“Every day above earth is a good day.” (Earnest Hemingway)
The 17th Caledonian Regiment of His Royal Majesty’s Army dug their grave-like trenches through the cabbage patches of Southern Belgium at the start of the Great War. They kept the Germans from advancing further, but they also were unable to gain ground. They called the middle ground between the two lines of trenches No Man’s Land, but that’s a lie. It was everyone’s land. Anyone was welcome there, and the accustomed hospitality was a sudden conveyance to endless summers or burning sulfurs, whichever best suited the man.
When December drove the unbearable conditions beyond tolerable standards, the inward stress pressed down on the soul of each man with even greater cruelty. On a particular ferocious evening, the wind sounded louder than distant bombs. The stout men of the 17th Caledonian did their best to fortify themselves and each other. The delivery of rations had been delayed, so there was no meat and no bread. For two days they foraged near the back outside of the trench for nuts and leaves, and on these fed the athletes of England and Scotland.
The British High Command, in order to improve morale, ordered a massive push for the 19th of December. The thought was that a grand victory against the enemy Hun would lift the spirits. In the trenches before the fight, garbed in uniforms of penitence, the only thing in greater shortage than food was priests. The offensive was a tremendous failure and it had the opposite effect on troop morale than the High Command anticipated.
By the evening of the 19th, less than half of the 17th Caledonians were still alive. Few were wounded. Almost all touched by the fighting were killed, it seemed to many, mercifully. That evening the enlisted men sat about a small fire trying to warm their bodies and their spirits. None of these enlisted men survived into the next winter, so they will remain nameless here as a courtesy.
“I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Nor did I.”
“We were promised that this would all be over long before Christmas.”
“That’s not going to happen, mate.”
“I remember there was almost a carnival atmosphere at the beginning.”
“I’m afraid now the winter is a bigger enemy than, well, our enemy.”
“We’ve lost as many to frostbite and gangrene as we have to the Germans.”
As so was the night, as many before and to follow. As Christmas approached, all 300,000 British soldiers received a gift from Princess Mary. Moreover, most received parcels from home that contained trinkets and food and cigarettes and most importantly letters from loved ones. Men would reread their letters and then swap them about and everyone read everyone else’s letters from home. This added another rasp to the sinking homesickness that rubbed a rash on the inside of the men already there from the realization that they would each be missing Christmas at home that year, and possibly for years to come.
On Christmas Eve, no one said a word. Each kept to himself in his own misery. A slight dusting of snow began about 8:00PM. Soon after that, the men heard a noise coming from across the No Man’s Land. Every man strained to hear it.
“They’re singing!” said one man.
They words were indistinguishable, but they tune was plainly O, Holy Night. When it finished, a few of the British soldiers sang it back to them in English. The Germans sang O Tannenbaum and the English sang O Little Town Of Bethlehem. The highlight of the evening was when one German tenor who sang as if he could have performed Tristan or Siegfried at Bayreuth performed a solo.
Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
He sang six stanzas altogether. No one sang for some time afterwards. Eventually the caroling resumed, both sides singing simultaneously in their own languages. The performances were more solemn than festive, but it did improve the moods of all men, if not for one evening.
The snow continued for the night and the men awoke to a White Christmas, but not at all like they were accustomed. They sky was a single canopy of a dirty silver and the snow on No Man’s Land looked like pewter-iron. They drank dirt coffee and finished off their rations of powdered eggs.
“I had a dream last night,” said one soldier, “I dreamed that this morning was bright and beautiful. And I looked out into No Man’s Land and a fella ran through waving a telegraph in his hand. And he gave it to me and I read it. It said, War’s off, go home, George Rex. But there’s no telegraph this morning.”
Soon after that, a man shouted that someone was climbing out of the trench on the other side. The commanding officer, Jack Drummond, ran out his billet and to where the man spotted the ascender. Drummond was flanked by his two German Sheppards, Burton and Speake.
“Fire, man, fire!” said Drummond.
“I’m not sure that I can.”
“He’s got a Christmas tree with him, sir.”
Drummond looked through his field glasses and saw a young German enlistee holding nothing more than a twig with a few branches. But each small end had a lit candle and there was no mistake what he carried.
“I can’t shoot a man carrying a Christmas tree, sir.”
Heads usually kept under cover peeked out to see. When the German was a fair distance from his trench, he held up his Tannenbaum and even across the expanse everyone could see his smiled.
One British soldier climbed out of the trench. Drummond called him back, but he went on. It was not long before a few more on each side came out and stood in the middle of No Man’s Land just staring at one another. Eventually, the first two out shook hands and then the rest. There was a bit of reticence as would be expected, but soon a comfortableness and even a familiarity settled in, as if all were old friends. When Drummond saw the German officer climb out, he made his way to the middle as well. All enlisted men on both sides parted like the Red Sea for Moses as they approached. The German officer stuck out his hand.
“Kapitan Anton Kutchner.”
“Captain Jack Drummond.”
They shook hands and all the British soldiers shouted in unison Captain Jack! Drummond’s two dog leapt out and flanked him. Kutchner looked down at the pair.
“They’re here to translate,” said Drummond.
Kutchner was not sure if he should be offended or amused, so to cover both contingencies he laughed and smacked Drummond on the shoulder but with quite a bit of strength. Drummond also laughed and all men joined in the mirth.
It was somehow assumed that every German knew every person in Germany just as every Brit knew everyone who lived in England. One German asked a man from Brighton if he knew his cousin living in York. And to be fair, these British soldiers asked this Saxon regiment if they were aware of people living in Prussia, Bremen, and Hamburg.
“Any of you from London familiar with Belgravia?” said one German.
“I’m from there.”
“My uncle is a barber. He has a shop on the end of Buford Street.”
“My father and grandfather are tailors there. In fact, I think your uncle is right next door to them.”
“Yes! He bought many suits from them. Fine suits.”
“I spent as much time as I could while growing up in their little shop. And I know I’ve had not a few haircuts next door.”
One young British private whispered to his fellow Brit, “These are Germans? They look just like us.”
“Of course, they do.”
“They aren’t monsters.”
“I was told they were monsters. Pictures in King & Country showed them with fangs and claws and that. I heard Germans went around killing nuns and children. I’d wager not a one of them had ever killed a nun.”
“Excuse me,” shouted the private, “any of you Jerrys ever murder a nun?”
After a stunned pause, they all laughed and the British soldiers joined them. To be sure, the Germans were definitely told just as villainous lies about the English people. Both sides exchanged some of their profit from Princess Mary and home. It was agreed that the Germans had better chocolates but the British had better tobacco, probably because it was American. It was further agreed that German chocolates were preferable to English tobacco.
It was not long before it was lunch and both sides shared rations. As pleasant as the day had been going, it was soon obvious although unsaid that there was a bit of unpleasant business that needed tended. No Man’s Land was littered with frozen corpses. They took the time to bury their dead and the dead of the other side. Echoes of the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm in both German and English swelled over the shovels and upturned dirt.
When the digging was done, both sides rested and talked some more. In time a worn leather football made its way onto the field. They played a proper game with both Captains as officials. Burton and Speake ran after the ball, but could never get it before someone passed it to a teammate. Three of the Germans played for their home eleven, and it showed in their play. The German scored three goals before the British scored their first. The 17th Caledonians had more Scots than Brits by two-to-one. The British wore proper trousers, but the old highlanders wore kilts, even in the winter. When a Scot scored the first British goal, all of the Scots turned around and hoisted their kilts and smacked their rear ends toward the German. These Saxons had never seen this particular Celtic taunt and each man laughed at the impropriety of gaining an impudent glace at a Scottish posterior. The Germans lead 6-2 when the ball struck some barbed wire from an errant kick, and the test ended just that quickly.
For the remainder of the day, they sat about and sang carols, but in the full company of each other. The German tenor sang a few solos. As the sun set, both Captains ordered their men back into the trenches. Everyone shook hands and returned. The last two balancing No Man’s Land were Drummond and Kirchner.
“We’re being replaced by Bavarians after the new year,” said Kutchner.
The Captains shook hands.
“Give them hell for us,” said Kirchner, “we hate the Bavarians.”
The men saluted and returned to their trenches. Burton and Speake leapt down before Drummonds could descend the old wooden ladder. Drummond removed his sidepiece. From across the way, the 17th Caledonian regiment heard three gunshots.
Bang, bang, bang!
Drummond raised his pistol and fired thrice.
Bang, bang, – bang!
Ha paused before his final shot because he knew it would officially end the Christmas Truce they enjoyed that day. There was no such Truce the next year, nor the next. This was a singular even in the time of the Great War. And even then, it was not all along the Western Front, but just in rare pockets where this terrible treason was agreed upon. Many part of the Front saw fighting just as any other day. And occasionally, one side sought some seasonal armistice only to be shot dead by the other side.
While most people think the 20th century began with 1901, some argue it began in 1914, and the Truce is the faultline between two different worlds. I can’t help but wonder if soldiers on both sides didn’t look back during Christmas of 1915 or 1916 and think Why can’t we stop fighting again? What did we have then that we don’t have now?
And now as we stand at the front of the 21st century, we can look back over the distance covered on that battle-pocked field. We can consider what could have been with the Truce. We can contemplate the Wasteland of the 20th century that followed it and everything that the Great War wrought. We all know now that the Western Front was just the beginning of it all. And now things are mended, and we can come together and shake hands, but No Man’s Land is still there.