By Pratik Patnaik, SLS Pune
On the 28th of June 1914, the morning edition of The Daily Telegraph read, “The tragedy of the Austrian Throne”.
A 19 year old, GavriloPrincep had started the Great War by murdering the crown prince of Austria, Archduke Ferdinand. The fact that the emperors of United Kingdom, Russia and Germany, King George V, Tsar Niclolas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II respectively were first cousins was not enough to avoid the war.
In early August, Germany swept past Luxembourg and Belgium on their way to France and at first made rapid progress. The Allies and Germans tried a series of outflanking movements which eventually led to a battle line – the Western Front – stretching from Lorraine in the south to the English Channel in the north.
After the famous Battle of Marne the summer turned to chilling and depressing October rains and then ultimately the unforgiving winters came suprising some regiments which thought that the War would be over before Christmas. Soldiers dug trenches and erected barbed wire to hold their positions as both sides knew that they had to literally fight for each inch of the ground.
The nightmarish experience known as ‘trench warfare’ had begun.The war had come to a virtual standstill for months now and all that while Soldiers had to keep hiding in the trenches as opposition artillery thundered the ground above and no head which rose above the trenches was spared by the newly invented machine guns.
The trenches were filled with dead bodies rotting in ice, rodents spreading diarrhoea among soldiers and lack of food. If you ever wondered what gives fungal diseases like ‘Trench Foot’ or ‘Trench Mouth’ their name, then here’s your answer.
As the festive mood sunk in, the general atmosphere was humbling yet they had to remain alert for any possible surprise attack by the opposite side. The British troops were supposed to receive one box of gift each from Princess Mary, the seventeen year daughter of the King along with their letters and family gifts.
Soldiers lay on their backs reading through their letters from their Momma and their girls, missing the warmth of the hearth and the cosy blankets, the warm hugs of their fathers and the sweet kisses of their sweethearts.
The stark difference between good and bad was clearer than ever before. It was same as the as the difference between the serenity and the divinity of the that festive atmosphere and the lurking death just yards away.
Suddenly on the night of 24th of December the British side saw lights at a distance and fearing an attack, pre-emptively readied themselves for an offensive fire when some of them realized that the Germans were actually decorating their Parapets with coloured lights. Before anyone could confuse the faint sound coming, they knew that it was a familiar sound.
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. The Germans were singing one of the most famous hymns in German, “Silent Night, Holy Night”. One of them climbed their parapet fearless of the British machine guns and shouted in broken English, “Merry Christmas” and a few British reciprocating the gesture replied shouting, “froheweihnachten”.
The opposing armies marched towards each other over the frozen earth. They shook hands, hugged, laughed, exchanged cigars and small gifts. They tried to communicate through their family pictures and gestures as if the warmth of the Christmas spirit had melted away all the barriers of communication.
One of the solemn sights of the Christmas Truce as we now know it, was taking this time to bury the dead of their respective fallen comrades, to give them the ‘piece’ and ‘peace’ of the little earth that they deserved well.
The Christmas Truce lasted for days and at some places till the New Year’s day. There were stories of Football matches and much more.
The Christmas Truce taught the World when the news was slowly and cautiously let out by the War media that two strangers could do in the bloodiest battlefield of Europe what three cousins who had spent so much time with each other in summer houses could not and that is to stop their countries from diving into a bloodied War.
Christmas is a time to sit back and think about all the enemies that we have deliberately and not so deliberately made. It is a time to let go and forgive.
It is a time to forgive others for the minor issues, as we forgive ourselves most of the time for major ones.
Christmas celebrates the birthday of the one who said “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”, praying for his executioners who were nailing Him to a piece of wood.
If you miss this spirit of His then what really is the point of Carols, Cakes and Santa Claus?
In comments below, do let us know who you are planning to forgive this Christmas.