Monday, December 17, 2007

CHRISTMAS 1914

[A just found letter from British Second Lt Trevor Bird written Christmas Day, 1914]

My Dear Father

Christmas Day you see me still alive, though by Jove, since the 20th I've been having a fairly hairy time. We were sent to a place where the Germans had broken the line. When we finally got under the last cover available we were ordered to make a bayonet attack on the German trenches! It was a criminal order on the part of the man who ordered it.

After 26 hours in water up to the waste I was sent to dry myself with my half squadron behind the firing line. Still sopping wet we were sent off to another lot of trenches and from these I was then pulled out and sent off for a patrol. Every time I showed myself "ping" went a bullet!

However, I finally reached the line of the British Trenches I was making for where to cap all my troubles , I was arrested as a German spy!! It was not until I had been taken before the C.O., with a rifle muzzle in the small of my back, that I was allowed to depart.

Yesterday, we did a 25-mile march I have a pair of feet like balloons and an attack of neuritis and a chill! [...] My tootsies are awfully painful. Well we get well paid so mustn't complain I suppose.

Must stop now, so once more wishing you a Merry and Happy New Year.

Au revoir - Your Loving Trevor

CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES

John McCutcheon

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool. Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school. To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here I fought for King and country I love dear.

'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung, The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung Our families back in England were toasting us that day Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear As one young German voice sang out so clear.

"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more As Christmas brought us respite from the war

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent The next they sang was "Stille Nacht." "Tis `Silent Night'," says I And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

"There's someone coming toward us!" the front line sentry cried All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell

We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home These sons and fathers far away from families of their own Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin This curious and unlikely band of men

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night "Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"

'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame And on each end of the rifle we're the same

SAM SMITH, WHY BOTHER? - With Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Richard Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the internal bureaucratic logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, 1990 - In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod describes the unspoken cooperation that developed in WWI trenches that allowed troops to leave their trenches for food and water and to predict when the shelling would occur. Said one soldier: "It would be child's play to shell the road behind the enemy's trenches, crowded as it must be with ration wagons and water carts, into a bloodstained wilderness . . . but on the whole there is silence. After all, if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations, his remedy is simple: he will prevent you from drawing yours."

[Two of your editor's uncles and one of their cousins were killed in WWI and another committed suicide some years later, the result of what would today be called post-traumatic stress syndrome. When you grow up with that in the past your view of warfare tends to be somewhat different than that of CNN or Richard Cheney]

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