Men lived in muddy, rat-infested trenches. They smoked moldy cigarettes, sang bawdy songs, and tried to stave off the cold. They hoped there would be a good freeze, if only to solidify the ground and keep their feet dry. It was impossible to keep their feet dry.
They knew, only five months in, that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas as promised. No one was moving, but plenty of men – many children, still – were dying. And those who lived sometimes wished for death, or perhaps were reckless enough not to consider it. Shelling and the bursts of machine gun fire were constant; it was hard to sleep, even if you could find a place to lie down. If it was quiet, there were still the snipers. Some accustomed themselves to war and to killing, while the rest went quietly insane.
This is why veterans don’t tell war stories.
This is why I don’t ask.
This is why I watch documentaries and read books like Silent Night, in order to try to comprehend the insane. Silent Night is about the short truce that the soldiers on both sides cobbled together for a few days in 1914, at the beginning of World War I, and from what I can tell, shows the war in harsh perspective.
The Germans had Christmas trees shipped into the trenches for a semblance of cheer; they were decorated and fitted out with candles. When they began placing them in their parapets and above their trenches, the English, Scots, French, and Belgians were shocked. Some suspected a ploy, some master maneuver. But others saw the trees and read signs that said things like, “You no shoot, we no shoot,” and were comforted. They sang to and with each other; many units met in the middle of the cratered No Man’s Land and exchanged souvenirs and cigarettes.
On the 25th, many units arranged to bury their dead, some of whom had been out in the open for a month or more. If a soccer ball could be found or cobbled together, they played. Some Englishmen recognized German waiters or barbers they had known in London or Birmingham; some German soldiers asked English or Scots soldiers to send their letters back to their families in England.
Obviously, the top brass on either side were not pleased by these developments. Some arranged for snap inspections, which were cannily undermined so that the units could run back to their trenches and pretend nothing was happening. Those in the ditches didn’t give a damn about what they were supposed to be doing: they weren’t going to do it. If told to shoot, they aimed high.
All of this raises some truly painful questions, especially considering how long the war went on for. How could you be friends one day and kill each other the next? The book says it better than I can.
One German was purported to say:
“’Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country; I fight for mine. Good luck.’” (133)
Less delicately, an English soldier jotted down a poem:
I do not wish to hurt you
But (Bang!) I feel I must.
It is a Christian virtue
To lay you in the dust.
You – (Zip! That bullet got you)
You’re really better dead.
I’m sorry that I shot you –
Pray, let me hold your head. (134)
I cannot say I understand, but I also don’t really want to. The most heartbreaking part of the truce was the knowledge that if it had continued, the war could have dissolved from the bottom up. Of course this didn’t happen; troops were moved around, shots inadvertently fired led to real firefights. And so a whole future was changed: the Russian revolution was unavoidable, the decolonization of Africa occurred, America became a global power, and the 20th century saw some of its greatest writers and artists.
Five months into the war, although a million were already dead, the trenches remained graves for the living. On both sides in 1915 there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year. And there would be nearly four more years of attrition – not to determine who was right, but who was left. (155)
So this Memorial Day – though I come in a bit late – let’s remember the sacrifices made by innumerable men and women over the centuries, people who never had the chance to die of old age. Love the soldiers, hate the war.
To our servicemen, past and present: for protecting a peace I may never fully appreciate, thank you.