Friday, 27 December 2013

Reflection




Watching the images of the civilian victims of war from South Sudan to Syria and Afghanistan
on daily TV-News is wrenching, especially as I consider the unspeakable fate of the children.
 Strangely, it makes me think almost nostalgically of the few sparks of humanity
 that brought the light of Christmas to the trenches during the fratricidal catastrophe 
the centenary of which we will commemorate in the New Year.

 I am thinking of World War I where on Holy Night allied and German soldiers
sang their common chorals together and then surfaced from their dugouts
to celebrate the birth of the Savior the men on both sides believed in.





It is beyond my imagination how these moving scenes, 
so vividly described by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, 
can be replicated on today’s settings, which are culturally so utterly different 
and yet display even more insistently the need for the love and decency 
implanted in all human beings by their common Creator.

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The Christmas Truce:

Out of the hundreds of Christmas Truce letters transcribed to date, 
this letter by Private Frederick W Heath 
(transcribed by Marian Robson) is perhaps the most remarkable. 
A beautifully-written account from the start of the truce until its end:


"The night closed in early - the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers' Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.

Memory in her shrine kept us in a trance of saddened silence. 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. With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches. Thoughts surged madly in my mind; but they had no sequence, no cohesion. Mostly they were of home as I had known it through the years that had brought me to this. I asked myself why I was in the trenches in misery at all, when I might have been in England warm and prosperous. That involuntary question was quickly answered. For is there not a multitude of houses in England, and has not someone to keep them intact? I thought of a shattered cottage, and felt glad that I was in the trenches. That cottage was once somebody's home.

Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy's trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. there was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war:
"English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!"

Following that salute boomed the invitation from those harsh voices: "Come out, English soldier; come out here to us." For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other's throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity - war's most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn - a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired, except for down on our right, where the French artillery were at work.

Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons on the Germans.
Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.

Still cautious we hung back. Not so the others. They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads, asking us to do the same. Not for long could such an appeal be resisted - beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side? Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.

Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of
Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered.

And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war. How far this unofficial truce extended along the lines I do not know, but I do know that what I have written here applies to the -- on our side and the 158th German Brigade, composed of Westphalians.

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."
By Pvt. Frederick W. Heath, 1914


























http://www.registeredevil.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/christmas2.jpg

What happened on that Christmas of 1914
may inspire the peacemakers of today—for, now as always, 
the best time to make peace is long before the armies go to war.


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Postscript
The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million.
There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. 
At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead.

*
33 months of conflict since 2011
 This unrelenting war has continued for over two years 
with devastating consequences for the Syrian people

On 24 July 2013, 
the United Nations put out an estimate of over 100,000 that had died in the war.
 
UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012. 
Another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. 
Both claims have been contested by the Syrian government. 
Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners have died under torture.

By early December 2013, 
the opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) 
reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 6,627, 
while at the same time 4,454 women were also killed. 
According to the UN, 6,561 children were killed by mid-June 2013. 
The Oxford Research Group said that 
a total of 11,420 children had been killed in the conflict by late November 2013.

 The UN’s humanitarian agency (OCHA) says that millions of Syrians 
living in perpetual suffering are in need of aid, 
and this number will reach 9.3 million by the end of next year.
There are currently 2.4 million Syrian refugees 
living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. 
The number will nearly double to 4.1 million by the conclusion of next year.

*

Private Frederick W Heath
here 

8 comments:

  1. Tears prick as I read the accounts of soldiers making peace for that one day. And they prick again when I read of the plight of so many in Syria, especially that of the children. Innocence lost. What a sad, weary world we live in, yet there is hope.

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  2. A touching post. The human race appears not to be able to learn from its mistakes and its capacity for cruelty is frightening. The stupidity of war was evident to me as a very young child when my grandmother told me of her 2 cousins who fought each other on either side of enemy lines during WW1 - one was German and the other English.
    Warm wishes, xxx

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  3. Dear Karin
    You have said, so clearly, in this brief post what the Media neglects to tell us. Were we more civilized in 1914?
    I pray a solution will be reached to resolve Syria's plight.
    Thank you for shining a light on this important subject.
    Happy New Year Karin
    Helen xx

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  4. Thank you for sharing these touching photos and stories, Karin. I wish for peace in 2014. My family fled from two wars, and it changes you forever.
    Happy New Year ahead!!

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  5. Dear Karin, a thought provoking, insightful post, about our world yesterday and today....we must count our blessings, but also remember those less fortunate...Hard to comprehend man's inhumanity to man....wishing you peace and hope, N.xo

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  6. I too am moved by your post and baffled that world leaders and terrorists cannot see the lessons to be learned here. Their agendas of hatred and destruction sets nations into poverty and hopelessness; progress nor prosperity will.not be seen for decades. Is this the legacy you want your name to carry?
    Loi, I was gladdened to see your response. Not only a beautiful blog but a beautiful heart. Thanks to you both for your insights. Will continue to keep Tone on Tone and La Pouyette aaat the top of my reading list...

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