(Not Quite) All Quiet on the Western Front . . .

As someone who has pursued his flights of fancy in written form since childhood, there are times when I’m asked why I write the things I do.  What motivates me to write a certain short story or a novel featuring four seventh-graders who cross through the void to a parallel world?  It’s a fair question, of course.  After all, what inspires any of us to do the things we do, to create the things we create?

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There are multiple answers, layered answers.  Interests, passions, points of view . . . each of us pursues those things that matter to us, those things we feel a need to share with others.

But there is also a simpler answer, something that delves deeper, moves beyond the subjects and themes, similes and metaphors.

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There is something more . . .

***************

Consider an event that took place one hundred years ago–on the battlefields of western Europe, enemy lines entrenched mere yards apart from each other, five months in to the “War That Would End All Wars.”

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Already the combatants were shell-shocked.  Each side had entered the fray believing one knockout blow, one decisive thrust, would assure a quick and easy victory.  The initial German push had caused great alarm in the Allied capitals, and, for a brief moment, Paris itself felt threatened.  But the offensive sputtered at the Marne before bogging down in the cold mud of Flanders.  By the time the 1914 holiday season rolled around, soldiers on both sides of the line had taken to earth, digging trenches and establishing firm boundaries that squared the forces directly across from one another.  It was beginning to be apparent that this would not be the short conflict both sides had hoped for.  Like a thick, toxic fog seeping in through unseen holes, a harsher reality was setting in.

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Thousands upon thousands of soldiers had already died in the fighting.  Ancient rivalries and hatreds burned deep.  Neither side considered defeat, thought about surrender.  These attitudes and beliefs, so firmly ingrained, make the events of December 1914 that much more remarkable.

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In the days leading up to Christmas, official requests for at least a temporary cease-fire had emerged from various factions, including a call from the pope himself that “the guns may fall silent.”  But leaders on all sides shrugged these pleas off.  This was war.  It was no time for cease-fires.

But some of the soldiers living and fighting in the trenches took matters in their own hands.  As the month of December pushed on, signs were evident that something different, something unusual, was in the air.

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Many soldiers would later write home about the events that followed.  One of the most well-known such letters was penned by British soldier Frederick W. Heath, a Private.  In his epistle, Heath writes of the “ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches,” the “grave-like rise of ground that marked the German trenches two hundred yards away.”  “The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last,” he states, but “it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.”

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Homesick, “with overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost,” he writes: “Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve.”

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But then, in the middle of this reverie, Private Heath sees “a light in the enemy’s trenches”–something “so rare at this hour that I passed a message down the line.”  He “had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front.”

It is at this point where the young Private hears a voice rising from the German trenches.  “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”  The voice urged the British to rise out of their trenches and “come out here to us.”  Heath and his comrades feared a trap, and remained where they were, though a running conversation with the Germans ensued all through the night.

Finally, “came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink,” and the Germans were moving “recklessly about” on top of their trenches, “no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty.”  But they did not shoot.

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The German soldiers continued to ask them to rise from their trenches, to meet halfway, and began walking toward the British line.  Initially Heath and his comrades were cautious, staying where they were, but “not for long could such an appeal be resisted.”  They met the Germans in No-Man’s Land, between the trenches, and “out went the hands [which] tightened in the grip of friendship.  Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.”

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“Here was no desire to kill,” Heath continues, “but just the wish of a few simple soldiers . . . that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease.”  The men gave each other cigarettes and exchanged “all manner of things,” along with names and addresses on field service postcards.

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They “stayed together for a while and talked,” and after they had chatted, they “turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

“All through the day no shot was fired.”

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But then, after Christmas had come and gone, Private Heath writes, “As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely.  Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery.  So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.”

**********

Undoubtedly, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has been mythologized and romanticized in the years since, especially this holiday season, which marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the event.  Tall tales, legends concocted from pure imagination, fictional narratives have thrived.  But something very real and very remarkable did occur a century ago on the mud- and frost-strewn battlefields of France and Belgium.  “It was absolutely astounding,” one British soldier wrote, “and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

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And why not?  In the midst of a terrible war that would drag on for four interminable years, across the still, cold lines, the silence was broken by the sounds of soldiers singing the Christmas carols of their youth, the songs they missed and loved and remembered.

christmascarols

And perhaps this, more than anything, is what lies behind the need we feel to write, to share, to create.  We are all human, in our frailty, our faults, our conflicts, but also in our love, our joy, and our triumphs.  The duality of life never ceases to amaze.  From the Christmas Truce of 1914 to the horrors of Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres a mere two years later, the highs and lows of the human condition mystify and astound.

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Maybe, when it’s all said and done, we write because we have no other choice; we need an outlet, a way of communicating ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves.

Have a wonderful holiday, full of the spirit of the season, and thanks so much for reading!

merrychristmas

–Mike

38 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. teagan geneviene
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 19:29:20

    No matter how many times i hear of that event, i get goose bumps. That was a lovely telling of it, Michael. Hugs.

    Reply

  2. Shelley
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 19:40:56

    Have read different versions of this event. One is about a soccer game played in no mans land. Merry Christmas.

    Reply

  3. stockdalewolfe
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 19:52:11

    Merry Christmas to you and your family, too, Mike! xx Ellen

    Reply

  4. John W. Howell
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 20:57:12

    Wonderful Story. Thanks for this. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    Reply

  5. jjspina
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 21:37:59

    Thank you for this lovely post. Wishing you blessings of Christmas and a healthy & happy New Year, Mike! xo

    Reply

  6. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 23:22:27

    Thanks for sharing, Mike. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

    Reply

  7. Rosaliene Bacchus
    Dec 19, 2014 @ 00:03:15

    Mike, thanks for sharing that Christmas miracle. Peace be with you and your loved ones this Christmas!

    Reply

  8. Lyn
    Dec 19, 2014 @ 00:20:02

    I’ve shared this on Twitter and Facebook. Hope you and your family have a very blessed Christmas, Mike, and a New Year filled with joy, peace, contentment and lots of writing ideas 😉

    Reply

  9. kingdom777
    Dec 19, 2014 @ 10:03:01

    Hi Mike,
    You might want to read a post I wrote on this subject on Anzac Day last year:
    http://jobloggz.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/no-mans-land-world-war-11915/
    BTW I am enjoying your book which I have finally got the time to read.
    I’m up to the point where the boys realise they’ve gone back in time when they see all the classic cars. Off to bed to read more now!
    Happy Christmas,
    Jo

    Reply

  10. jenniferkmarsh
    Dec 19, 2014 @ 12:47:36

    Due to the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, one of the leading supermarkets here in the UK created this advert. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM I thought you may like to see it 🙂

    The Christmas Day truce is a touching reminder of the good in mankind, and the kindness Christmastime can inspire in our hearts.

    Thanks for the post, Mike. Have a merry Christmas 🙂

    Reply

  11. By Hook Or By Book ~ Book Reviews, News, & Other Stuff
    Dec 19, 2014 @ 13:56:32

    What a wonderful post Mike! This story never fails to give me the chills!

    Reply

  12. By Hook Or By Book ~ Book Reviews, News, & Other Stuff
    Dec 19, 2014 @ 14:00:13

    Reblogged this on By Hook Or By Book and commented:
    Mike over at Eye-Dancers has written this beautiful post which is truly inspirational and captures the true meaning of the season.

    Reply

  13. Sherri
    Dec 20, 2014 @ 13:03:20

    It’s a great advert…just reading Jenny’s comment to you Mike! Thank you for your powerful and poignant post Mike, so beautifully written and just right to share this Christmas as a reminder of all that is good in the world, even if only for a few moments. Wishing you a very Happy Christmas and a New Year filled with every good thing 🙂

    Reply

  14. evelyneholingue
    Dec 21, 2014 @ 16:00:56

    You couldn’t have found a more appropriate post for the season, Mike. Although I am familiar with the Christmas Truce during WWI, I am moved each time I read or hear about it. If only Christmas could be everyday then!
    Thank you for reminding us that peace is what we should always seek.
    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to You, Mike.

    Reply

  15. Trackback: Christmas Truce – Evelyne Holingue
  16. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Dec 24, 2014 @ 03:56:12

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful story of hope. I still haven’t given up on believing that one day there will be peace for more than just a day. May it be in our lifetime…Happy Holidays Mike!

    Reply

  17. Trackback: 100 YEARS AGO: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914 | SERENDIPITY
  18. ptero9
    Dec 30, 2014 @ 15:21:57

    In comparison to what some have endured, my life has been a breeze. We write to understand, to create an opening for something unknown to appear, yes?

    I just saw the movie Unbroken. Have you seen it? It’s a very good portrayal of wartime suffering, strength and human endurance, along with compassion and forgiveness.

    Great post Michael!

    Happy Holidays to you and your family.
    Debra

    Reply

  19. Karen's Nature Art
    Jan 01, 2015 @ 04:01:17

    Love the reminder of why we create…beautiful post! Hope you have a creative and productive New Year!

    Reply

  20. The Crazy Crone
    Jan 06, 2015 @ 11:00:25

    Great post, Michael, wish we could all put down arms, guns, etc., and just extend love and kindness to our fellow human beings.

    Reply

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