For some unknown reason, while pondering what to write about in this Christmas edition, it seemed I was being drawn to writing about Christmases in war time. And believe me, I started with a blank slate. Once I began my search it was not long until I had printed out a small book with lots and varied information about two very famous Christmas celebrations that began “in the trenches”.
Just 105 years ago while most of the civilized world was engaged in World War I, that war that claimed over 15,000,000 lives, that war that was to end all wars, a rare and beautiful thing occurred on Christmas Eve and I don’t mean in some barracks over here or over there, but truly ‘in the trenches’. There are numerous stories about the soldiers fraternizing with the enemy, some are funny and some are of the ‘if only this could last more than a night’ caliber. One account stated that ‘on a crisp clear morning, 100 years ago, thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front’. A report by Private Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment described it thusly.
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste, Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot”. Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on “no man’s land,” the ground between opposing trenches.
This miracle took different forms across the Western front. One account told of a British soldier having his hair cut by his pre-war German barber; another spoke of a communal pig-roast. Several reports mentioned impromptu soccer matches with makeshift balls. Also, there was much ado about the ‘fraternization’ between the enemy soldiers and some commanders were not the least bit pleased about it – after all, it might lessen your desire to kill the man across the trench from you. Also, it brought home to those in the trenches, who could smell the cooking of the enemy 100 feet away, that the men on the ground were not fighting the same war as their superiors back at headquarters.
Murdoch M. Wood, a British soldier speaking in 1930 said “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.
Adolph Hitler, then a corporal of the 16th Bavarians, saw it differently.
“Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he is said to have remarked. “Have you no German sense of honor?”
One soldier, a veteran from the Fifth Battalion of the Black Watch later stated, “it was a short peace in a terrible war”. Charles Brewer, a 19-year old British Lieutenant with the Bedfordshire Regiment of the 2nd Bn., like many of his fellow soldiers thought the war would be won and they would be home for Christmas, but almost five months and about a million lives later, the Great War had bogged down to trench warfare and no end in sight. He later told of a special moonlit night, everything was too quiet on the Western Front when one of his sentries spied a bright light on the German parapet, less than 100 yards away. Warned that it might be a trap, he slowly raised his head over his soaked sandbags and through the maze of barbed wire, saw a sparkling Christmas tree. As he continued to gaze, a whole string of small conifers glimmered like beads on a necklace. Then, he noticed a faint sound he had certainly never heard on the battlefield – a Christmas carol. The German words to “Stille Nacht” were not familiar, but the tune – “Silent Night” certainly was. When the Germans finished singing, their enemies broke out in cheers, then returned the favor with the singing of the English version.
Only thirty more Christmases later, during the Battle of the Bulge, history repeated itself in more ways than the fact our American soldiers were defending themselves against the Germans again. This time in the Ardennes region of Belgium, Luxembourg and France. There were more than a few of Chickasaw County men taking part in these battles, too numerous to name and I fear that I might omit someone. Our soldiers spent this Christmas in temperatures hovering around zero, in snow that was knee deep and very few rations for a Christmas dinner.
Corporal Frank DiVari was huddled in a foxhole as the shells exploded around him. He remembered that they could hear their guns going off and the shells landing at the same time. They were so close, they almost surrounded the whole place. On Christmas Day, he got up after a bad night with the artillery. The first thing he saw was the steeple of a church down in the valley. It was a beautiful day, sun was just coming up over a little village at the bottom. But most of all, the clear weather allowed the US planes to reinforce the soldiers along the front.
A Sgt. Metro Sikorsky woke up Christmas Day of 1944 in a bombed out building. He was 25 years old, a member of the 17th Tank Bn., 7th Armored Division. It was his first time away from his Pennsylvania home. All around were the bodies of the frozen and his job included picking up the dead. He remembered that it was so cold that when a soldier died, in a short time the body froze where it lay. The soldiers cut blankets into strips and wound them around their frozen feet. In fact, hundreds of soldiers lost their feet due to them being frozen.
While the Americans fought for their lives against a tremendous German army, there was at least one tiny shred of human decency happened on Christmas Eve and a German mother made it so. Three American soldiers, one badly wounded, were lost in the snow-covered Ardennes Forrest as they tried to find the American lines. They had been walking for three days while the sounds of battle echoed in the hills and valleys all around them. On Christmas Eve, they came upon a small cabin in the woods. Elisabeth Vincken and her 12-year old son, Fritz, had been hoping her husband would arrive to spend Christmas with them but it was now too late. The family had been bombed out of their home in Aachen, Germany and had managed to move into the hunting cabin in the Hurtgen Forest, about 4 miles from the Belgian border. Elisabeth and her son were alone when there was a knock at the door. She blew out the candles and opened the door to find two enemy American soldiers standing at her door and a third lying in the snow. She thought they seemed hardly older than boys, despite their rough appearance. They were armed and could have just simply burst in, but hadn’t. She invited them inside and they carried their wounded comrade into the warm cabin. Elisabeth didn’t speak English and they didn’t speak German but they managed to communicate in broken French. She began preparing a meal and sent Fritz to get six potatoes and Hermann the rooster – whose stay of execution was rescinded. Hermann’s namesake was Hermann Goering, a Nazi leader who Elisabeth did not care for.
While Hermann roasted, there was another knock at the door and Fritz went to open it, thinking there might be more lost Americans. Instead there were four armed German soldiers. Although Elisabeth knew the penalty for harboring the enemy was execution, and white as a ghost, she pushed past Fritz and stepped outside. There was a corporal and three very young soldiers who wished her a Merry Christmas, but they were lost and hungry. She told them they were welcome to come into the warmth and eat until all the food was gone, but that there were others inside who they would not consider friends. The corporal sharply asked if there were Americans inside and she said there were three who were lost and cold like they were and one was wounded. Elisabeth remembered that the Corporal stared hard at her until she told him “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” She insisted they leave their weapons outside where she also placed those of the Americans.
At first there was a lot of fear and tension as the Germans and Americans eyed each other, but the warmth of the cabin and the smell of roast Hermann and potatoes soon took the edge off. The Germans produced a bottle of wine and a half loaf of bread. One of the Germans, an ex-medical student, examined the wound of the American and in English, he explained that the cold had prevented infection but he’d lost a lot of blood and needed food and rest. By the time the meal was ready, everyone was more relaxed. Two of the Germans were only sixteen, the corporal was 23. Fritz remembered as his mother said grace, there were tears in the eyes of both the Germans and the Americans.
The next morning, Elisabeth returned all their weapons. The soldiers shook hands and left and the truce was over. Fritz and his parents survived the war. His parents passed away in the sixties and by then, Fritz had married and moved to Hawaii, where he opened a bakery. For years he tried to locate any of the Germans or American soldiers without any luck, hoping to corroborate the story and see how they had fared. President Reagan heard of his story and made reference to it in a 1985 speech he gave in Germany as an example of peace, but it wasn’t until the TV program, “Unsolved Mysteries” broadcast the story in 1995, that it was discovered that a man living in a Frederick, Maryland nursing home had been telling the same story for years. Fritz flew to Frederick in January of 1996 and met with Ralph Blank, one of the American soldiers who still had the German compass and map given him by one of the soldiers on that Christmas Eve of 1944. He quickly told Fritz, “your mother saved my life”.
The above stories were taken from various web sites easily reached by searching for “Silent Night and World War I” and “Christmas during the Battle of the Bulge.”