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Christmas in the Trenches

"Bertie Felstead" By Richard Goldstein (New York Times)

Bertie Felstead, the last known surviving member of the British battalion in World War I that laid down its weapons to play soccer with the Germans in the spontaneous and long remembered Christmas truce of 1915, died July 33 in Gloucester, England. He was 106.

The truce lasted perhaps half an hour and it meant nothing in the grand schemes of the Western Front generals. But the gesture by Mr. Felstead's Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the Bavarians infantrymen who faced them resonates in the British consciousness as a poignant interlude of civility during a time of unrelenting carnage.

On Christmas Day 1914, there were many instances of British and German soldiers emerging from their trenches to fraternize. Commanders on both sides warned troops not to repeat it.

But it did happened the next year, on Christmas Day, near the snowy village of Laventie, France.

As Mr. Felstead recalled it two years ago, his mortar battalion was shivering on Christmas Eve when it heard “All Through the Night “ in the German lines.
“It wasn't long before we were singing as well, ‘Good King Wenceslas,' I think it was,” he remembered. “ Your couldn't hear each other singing like that without it affecting your feelings for the other side.

“Christmas Day, there was shouting between the trenches, ‘Hello Tommy, hello Fritz,' and that broke a lot more ice. A few of the Germans came out first and started walking over. A whole mass of us went out to meet them. Nothing was planned.
“Some of them were smoking cigars and offered us cigarettes. We offered them some of ours and we chatted.”

The soldiers got by in English, German, French and sign language. “We weren't afraid,” Mr. Felstead remembered. “We just sheltered each other. Nobody would shoot at us when we were all mixed up.” An informal soccer match began in the no-man's –land between the trenches.

“Somehow a ball was produced,” Mr. Felstead recalled. “It wasn't a game as such-more of a kick-around and a free-for-all. I remember scrambling around in the snow. There could have been 50 on each side. No one was keeping score.”

"Christmas in the Trenches" By John McCutcheon

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.

'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!'' each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.

"He's singing bloody well, you know!'' my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony

The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'' struck up some lads from Kent

The next they sang was 'Stille Nacht'. "Tis 'Silent Night','' says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
"There's someone coming toward us!'' the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side

His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand

We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own

Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war

But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?''
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung

For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

Posted on 28 Feb 2008 by coachgianni
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