.
We stand for what seems like an hour, songs and laughter ring across the plain and we celebrate. It is a calm and holy night, the sky bright with hopeful stars and the soldiers happy with human interaction. This is a fleeting moment, a precious shard of peace, we all know it, but in this instant it is magical. Language, country, sides are all forgotten and we are young men celebrating Christmas.
In the distance I see the dark clouds gathering, I see them heavy with rain and fear the change they will bring. The stillness, the lightness of heart and the peace will soon be over, the winter wonderland that is this battle field will soon return to just that, the frost and snow will be spattered with mud and blood and we will return to killing our brothers.
He too, sees those clouds rolling in and nods knowingly at me. He smiles comfortingly, pats me roughly on the back as an uncle would and once again wishes me ‘the greetings for Christmas’, he shakes my hand and we turn and march back to our trenches. There is no goodbye, no hope you live to fight another day, we know tomorrow we may very well die. Silence falls back on the space between us.
Climbing down and settling back in my nook, I wonder did that just happen, did I meet the German soldier, did I laugh in this God forsaken place and then I spot it. Still held tight in my left hand, his hip flask half full of German wine. I lift the flask and toast once more to a silent night, to the German soldier and to my mother, I will come home, I will survive and as I say the words the clouds roll over the silver moon and the canons once more ring out.
Tommy Flemming’s beautiful version of ‘Christmas 1915’ is below.
Frohe Weihnachten/ Happy Christmas x