Christmas on Ypres war fields in 1914 was a remarkable event that showed the best of mankind in the theatre of war
The greyness of the day moved to meet the twilight and the diminishing light was barely perceptible. An exchange of one greyness for another, equally bereft of joyful sunlight. Every day the same: every twilight the same and the sameness was the grind of war. The soldiers caked in mud had been eaten alive by lice encrusted in their hair: most of them had shaved their heads in an attempt to discourage the parasites. Waterlogged rifles, many of them no longer working, lay in sodden trenches. Only a few hundred feet across No Man’s Land the enemy suffered the same gloomy days and nights.
“By God!” said Taffy Williams trying to get his rifle to cock, “I hope theirs don’t work neither. It’d be flippin’ great if they came charging at us right now.”
“What’s that over there?” said Taffy Williams poking young Tom in the ribs. The boy turned his attention to where Taffy’s finger pointed.
“It’s a Christmas tree with candles.” said Tom.
“It’s a bloody what?”
“Christmas tree!” the boy repeated.
“Look, there’s more further up!” Taffy pointed.
“Yes, I can see them.”
“I’ll be damned!” Taffy scratched his head.
“Is it a trick?” Tom asked him.
“How would I know?” said Taffy peering over the top of the trench.
In a short time the whole of A Company saw the trees and questioned the German’s intentions.
“It’s a trick?”
“Maybe it’s not.”
“What if it is?”
“They’re just like us.”
“They miss home.”
“We should do it.”
“Put some trees up.”
“I wish I was home now,” Tom could feel his foot going to sleep and wriggled his toes to restart circulation, then moved his position.
They heard the sound of singing and laughter on the wind: voices called out,
“Happy Christmas Englishmen!”
Taffy shouted back to the unseen voices,
“Happy Christmas to you Fritz: save some turkey for us poor buggars.”
Tom began to sing Silent Night: the men joined in: then one by one, they heard their adversaries join in, until the sound of Christmas carols filled the fields of Flanders. A voice was heard calling out in the dark,
“Come on out and see us!”
Taffy looked at Tom and shrugged his shoulders.
“What the hell – it’s Christmas Eve.” Taffy stood up and walked into no-man’s land.
“Taffy come back,” his mates shouted to him but he ignored their pleas and continued walking. A shadowy figure emerged from the German trench: walked over to Taffy and shook his hand. Then a second German climbed over the parapet and soon Taffy and the Germans were talking animatedly and sharing cigarettes. Tom urged a few of the others to join in: together they left the trenches and joined the group in no-man’s land. More and more men strolled into the darkness and soon almost everyone in A Company had congregated with the Germans. The men exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs. Photographs were shown with pride: smiling children and lonely wives stared from the paper. The little groups stayed huddled together until midnight. It was agreed, that the following day, both sides would work without hindrance to bury the dead.
Christmas morning bore witness to the extraordinary sight of English and German soldiers, working together in no-man’s land, each side sorting through the bodies for identification: then working as a team to bury their fallen comrades.
Taffy Williams and Tom Smith made friends with Heinz Gerhaut, a German giant with a shock of blonde hair who had worked in Wales before the War: they found they shared much in common including a love of music and poetry.
“My friend here, was a deeply religious man. He would have wanted a funeral and a priest,” said Heinz to Tom as he bent down to lift his comrade and carry him to a prepared grave.
Without a moment’s hesitation Tom asked Heinz to wait until he returned and ran back to the English trenches. He went from trench to trench until at last he found Father Alexander.
“Father I need your help. We need a funeral service over there.”
Father Alexander willingly obliged and before the day was over the priest had conducted eight funeral services for the grateful German army.
That night Tom sought out the priest and sitting down beside him he shared the heart of a boy changed.
“Father, I did what you said. I prayed for them. You were right, they are just like us. It’s going to be bloody difficult to keep on fighting now we’ve met them.”
“Today, Tom,’ said the priest with a tear in his eye, “God smiled down from heaven and we showed Him the better part of man.”
On the 28th December 1914 on the fields of war, in the southern part of the Ypres Salient, the bullets fired from the rifle of Heinz
Gerhaut killed Tom Smith.
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|Reviewed by Sheila Ings
|A brilliant story that reminded me of an event I had heard about and forgotten. I do hope you will keep writing more of the same. I certainly will be looking to purchase your book because of your wonderful writing style.
|Reviewed by Norman Firth
|A moving a sad story of a beautiful event that made Christmas bearable for many during the terrible first days of world war 1. Well written and thought provoking.|