Silent Night - When the Guns Held Their Peace
Silent Night – when the guns held their peace
This is the season of the year when I find myself walking up to the high moor, with a faggot of sticks slung across my back.
At the 1500ft contour, and in the lee of a stone bank beside a tumulus, I prepare for the rising of the moon.
Then am I carried back through time . . . once again among those bearded men in a Flanders wood.
Their heads are covered by woollen Balaclava helmets. Each has made himself a miniature brazier, an empty ration tin jabbed by bayonet, and held by handles of wire.
How the charcoal fires within glow with blue, yellow and rosy flames! Those bearded faces have remained unshaved since the 90-mile retreat from Mons in August 1914 . . .
And now it is Christmas Eve of that faraway year. All is quiet.
No sudden booming of cannon; no rifle bullets cracking like a bush fire racing before a gale. Nor are there any magnesium flares swishing up, to break into wavering greenish lights before descending under little parachutes to the eye-level of no-man’s-land, where the dead in khaki and feld grau lie in all attitudes between the barbed-wire entanglements.
There was no saluting in the wood, no loud voice of authority. Thereby the spirit of the battalion officers, NCOs and privates adopted a natural quality of comradeship, based on mutual respect and corporate pride.
And now, on Christmas Eve, there is a strange silence over the battlefield.
We have been warned that tonight we must go into no-man’s-land and put posts into the ground that is freezing. At first, we felt we were ‘for it’.
But when we filed out, with stakes and iron bars and mallets, there was no fear. And, sure enough, no firing came from the German lines less than 100 yards away. The ground was too hard for the work, so the squad was recalled.
I went for a stroll, picking my way around shell-holes sheeted with ice. Before me there seemed to be a small light burning with brilliance on top of a pole raised behind the German lines.
As I stared at its beauty, a baritone voice began to sing a nursery song I recalled from childhood – Silent Night, Holy Night – whichwas now in German – Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
Void of all fear, and filled by a strange feeling of wellbeing, I wandered about no-man’s-land before returning to the wood. And next morning, when I went to the edge of the wood, there were hundreds of dark-looking figures standing together.
Many of our fellows wore goatskin jerkins, while the Germans wore many-buttoned tunics and little round caps with red piping.
A party bought some picks and shovels. Khaki and grey worked together, digging graves, making little crosses of ration box wood nailed together, and inscribed in purple with indelible pencils . . . ‘For Fatherland and Freedom’.
I was amazed. So both sides were fighting for the same things! And if everyone at home and in Germany knew this, might not the war end?
Thus my adolescent thoughts, which I hardly dared to think to myself. Thus five days of truce, ended when a message came across no-man’s-land, a written request that we keep down our heads at midnight, when their regimental staff were to inspect the trenches and automatische Pistolen would be fired.
And at 11 o’clock (our time), sure enough the bullets streaked upwards from the German lines, passing well above our trench.
So it all began over again. And the frost hardened. Every night my boots were solid with pain, my greatcoat stiff as a board. I cried silently every night, feeling lost and done for.
I took to making a fire by myself in the heart of the wood, crouching over it until the Morning Star arose from the east, and I had the greatest revelation of my life: that the only hope for the world was Love, and if you want good neighbours you must first be a good neighbour.
Alas! The Germans repeated, the following Christmas Eve, the truce idea. It was met with artillery bombardment at precisely 11 p.m. on their trenches set with candle-lit trees on the parapets.
'Silent Night – when the guns held their peace' was first published in the Daily Express on Saturday, 19 December 1970. It was later collected in Days of Wonder (1987; e-book 2013, Henry Williamson Society).