by George Beres
(Swans - December 18, 2006) For those who accept the Biblical tale, Christmas comes to put to rest life's deepest contradictions. Nowhere is the contrast greater than in wartime, when the December soldier is torn between killing and sharing blessings of Christmas. That became vivid in the war of the trenches a century ago.
The muddy dugouts were filled with men claiming Christian belief in parallel traditions of England and Germany. They knew each other in a personal way not possible today with silent killing from flying warships and craft that move under water. Back then, intimate sounds -- voices of the hunter and the hunted -- could be heard across the no-man's land between armies of World War I.
Never have war and religion shared a more mystical sound than on the rare Christmas Eve of 1914, when music brought a brief halt to terrible bloodletting on a field of France. Uncertain history overtook the storied Christmas truce, and later generations gave it the aura of legend. That changed late November 2005, just short of 92 Christmases later, when the last surviving British soldier from the night of the truce, Alfred Anderson, died in Scotland at 109. Anderson, born June 25, 1896, was an 18-year old member of the Black Watch Regiment when he and other British soldiers left the protection of the trenches to walk into no-man's land on Christmas Eve. The 300-yard space between opposing trenches was for dead men only until that moment of the impromptu and improbable truce.
Anderson remembered that to meet, the British and Germans walked to the center of no-man's land, where bodies of soldiers from both sides had lain for weeks untouched. During the hours of strange battlefield quiet, graves were dug on the spot for dead kinsmen. But it was music, not a burial detail, that convinced warriors who had been intent on killing each other to clamber out of the trenches and greet each other -- for that brief moment -- as friends instead of enemies.
During a lull in the firing, Anderson and his fellows thought they heard music some described as "from the heavens." It was, some laughed, Christmas Eve, so maybe a delusion for those who hungered to be home instead of on a muddy battlefield. Then the sound grew distinct. It was from the German trenches, which in some narrow spots were only 50 yards away. In a tongue foreign to most Britishers, voices across the way sang "Stille Nacht," a carol with German roots that was not yet generally familiar in England.
"When it ended," Anderson recalled, "there was a short time of silence. Then one of ours began singing "The First Noel." Halfway through, it was as if our entire regiment was singing." When the British followed with "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful," German soldiers joined in with harmony of the Latin version, "Adeste Fideles." Some courageous men from both sides chose to risk leaving protection of their mud bunkers to walk into no-man's land, trusting in the music and in the spirit of Christmas. "It was then we discovered," said Anderson, "that those on the 'other' side were not the savage barbarians we'd been told. They were like us. Why were we led to believe otherwise?" Commanders on both sides were dumbstruck by openness of the spontaneous truce. They feared it would cause soldiers to question why they were killing each other, and that such an "insanity" could spread the length of the 500-mile Western Front in France. It ended when they succeeded in getting no-man's land emptied. Then, on both sides, they ordered firing to resume without halt.
Anderson was wounded in 1916. He returned to England to live on and become Scotland's oldest man at his death, having lived in three successive centuries. A great grandchild enabled him to become part of five living generations -- a rare blessing for a survivor of a war that killed almost a full generation of English and German men. Commanders saw to it there were no more truces during the final four years of World War I, making possible battles that took 10 million lives. To his final breath last November, Anderson lived with regret that leaders on both sides, in all years, have continued to subject their people to the terrible trial of war, sometimes even seeking it. As he saw in the decades to follow, fathers continue to send sons -- now also daughters -- to fight to the death for various reasons. Sometimes there are no reasons, and the carols of Christmas sung during that truce in the trenches fade into an echo of legend.
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