I'm sure you have all heard the story. Christmas Eve 1914. World War 1. The western front. England was going to go over there and get rid of this evil menace and the world wouldn't have to have any more wars. The Germans were going to march right over into France, turn around and come home victorious. By Christmas! By Christmas the war would be over, evil vanquished and everyone would be home safe in bed!
Alas, Here it was Christmas Eve and Englands boys were shivering in the trenches on the western front. Like a bunch of moles. Down in a big hole, in the water and mud and the cold , dank air. You could not see over the top unless you climbed up and stuck your head up, which you definitely did not want to do. Every one was tired and discouraged and wishing they were home. The tench went, basically from Belgium to Switzerland. The Germans were in their trench just across from you. In between was no mans land. That small space littered with dead men and the accoutrements of war.
Firelight flickered on the weary faces of the men, some reading or writing letters, some drinking coffee, some smoking, some nodding off. Dim and far away, they hear something. Some strange sound. Instantly they are alert. They listen. Yes it comes from the enemy tenches. It rises, mellow in the night air. They cannot understand the words, but they recognize the tune! The German boys are singing carols! They look at each other. Then one by one they also begin to sing. the same song, different language. The starry night is once more filled with song, rejoicing in the Saviors birth. No angels, no heavenly host in white. Only that motley host of soldiers, singing, singing.Were the songs of angels more glorious? Were perhaps these also angels, unaware?
The German boys had started it. Germans celebrated Christmas in abundance. They already had Christmas trees, which had not yet become popular in other parts of the world. Now, the British boys bgan peering through the night, through the gun holes, peeking over the top of the trenches, to see what was going on. There was movement and lights. Yes, coming towards them! They got their guns ready. But this was different. This was something else. Slowly, cautiously, they climb up, out of their ditch and stop, waiting. Slowly, cautiously, the enemy advances towards them. they move forward, compelled to go. Compelled to see what this means. All guns are dropped.
They meet in the middle. They shake hands. They communicate. they exchange gifts. Chocolate. Cigarettes. Trinkets. Pictures. They laugh and sing. Christmas Day they gather again. Playing football. Having fun. Forgetting war. They work together and bury their dead. Those crumpled boys in no mans land. They bury them. They recite Gods word. They pray. What they are doing is strictly forbidden. By both armies. Both armies have officers who pretend not to see.
This went on all along the western front that dreary year of 1914. Many men wrote about it to their families. The letters are still with us today. Words written so matter of factly in dingy trenches by men and boys who would soon also lie crumpled on the cold ground.
Ypres. Ypres was an old, old town. It was fortified with ramparts and a moat. All these soldiers from England came through Ypres, through the Menin Gate. It was not really a gate, just an opening in the ramparts where the bridge went over the moat. It was the main road into France, and through it went all those English boys. The Road to Hell, they called it. Thousands upon thousands never came back.
Ypres was virtually destroyed by the war. It has now been built back. After the war, the English built a real gateway at the Menin Gate site. It is a beautiful white portal, still the main road out of town, engraved with all those names, and also a memorial to all the nameless ones who are buried so far from home.
Every single day, since 1927, at 8:00 pm, the fire department of Ypres comes to the Menin Gate. The police stop all the traffic. Utter stillness falls on the evening air. The firemen play "The Last Post". There is a moment of silence. Then they play "Revielle". So no one will forget. So no one will ever forget. Then life resumes its normal noise and bustle. "The Last Post" gives them rest. "Revielle" symbolizes their ressurection.
On special days, they will ask some famous person, or just someone from the audience,to recite from L. Bingon's poem.
"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
age does not weary them, nor years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them."
I love the song "Silent Night". If you have never heard it sung in German, well, you should. I have heard orchestras play it, choirs sing it, guitars, pianos, soloists. In my mind, I hear it, far off and quavery, coming through the dark and the cold, from hundreds of voices. Voices that stopped a War, for a day of peace.