Monday, December 10, 2007

Silent Night on the Western Front

Herbert Otto Winckelmann tells of his father's experience in World War I.

“The war began on August 1, 1914. The order to mobilize the troops disrupted our vacation on the Baltic Sea. We rushed home since my father, an officer in the reserve, was eager to wear his uniform. He, along with most of the men, went into battle with enthusiasm. They were firmly convinced that war had been forced upon Germany, and that the fight was for the country’s very existence.

Father returned home on furlough before his artillery regiment departed to the front and optimistically promised to be home at Christmas. After mother pinned a small bouquet on his tunic, he kissed us heartily and left. He departed alone to avoid any more heartbreaking good-byes at the train station.

During the first months, it appeared that my father’s promise of a family Christmas would be realized. The Russian armies had been decisively beaten on the eastern front in the battles of Tannenberg and Masuran Lakes. On the western front, our armies advanced deep into France but were checked on the river Marne. As winter approached, both sides went into the trenches. They were sometimes so close to each other that they could hear the clatter of their foes canteens.

The stalemate had its effect on the spirit of the combatants. The initial enthusiasm gave way to stoicism. At Christmas, there was a momentary growth of spirit and some fraternization on the front lines. When the night became quiet on Christmas Eve, some German soldiers began to sing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The English soldiers recognized the familiar tune and joined in. Their singing quickly traveled for miles along the trench lines and ragged Christmas trees were set up by German soldiers on their parapets. The following morning the English answered with large signs of “Merry Christmas”. It went even further. One by one the men ventured from their trenches and crawled beneath the barbed wires to meet each other in the no-man’s land. They sat together like brothers. They did not hate each other as their governments did. They had been ordered to kill one another. Unfortunately, the soldiers’ truce could not last. The higher echelons on each side, shocked by the incident, ordered their men back into the trenches.”

Jahresringe: A Journey of my Life, Herbert Otto Winckelmann, pp. 13-14

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