Christmas 1914 and 94 years later

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By Wendy Binnie

As we approach the holidays, it seems that our understanding of a tradition may be about to end and it is heartbreaking. The down and dirty of it is that as grandchildren get older, they are less inclined to accept the fantasies that we, the grandparents weave for them in the expectation that they will be children forever — at least in our minds.

But it is not that way. And this may be our last holiday where that is the case. Serious signs have already been spotted. Two years ago one of the grandchildren said in an inquiring voice, “doesn’t Santa look a lot like grandpa?”

Well, of course what they heard may be the kiss of death for innocence and a great loss for grandpa who enjoyed getting into his one size fits all Santa outfit to “ho, ho, ho” out in the yard and deliver the gifts to the waiting Christmas tree, drink the milk and eat the cookies. Our children we’ll recall were a tad older than this precocious bunch.

These certainly are the travails of the season. We, as grandparents, bemoan how fast life seems to be moving, but then we did that when our own children lost their innocence.

We wish it could be otherwise; but all the same we are thankful for these few remaining days and hope that we can stretch them out for another day, another week as we cannot help but envision them growing up too fast into a too complicated world where we may no longer be able to wipe their tears or surprise them with an ice cream sundae when they’ve been especially good. And the realism that will hit them when a beloved grandparent is no longer there to do this marvelous pretence of youth and joy.

But then no! Perhaps it has ever been thus and each generation of grandparents feel this way – something to think about and soothe us.

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Christmas Day will arrive next week just before your regular copy of the Citizen on Friday, Boxing Day. The following is an extremely truncated version of “The Christmas Truce,” which started out as one or two mentions on Google and now has burgeoned into a cottage industry.

Fancy playing football (soccer) on a pitch alternately muddy and frozen? Your opposition is your World War I enemy, Germany, and it is Christmas Day in France, 1914. Nobody recalls the score.

Written in pencil on five pages of paper torn from an Army-issue notebook, an English ”Tommy” tells his “dear Mater” how on a frosty, moonlit Christmas Eve the Germans began placing “lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us — wishing us Happy Christmas, etc.” He said it was the most memorable Christmas ever spent or likely to be spent. “Since about teatime yesterday, not a shot has been fired on either side.”

The Tommy, described as a young lad, further said that at night German and British soldiers had a joint Christmas dinner of “fried bacon and dip-bread followed by hot Christmas pudding, then muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate, cocoa and smokes. You can guess we thought of the dinners at home.

“Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came halfway over to us. So several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics.

“We also had a decent chat. They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t, so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday — perhaps.”

To find a letter written home on the actual day of one of the most famous incidents in military history is amazing. The envelope is missing and the intensely moving letter has long since been separated from the sender’s family. It is therefore, quite literally, the work of an “unknown soldier.”

In the historic and unique truce, firing stopped along the entire 500 miles of the Western Front. The Germans sung “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (Silent night, holy night) while the British responded with a rendition of “O Come all ye Faithful.”

In one sector, the Germans produced a Christmas tree and staged the famous football match. In some areas, the truce lasted only one day; in others it continued until close to the New Year. The informal truce spread along much of the 500-mile Western Front, in some cases lasting for days — alarming army commanders who feared fraternization would sap the troops’ will to fight.

The next year brought the start of vast battles of attrition that claimed 10 million lives, and the Christmas truce was never repeated.

On Dec. 8, 2005, Alfred Anderson, one of the last surviving soldiers to have heard the guns fall silent along the Western Front, died at age 109. His death left fewer than 10 veterans of World War I alive in Britain.

He was born on June 25, 1896. Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier in the Black Watch regiment when British and German troops cautiously emerged from the trenches that Christmas Day in 1914 — let’s pretend he was the unknown soldier.

“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” Anderson told The Observer newspaper last year. "All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices," Anderson said.

"But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see.”

During the war, Anderson served briefly as batman — or valet — to Capt. Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the Queen Mother Elizabeth. Bowes-Lyon was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

Anderson fought in France until 1916, when he was wounded by shrapnel from a shell. In 1998, he was awarded France’s Legion of Honor for his war service.

… As I was saying …

Wendy England Binnie, a novelist and op-ed columnist, lives in Oak Trace Villas. Contact her at smcnews@earthlink.net.