(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 . . .

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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.”

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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.

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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!

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–Mike

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