The Christmas Truce of 1914

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, t...
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Any traveler touring rural England often first stumbles upon a village by spying the distinct silhouette of an ancient Norman church. Buttressed by low stone walls, spring-time dafodils and ancient graveyards, the house of worship date back to eleventh century and are a living memorial to those who lived, toiled and died within the shadows of its spire.

Upon entering the narthex of these sacred places, alcoves and recessed memorials are dedicated to those who fell in the Great War.

World War I left a deeper and more jagged scar on the British Isles than any conflict in its nation’s history.  The human losses were incomprehensible – – 60,000 dead in the first few hours of the Somme, 1,000,000 dead at Verdun. Soldiers were often recruited and organized from villages and districts. The result was close knit regiments, brigades and battalions that fought and died together in close quarters – -often holding one another’s heads above the clutching mud, searing gas and devastating artillery.

On September 15, 1915, 10,000 British soldiers were ordered to attack a German salient near the town of Loos in Northeastern France.  Over the course of a 3 ½ hour slaughter, the brigades from Manchester, Northumberland and Connaught lost 8,246 men with no German casualties.  In a single engagement, entire villages within a fifty kilometer radius lost every man between 18 to 40 years old.  In the Memoirs of Flakenhayn, the German General Lundendorff was heard to comment to another officer, “The English soldiers fight like lions” – – to which the other German officer quipped, “True .  But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys”.

In WWI, the last gasp of 19th century civility was suffocated by the brutal advances in the technology of killing and the arrogant and incompetent military leadership that valued bravado over brains.  In the sumer of 1914, the initial German had ground to a halt resulting in a vicious stalemate and hundreds of miles of jagged trench line that stretched like a sutured wound from Belgium into Southern France.  British officers emboldened by decades of success in Colonial wars fighting third world native forces naively the war would be over in a matter of weeks.  Completing the confederacy of incompetence were French officers who believed that honor and élan could overcome kill zones of enfilading artillery and a no man’s land of unmerciful and interlocking machine guns.  Millions were ordered “over the top” of their trench lines to certain death.

Those alive in December, 1914, say it started with a spontaneous truce afforded by each side to bury those left dead on a denuded battlefield.  Letters that would be smuggled past censors to loved ones in Germany and England attested to the miracle that began with a snowflake of compassion — Germans and Brits meeting On Christmas Eve to exchange small gifts such as cigarettes, chocolate and food.  Peace became infectious and the entire Western front soon fell into an unintended armistice as small pockets of soldiers met drank beer, sang Christmas carols and even played games of soccer with tin cans as footballs and spiked helmets as goal posts.  “Fritz” and “Tommy” joined together in the common humanity of Christmas – – creating an enduring mythology that rose like a heavenly chorus above the bullets and bombs that had savaged and broke a generation of  young men.  From Ypres to the La Basee Canal, it was truly a silent night.

In some sectors of the trench line, the Christmas truce was occurring in direct contradiction to military orders.  Officers were urged to round up enlisted men who were engaged in “ the destructive action of fraternization with the enemy”.  Sir John French, in command of British forces wrote disdainfully, “individual unarmed men run from across the German trenches to ours holding Christmas trees above their heads.  These overtures were in some places favorably received and fraternization took place throughout the day. It appeared that a little feasting went on and junior officers, NCOs and men on either side conversed together in No Man’s land. When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any reoccurrence of such conduct and called the local commanders to strict account….”  Before being relieved of command for incompetence, French was successful in presiding over the systematic slaughter of thousands of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers in exchange for, in some cases, meters of ground won.

The truce became a heroic stand for common man in his struggle against the insanity and the cruel machinery of war.  It also proved that the only thing stronger than hate and war — was indeed love and the humanity that it nurtures.  The world may never again witness a war as senseless, devastatingly efficient in its slaughter or tragic in its consequences.  As your fingers trace the names of the dead, etched in marble, you can feel the souls swirling and rising –the voices of young men taken too soon, ripped from the moorings of a life whose book was sill unwritten.  Yet, in the darkness and hopeless moments, a light flickers in all men.  Each understood being so near to death the precious gift of life and in recognition, they offered Thanksgiving for the chance to rise to see another dawn. If you stand at Ypres and concentrate, you can almost see them – haunted, muddied gray and green khaki shadows moving like echoes and memories across a wooded landscape long since silent.  You can see their faces in pale candlelight, the shattered eighteen year old German from Munich shaking hands with the ancient 24 year-old NCO from Stow-on-the Wold.  They perhaps gesture, exchanging a canteen and hang a piece of ribbon on an ersatz Christmas evergreen, both men longing for a Christmas at home.  One might try to describe his tradition of cutting a hunter green fir in the deep snows of a Bavarian mountain forest while the other listened, dragging on a cigarette as he imagined the warm light of the pub, spilling across a crisp, frosted pasture on an ebony Gloustershire night.

In the end, the truce would not last.  The Generals and the killing machines prevailed. The march of folly carried on for three more bloody years.  In May of 1915, Lieutenant Col. John McCrae wrote a poem to memorialize the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, who had been killed in battle the prior day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

In this holiday season, it is important to remember that miracles still happen.  As in all things, miracles come in the form of people – – soldiers hunched and homesick in a cold foreign bivouac,  a person acting against injustice or the those who choose to put the interest of others above themselves.  As was the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914,  the love of God, stubborn humanity and a common instinct to survive, found a way to grind the great machinery of war and hate to a standstill. And though it lasted for a few brief moments, it’s power reminded everyone that peace, not war, remains the greatest conqueror of all time.

The Gods of Frolic

 

Australische herder in verschilldende kleurslagen.
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The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.  ~Mark Twain, letter to W.D. Howells, April 2, 1899

Once upon a time, there was a family of four boys.  The children dreamed of owning a dog.  However, their father had allergies and was convinced that dogs were really reincarnated socialists — lazy, unemployed and insensitive to the consequences of having a large family.  The constant plea for a canine companion fell on deaf ears.  But fate would not deny them.  A chance encounter with a litter of mongrel puppies while on a beach in San Diego led to the rash and exciting adoption of Brutus, a flop eared cockapoo mix who pattered across their floors and hearts for eight glorious weeks.  To this day, each boy recalls the black moment when he learned his new dog had succumbed to canine distemper.

Brutus was followed by Max, a “pound puppy” whose heritage was about as clear as the ingredients of English blood sausage.  Each morning, the boys would stir in bed as they heard Max push open the back door of the house to go outside.  He would conduct a cursory patrol of the neighborhood looking for anything out of the ordinary.  As with any carnivore or herder, it is best not to run as it only encourages spirited pursuit.  Max could close a 30 yard gap in five seconds and bring down any mammal five times his weight with a bite and twist of the ankle.  The dog was the perfect playmate — bred to run among a pack of wild things — jumping fences, biting, tackling, and chasing any moving object upon the simple command of “Get ‘em!”  When tears and disappointments arrived like seasonal storms, Max’s warm presence would quell the tempest with a simple lick of the afflicted kid’s ear.  He smelled of damp, woolen clothes and warm, dirty blankets.  Max endured one annual bath where he was sheared, coated with an explosion of fragrant flea powder and branded with a humiliating bow around his collar.  As if sensing his masculinity was in question, he would aggressively scratch against an ancient pine tree to remove the ribbon and then roll across pine needles and dirt to eradicate the smell of the kennel salon. 

The father could not disguise his dislike of Max.  The four-legged tangle of dirty hair did not much care for the father either, and avoided him like a bad neighborhood.  Given his penchant for marking sofas, Christmas trees and bathroom towels, Max had declared himself the alpha male in the home which offended the father.  Perhaps in another life, the father and the dog would have been inseparable pack mates.  However, in 1970’s suburbia, there could be only one alpha male per household.  The father did not appreciate Max’s zeal for leadership and loathed his relentless regularity, his lack of inspiration and his tendency toward promiscuity.  He would periodically assert his dominance over the dog by exiling him outside, shoo’ing him out of a room or “nudging” him in the hind quarters — not to injure him but merely to assert his role as the lead dog on the sled. 

 In dog years, Max was an 18-year-old boy and thus, all his behavior seemed normal to his beloved quartet of young boys.  Yet like the teenage boys, the dog was not without guile and premeditation.  He had a long memory. In the summer of 1974, alpha dog bested alpha father in an act of pure revenge.

In anticipation of entertaining her husband’s largest advertising client and perhaps helping him achieve a critical promotion, the mother had made the rare and exotic buy of a magnificent Kurdish weave carpet.  Given that their household operated on razor-thin margins and was occupied by four destructive boys, the rug was indeed a risky purchase.  The children were directed by their mother to not so much as look at the carpet, let alone walk on it.  Max did not get the memo.

The day of the all important client dinner arrived.  The boys were banished to friends’ houses, with Max chased outside by the anxious father.  As the fastidious client and his wife arrived, they chose to walk across the freshly cut front lawn and into the foyer of the immaculate Spanish style home.  The front door opened to a foyer fit for a middle eastern sheik.  The carpet that in Arabic meant “1000 Flowers” spread across the red-tiled floor in reverent welcome to their most important visitors.

The mother smelled an odd odor as the couples exchanged superficial pleasantries but the smell was quickly overwhelmed by the rush of Mrs. VIP’s strong perfume.  Yet this experienced mother of four boys was highly evolved and equipped with extra sensory perception.  Something was terribly wrong.  As the dinner group moved past her into the home,  the mother closed the front door and to her horror, discovered the client and his spouse were now tracking fresh dog poop across the new carpet and throughout the house.  Still a neophyte at client politics, she did not dare utter a word to the customers.  She could not possibly risk embarrassing her husbands’ biggest client. Instead, she surreptitiously spent the evening shepherding them in and out of rooms and then excuse herself to rush to clean the soiled floors and carpets.  

Finally, she could not stand it any more and gently took her husband aside.  He looked up and suddenly understood why his wife had acted so peculiar throughout this very important evening.  It was not nerves, it was dog feces.  He advanced from disbelief to anger and flashed an icy stare out the window to the patio.  A filthy mop of a dog sat triumphant in pale light cast from the dining room windows outside, panting and gazing in on the adult dinner party.   Revenge was sweet, but contrary to the old saying, it did not smell very good.

It is now years later and like my father, I find myself dancing with wolves.  Unlike my Dad, I find something extremely reassuring about living with man’s best friend.  My Australian shepherd, Brody, is my confidant and confederate.  He is well-known for his ability to keep secrets and to go for extended periods without uttering a word – content to listen to my musings and to reward my insights with a lick and laughing smile. 

To be a boy is to have a dog.  You are a breed apart — existing for the simplest of things — play, adventure, companionship, love, a warm place to lie down and the occasional secret hand-off underneath the table.  As a companion and athlete, my dog gets dispensation for his periodic accidents, biological miscues and lapses in judgement. He looks up at me and seems to be saying, “You, sir, are utterly brilliant.  If I had thumbs and a pencil, I would record everything you say.”  He, too, smells like of old, wet blankets and the cinnamon scent of lost youth.  

“The dog”, a  writer once mused, “was created especially for children. He is the God of Frolic”

Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark

 

When the AARP membership letter arrived, I put it in a pile of misdirected mail and prepared to walk it over to my

The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

next door neighbor, Charlie. Imagine my elation and surprise when I discovered that it was addressed to me. Apparently, I had joined a new demographic.

I had unceremoniously turned 50 in September and had no interest in celebrating the autumn solstice of my life with 100 of my closest detractors. I told my loving wife that a quiet, more personal commemoration would be appropriate — perhaps a new sports car or a trip to Europe. This seemed infinitely preferable to ripping the seat of my pants while trying to do the worm on the dance floor at my 50th fete.

At a half century, I was now entering October country — that shadowy meridian that separates the last sighs of September’s Indian summer of youth and the cooler, denuded November twilight of mature life. It’s in the autumn of our days that the unexpected tends to happen. There are days when I really just want to be 10 years old again with my greatest concern being what I would wear for Halloween. Yet it is 2011, not 1971. Reality is no longer a horizon line road that seems to carry on forever. I felt jinxed.

Perhaps my negativity created a sort of karmic low-pressure system or I may have offended the gods of suburban living because no sooner had I begun to wallow in self pity that the Great Nor’easter of Oct. 30 hit. I was just two days into being Mr. Mom, having been left behind by my highly organized captain who had slipped out of the country to visit our daughter who is studying abroad. The remaining crew was a pathetic ship of fools — the hapless husband, two determined teenage boys, a bulimic Australian Shepherd and a demonic house cat that was now using her urine as a warped form of foreign policy.

When the electricity died Saturday afternoon, I initially smiled as the reassuring switches and subsequent thrum of the back-up generator kicked in. I was the ant who had elected to invest in the future while across the state, male grasshoppers were being berated by their partners for being too cheap or too New England-proud to make provisions for the potential for electrical outages. I admit that the purchase of the generator was a no-brainer. My home lacks a certain charm when there was no running water, heat and ESPN. It quickly becomes a giant port-o-potty.

As parsimonious people, the cost and logistics of burying a 1,000-gallon propane tank in my garden did not sit well with me. I elected instead to go with a smaller, above ground 120 gallon propane tank. Before moving to New England from California, the biggest propane tank I had seen was on a Coleman camping stove — and that damn thing lasted for a year. Surely a 120-gallon tank of propane could run my house for a month. I would later learn that 120 gallons can power a lamp and an electric clock for about a day. Throw in teenage electrical thieves who steal heat while you are freezing, computers while you are blacked out, microwaves while you are drinking iced coffee and take 20-minute hot showers — and your propane and serenity is good for 10 minutes.

As the propane tank slowly drained of its life force, the service company informed me that they could not make it to my house for several days — ensuring that I was now going to run out of power. Apparently, they were running out of power. This led me to the draconian decision to ration our electricity. My energy conservation plan was not well received by the natives. Truth be told, it bugged me. We had bought the generator so we would not have to sit in the dark. Yet, here we were sitting in the dark trying to conserve energy. It felt like the ever-perplexing paradox of having to clean the house before the cleaning people arrive. The dishes piled up. The toilets remained unflushed. By day three, we avoided the laundry room as if there was something living inside the 5-foot pile of dirty clothes.The cat disappeared and I feared the highly fragrant laundry mass had devoured her.

For meals, I resorted to take-out and a Mad Lib bachelor recipe: grilled cheese (you add the plural noun). When we ran out of milk, I suggested to the boys that they use the leftover Diet Coke on their breakfast cereal.

“It tastes good. I ate Corn Flakes with Tab all the time in college.”

The dog kept whimpering trying to convey to me that I was obligated to take him on his daily 5-mile run. I just whimpered back at him. The cat retaliated for my neglect of the litter box by peeing on the floor. I slipped in it. I thought about peeing on her but she was too quick.

Meanwhile, the propane gauge fell like a barometer. We were down to 5 percent. School was canceled which required me to work from home. Working from home is overrated for executives. One tends to lose credibility on business calls when dogs and teens are screaming in the background. With the propane dying, I had to decide whether to eat my children or ship them off to friends who offered to host them while I presided over the death of my generator. Since they are not properly tenderized, I elected the latter and returned home. The propane was now down to 2 percent. Like a lone survivor with a single bullet in the chamber of his gun, I was not sure whether I wanted to use the final wisps of energy to watch ESPN or clean the world’s most disgusting load of dirty dishes. I went for the dishes.

I turned off all the lights, sat in the darkness and ran the dishwasher — the only light on in my property was the tiny red dial indicating the status of the wash cycle. I sat adrift in ebony self pity. When do the boils and lice arrive? There was an odd thrum as the generator gasped and finally died. Outside, I suddenly noticed a light flicker at Charlie’s house. I heard the distant clicking of a computer printer resetting in the den. I cautiously approached the light switch and click, glorious light poured down from the blackened recesses of the heavens. Power was restored. I admit to waiting until the next afternoon (I’m no dummy), to pick up the boys only to be informed by our friends that one of them may have been exposed to head lice.

Yes, Job, there is a Santa Claus. The parasites had indeed finally arrived. One radioactive shampoo, two pick-ups and a reassuring Zumbach’s coffee later, our family was reunited. I relaxed for the first time in days. The phone rang. My Optimum cable, which has been as reliable as a blind man in a bar fight, had come back to life. The TV flickered. There it was — ESPN. A toilet flushed. There was a cheer and then just as quickly, the lights went out. I moaned and turned around — only to see my teenage son smiling as he flipped back on the light switch.

“Just messing with you, Dad,” he said.