Stille Nacht A World War I Christmas

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2008

William Gwaltney

CHRISTMAS EVE, 1967
ISLINGTON, LONDON, ENGLAND

Old Tom Foxley sat in his living room by the fireplace hearth, the logs of the fire burning brightly. His dog, Mack, lay next to his armchair, like a pile of laundry, his shadow flickering on the wall behind him. The warmth of the fire was the only warmth Tom felt this Christmas, for many of his friends were now gone and his dear wife, Elizabeth, had passed away the previous spring.

In the corner, a beautiful Christmas tree towered above the room. The golden halo of the angel which adorned the top brushed the ceiling. She had been in his family a long time, dating back to an era when his parents had lived in this very house. Her once-white robes were ivory now; her wings, originally covered in soft downy feathers, were more than a little bit spotty. Yet she still played her celestial harp, her eyes closed in quiet concentration, her face showing nothing but goodness and peace.

Stille Nacht spending christmas alone

The warmth of the fire was the only warmth Tom felt this Christmas

The giant fir seemed illuminated by the many gleaming orbs that hung from its fragrant limbs, even though they made no glow of their own and only reflected the light from dozens of glowing candles that lined the tree’s branches. Certainly not the safest of decorations, the candles were a reminder of a special long-ago Christmas, and it just never seemed right not to have them on his tree. Tom sighed as he thought of how Elizabeth used to complain about the fire hazard they created. He decided that he missed her fussing almost as much as he missed her. He gently reached down to stroke old Mack’s head, remembered more happy Christmases of the past and then… the most memorable that he had ever witnessed.

*          *          *

It was Christmas Eve Day, 1914, and the continual barrage of shells and gunfire seemed to pound his ears like a hammer. Young Tom, just seventeen years old, kept as low as possible as he moved through the sloppy trench, the water in the bottom rising well above his knees. As explosions rocked the earth, dirt was sent hurtling over the crest of the trench, where it fell into the water, mixing into a muddy soup. The place reeked of death and decay, for the bodies of his fallen comrades could not always be removed from the trench safely. Snipers were everywhere, and their fire was an ever-present danger.

Holding his rifle above his head in an effort to keep it dry, Tom plunged through the water, moving toward a firing step. The man already on the platform ducked as bullets whizzed over his head. Then he gratefully stepped down, allowing Tom to take his place. Looking over the edge of the trench, Tom could see bodies scattered across No Man’s Land, the area between the German and the English trenches. In this war, gains came at great cost. They had been trying to hold this single trench for weeks as the Kaiser’s army had advanced across France like a puddle of water across a stone floor, seeping slowly but steadily in every direction.

When Britain had entered the Great War the previous summer, no one had expected it to last this long. They’d thought victory would be theirs in a matter of months. Now here it was Christmas, with no end to the war in sight, and the men were all miserable and longing for home.

Tom glanced up and saw Fred Mooring trudging toward him through the trench. Fred was struggling through the muck, lifting his legs high in an effort to evade the mud that was threatening to suck the boots right off his feet. If only the weather would turn colder, they might have some relief from living in standing water. That alone would be a blessing. A German mortar round suddenly landed nearby, the roar of the explosion causing temporary deafness.

One minute, Fred was there. The next he was buried under a wall of earth as part of the trench collapsed. Tom leaped forward, grabbing his spade. He attacked the earth, digging furiously, struggling to uncover Fred, while straining to keep his own body upright in the slippery mud. Finally, he found Fred’s leg. Grabbing hold and using all his strength, he pulled Fred from the earth. Fred was gray but breathing, alive but unconscious. Medics ran to his aid and carted him away on a stretcher. Tom collapsed from exhaustion on a pile of earth. This war was dirty business, in more ways than one.

The medics offered to tend to him as well but he pushed them away, wanting only sleep, something he hadn’t had in days. No one slept well in the trenches. Some men simply slept standing on their feet, while others preferred to sleep in dugouts, small holes crudely cut into the earthen walls of the trenches. They were cramped and damp, and sometimes rat-infested, but not nearly as wet as the trenches themselves.

Tom went in search of his sergeant. He found him at a small table set up in the driest part of the trench, consulting with the lieutenant over a series of maps laid out in front of them. Tom saluted and waited to be acknowledged. When the men finally looked up, Tom couldn’t help but notice the exhaustion etched in the lines of their faces. “Corporal Foxley,” the sergeant said, “what is it?”

“I’d like to retire for a few hours, sir,” said Tom.

“Very well,” replied the sergeant, “but first, take this package.” He handed over a large box wrapped in plain brown paper. Tom took the box and saluted. A look at the return address, 23B Lancaster Street, Islington, London, England, told him that this package had come from home. Mum had chosen to brighten his Christmas in the only way she knew how. Inside the box, Tom found his favorite chocolates, some butterscotch, tobacco for his pipe, and a sweater, obviously knitted by his Aunt Fiona.

The sweater made Tom smile. Only Fiona could create something this dreadful. She had obviously run out of wool numerous times, the colors in the sweater changing from red to gray to green. One of the sleeves was longer than the other, and the neck was thin on one side and bulky on the other. Yet the wool was soft instead of scratchy, the sweater smelled of home, and Tom knew that it would keep him warm even if it got wet. He smiled as he slid it over his head, and climbed into an empty dugout. Curling into a ball, using all the relaxation he could muster, he somehow managed to fall asleep.

He awoke several hours later, with Fred shaking him violently. It was full dusk, the sky a thick velvety navy blue, the stars just beginning to appear between wispy, scattered, ghostlike clouds. It took a moment for Tom to realize that the cool night air was silent. Gone were the sounds of gunfire and grenades. He looked questioningly at Fred. “The barrage stopped several hours ago,” Fred said, “and now… well, you’re never going to believe it if I tell you, so you might as well come up and see it for yourself. Come on now, Tom, hurry up!”

Tom blinked the sleep from his eyes as he crawled from his shelter, feeling much better now that he had rested. He followed Fred to the front trench and peeked over the side. Thousands of eerie yet beautiful little lights illuminated the edge of the German parapets. “What are those?” said Tom in a loud whisper.

“They’re Christmas trees!” exclaimed Fred. “The Germans began setting them up several hours ago, but they’ve just now begun to light the candles on their branches. Private Henshaw shot one of them down right after they put it up, but one of the Saxons climbed out of the trench to set it right again. A wilder thing I’ve never seen. He was in full view of our gunners. But there he was, plain as day, without a care in the world. It was almost as if he was daring us to shoot him!”

Stille Nacht at the ground during war

Thousands of eerie yet beautiful little lights illuminated the edge of the German parapets

Suddenly, a beautiful sound filled the crisp night air. “The Jerries are singing,” said Fred, his voice filled with awe. “‘Stille Nacht,’ that’s ‘Silent Night’!” Oddly enough, the hymn sent joy surging from Tom’s heart right into his very soul. He felt happier and lighter than he had in months. He found himself singing softly, the tune the same but his words in English. More surprised than ever, he realized that others in his own trench were singing along as well. When the hymn was complete, applause rippled through the trenches on both sides.

Suddenly, without prior warning, the Germans began climbing en masse from their trenches. Some shouted out, “No shoot! No shoot!” their hands in the air, while others held up crudely lettered signs that read, “Happy Christmas.” Everywhere Tom looked, the German troops were risking death to reach out to soldiers on the opposing side. A voice suddenly rang out of the darkness. “Englanders!” it cried, with a decidedly German accent. “Will you come out to meet us in No Man’s Land?”

Thinking back on it, it wasn’t something Tom consciously decided. Instead, his muscles seemed to act of their own accord. Before he knew it, he was out of the trench. Looking down, he realized that a hard frost had frozen the ground, making the footing the most bearable it had been in months, and coating the landscape with glittering white crystals that sparkled in the moonlight as he’d seen crystal chandeliers do back home.

“Tom!” shouted his lieutenant from somewhere behind him. “What are you doing?! It’s trickery, I tell you! It’s got to be! Get back here before they kill you, man!” But as Tom walked slowly but steadily through No Man’s Land, the enemy guns remained silent. He could see the men now, just beyond the barbed wire. Surprisingly, except for the difference in their uniforms, he was shocked to see that they looked no different than he did… they appeared to be young and tired, muddy and wet.

A tall, thin German approached him. “Are you the commanding officer?” he asked Tom, his English clear though accented. Tom found him difficult to understand. Not because of his accent, but because his teeth chattered as he spoke. Now and then, a thick, nasty cough rumbled from deep within his chest. Tom was about to reply when a voice behind him said, “No. I am. I am Lieutenant Bowers of the Third London Rifles, and this had better not be a trick!”

“It is no trick,” the German replied softly. “We wish to offer you a truce. For the rest of Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day, we will not fire if you do not fire.” He looked down at the bodies scattered across No Man’s Land. “It will give us a chance,” he said, “to bury our dead with dignity.”

And, thought Tom, to celebrate the holiday as it was meant to be celebrated: in peace.

The lieutenant looked thoughtful for a moment. Finally, he saluted. “Very good, sir,” he responded as they reached out to shake hands over the wire. The German smiled, but only for a moment. Then a fit of coughing wracked his body, causing him to turn away. As he began to return to his own side, Tom called out to him. The man stopped.

“How long have you been sick?” asked Tom.

The German sighed. “Forever,” he replied. “You sound terrible,” said Tom. The German chuckled, then paid for it with another bout of coughing. “I don’t feel quite as horrible as your sweater looks,” he said, his eyes smiling. “But it is hard during the war, is it not? Men get sick in the trenches, the woolen mills run out of dye and…” but the coughing had started up again and he couldn’t continue.

“This sweater’s not the work of the war at all,” said Tom, smiling himself now. “It’s my Aunt Fiona. She’s always been a bit daft, but her heart’s in the right place.”

“Ah,” replied the German, “a good heart is what matters. Look,” he said, pulling a tattered photo from his coat pocket. It showed a beautiful young woman, holding a grinning baby. “My family,” the man said softly. “My wife has a good heart as well. I cannot tell you how much I miss her and my little one. It is beginning to look as if he will be all grown up by the time I get home.” They chatted for a while longer, while all around them other soldiers clustered in groups. Germans stood with British troops and both sides exchanged whatever they had to give—small gifts of canned meats, cigarettes, candies and cakes. Finally, after a particularly bad fit of coughing, the German said, “I must go.”

“Wait!” Tom said, more sharply than he intended, causing heads to turn all around them as men looked over to see what was going on. Tom carefully removed his new sweater, folded it with great care, and handed it to the German. “Merry Christmas,” he said. It is not pretty, but it will keep you warm. And it was made by a woman with a good heart,” he added, since he could think of nothing else positive to say about the ugly sweater. “Perhaps that means that it will bring you luck, and get you safely back home to your family.”

“I couldn’t possibly take it,” replied the German. “Your aunt made it just for you.”

“Yes,” replied Tom, “but you’re sick. She would have wanted you to have it.”

The German smiled gratefully. “Danke,” he said, as he slipped the sweater over his head. Then he pulled a small ledger and a pencil from his pocket. “Tell me your address,” he said, “and I will mail the sweater back to you after the war.” Since Tom still lived at home, he slowly recited his mother’s address. The German wrote it carefully in his book. When he was done, he touched Tom briefly on the shoulder, and then he was gone.

*          *          *

A loud ruckus brought Tom back to the present. Mack was barking insistently. Tom decided that he must need to go out. Heaving his seventy-year-old body up out of his chair, Tom headed for the door. He had, of course, never seen the sweater again, but that was all right. Tom only hoped that it was because the German had lost his address, or perhaps lost the sweater, or simply gotten too busy once he returned home to his family to think about sweaters or war or young men back in England. Tom did not like to think about the alternatives, that the soldier had possibly been killed in battle, or that the ominous cough had been some type of infection that had killed the man slowly over time. These thoughts made Tom shudder despite the warmth from the fire.

Reaching the door, Tom threw the bolt, letting Mack out into the cold. The dog charged forth into the darkness and the swirling snow. Closing the door, Tom leaned against it. He didn’t want to go far because he knew that on a night like tonight, an old dog like Mack would want to come back in soon. As he waited, he looked once more at the tree in the corner. The light from the candles flickered and danced, and would forever remind him of the magical night on the Western Front so many years ago.

Stille Nacht showing off the sweater

Tom could hardly believe his eyes. The man looked much different, but the sweater was the same

Once more Mack began to bark, this time from outside. Tom opened the door to see not only the dog, but an ancient man with snow-white hair standing before him in a hideous wool sweater. “Englander!” shouted the man in a pronounced German accent. Tom could hardly believe his eyes. The man looked much different, but the sweater was the same. There was no mistaking Aunt Fiona’s handiwork, old and tattered as it was. “My son is grown and gone,” the man said, “and my wife died just last month. In going through her things, I found that old ledger with your address inside. With Christmas so near at hand and no family to share it with, I thought that I would come and return your sweater to you. It is about time, no?”

“Come in,” said Tom. “May I interest you in a cup of tea?”

“I would love that,” his friend replied.

“By the way, I never caught your name,” said Tom, as the two of them walked into the kitchen to make tea and share another Christmas together.

Stille Nacht William Gwaltney

William Gwaltney, 13
Englewood, Colorado

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