Wednesday, 24 December 2014

My Grandfather's War - A Little Peace Among the Turmoil - A Special Wartime Christmas Post from Paula Lofting

A Little Peace Among The Turmoil
Jimmy's Story

      December 1914 was cruelly cold. The grounds above the trenches were frozen; down inside them it was no warmer and oozed with mud and water. On Christmas Eve, as dusk fell and the temperatures dropped dramatically, we hunkered down, wrapping ourselves in our coats, scarves and anything else we could find to stay warm. We began to feel a cold frost beginning to envelope the air about us, a frost so thick if you held your hands out, you could touch the ice in the air with your fingers. The mud squelched around our feet and even our thickest woolen putties and socks could not stop our toes from going numb inside our hobnail boots. I looked up at the sky and saw in wonder, that it was full of beautiful twinkling stars, so bright and so clear. My fellow soldiers looked up to see what I was looking at and as we all sat there, our eyes turned upwards into the sparkling night time sky, I realised that the air was no longer filled with the terrible sounds of shelling, but a faint sound of singing that echoed across No Man's Land. It sounded so close, perhaps only 80 feet away, and I recognised the words sung in German that sounded very similar to English. They were singing "Silent Night." 

        "Sh, sh," I pleaded. "Listen! They are singing "Silent Night" - in bloody German!" I cried excitedly. I jumped to my feet, forgetting the cold and the mud that sought to hold me. "Will you listen to that?"

      "Good God, they are," said Jon Thompson, fighting the mud and the cold to stand to his feet. "Jimmy Lang'on, you're bloody rayt - Listen, everyone, the Fritz are singing ower "Seylant Nayt" in German!" 
     Thompson was a true Geordie from Newcastle with the strongest accent I'd ever heard. I'll  remember to this day his pronunciation of the word German sounded like Jawmun and so unlike the dialects  of our southern counties. Whenever I told this story to my grandkids, I would always say this line in his accent, which had them laughing till their sides ached because, as they said, it was a terrible rendition of a Geordie. Suddenly everyone was alert, their ears pricked and their eyes focused on each other watching  for the reactions on our faces. We were smiling, laughing and whispering words that expressed joy at hearing what was to us, such a beautiful sound in a single moment of a terrible war. I wanted to burst out crying, but I held back. We were men - tough men, hard men - or so we thought; actually the truth was that we were simply boys pretending to be soldiers. The average age of us lads there was 19/20. Most no older than 24, except our sergeant who was 28. Some of our officers were older of course, but on the whole we were just lads and 90 % of us were green at this war game thing. 

      I don't know what it was that made us all so excited, but it may have been something to do with the sudden realisation that there was no longer an enemy on the other side of No Man's Land - just blokes like us, who were singing a hymn that we recognised, and although the words were different, it reminded us of home. I looked around and I saw that some of the hardest men I had ever known were weeping and before I knew it I had joined them. The tears came and then some of us began to sing. Our voices were raised with theirs, but they were near to reaching the end and we had only just started, so as they finished, we were still going.  I'm sure they must have heard us because when we stopped, there was silence for a moment and then shouts of "Bravo!" and applause echoed across from their trenches.     At one point, some of the men looked up over the parapet and described the scene from our enemy's trench as being alight with brightly coloured lanterns and candles, with Christmas trees, their sharp brindled branches silhouetted against the dark background. They said the Germans were waving at us and shouting in English, greetings of Merry Christmas! It was one of the most moving things I can remember of that awful war. And as we sang through the night, taking turns to sing carols and hymns that both sides were familiar with and some that we both weren't, I felt the warmth in my heart rise above the cold in my feet and as I closed my eyes to sleep, I felt like I was home in my local supping brandy and eating mince pies. 

     Morning came, but at that time of year it was 8:00 a.m. before the sun began to appear. As I rolled over in my sleeping space, I realised that light was dawning and a terrible fear began to engulf me. I wasn't in my humble home back in Essex, I wasn't waking up in my nice warm bed as I had last done on my 19th birthday at home before setting out to sign up for the Great War, and I wouldn't hear my mum shout up to me to come down for a plate of sausage, bacon and egg, our traditional breakfast on Christmas morning. No, I was stuck in this damned hole, coming out of a beautiful dream that I was home and tucked up in warm blankets and crisp clean sheets. Yes - I was in a hole. Some of my fellows were already awake and there was shouting and a commotion, but there was still no localised shooting or shelling. I was prodded by someone who shoved my Christmas box at me. I put it to one side as I got myself together to find out what was going on. I saw to my astonishment that men were climbing out of the trenches but were leaving their guns behind. 

      "What's going on?" I cried out to my sergeant who was standing with our captain and looking very annoyed. 

     "They've called a truce, the Germans," my sergeant replied.

      I found out later that he and the captain had warned everyone that if they went over they would be court marshalled and shot. One of them had shouted out as they went over, "They'll have to shoot the lot of us then, won't they lads?" and the men ignored the warning and continued to climb up out into No Man's Land where they were greeted by the smiling Germans, genuinely pleased to be sharing the day with them. I wanted to follow them, but I was afraid if I did, I would be in trouble. I was 19 and I wanted to survive to my twentieth birthday and if I was going to be shot, I didn't want it to be on Christmas Day by my own captain's gun. But something inexplicable happened next as I stared into the captains eyes. 

      "Sir," I said in a pleading voice, "it's Christmas and it might be our last."

     "I know it's bloody Christmas, Langton," the Captain replied in his clipped upper class accent. 

     I don't know what made him relent, but it could have been the fact that many of us would die that year anyway and he knew. Many men had died already, we were just the replacements. Anyway, he nodded, saying "Go on then! If we're going over, we might as well all go!" and I couldn't believe my ears but I needed no more telling and I leapt up over the parapet followed by the sergeant and captain and the sight that met my eyes had me laughing and crying at the same time.

     As I looked over the top of the parapet before jumping out, I saw that the daylight, just clearing, was grey, like the clouds in the sky. Out on the ground, there was a thick layer of frost which made the ground hard, unlike down in the trench where it was waterlogged. I saw Jon Thompson wearing a German helmet. He was stood  with a gathering of others laughing and joking with a group of German lads. He saw me and smiled, and I was smiling too, waving my gloved hand at him. He walked over to me, cigarette in one hand and held out his other  and pulled me out. 

      "Will you look at this?" I said in wonderment as he pulled me out.

      "Ye won't believe it, Jimmy, but this Jawman ova haya, the one smokin' may cley paype, well hey lived in Sunderland for ten yers!"

     "The one smoking your clay pipe, Thommo?" I asked, as if the fact a German was smoking his pipe was the most salient point of his piece of information. 

       "Aye," nodded Thompson as he led me over to them. 

       I knew that some of the Germans spoke English because throughout the months I had been down there in that trench, we had agreed to stop firing at each other for 30 minutes so we all could retrieve the bodies of our fallen and take our rations. On some occasions words had been exchanged, tentative questions had been asked of us about how our conditions had been and we found that theirs were just as bad. It was as if we shared common ground. 

     That day, as I stood there among our new friends, it was as if we were comrades sharing stories, swapping pictures of our loved ones, sharing our Christmas presents and swapping Cadbury's chocolate for tobacco or brandy for schnapps. We found out that they were having a rough time too: the rats, the mud, the unsanitary conditions. I remember seeing our officers fraternising too and wondered momentarily what might happen if the chiefs found out. One German fellow I spoke to was called Walter; I don't remember what he said his surname was, but I spent a long time showing him pictures of my home, my sisters and mother and father. He was married, with two little girls and he told me sadly how he missed his wife and that she was going to give birth again in the new year; this time he hoped for a son. He was 23. I thought that he must have married young, probably at my age. I told him that I hoped to marry when the war was over and he smiled, a twinkle in his blue eyes. 

     The Germans had kindly brought out a Christmas tree and we stood around it singing "O Christmas Tree"; us in English, those who knew the words, and them in German and soon the air was filled with our voices - but in the far distance we could hear throughout the day, those who had not observed the truce, shelling and shooting at each other further up and down the lines. But the best bit as I remember was when Walter and his mates brought out an old leather football and started kicking it around. It was then that a football match between those of us who wanted to play was organised.

     We used the Germans'  Christmas trees for the goal posts. One of our officers came up to see what was going on and offered to referee alongside the German captain. I went in goal; that had always been my favourite position in football. Thommo, Davy, Len and Foxy Theodore were defenders and Carter Blakethorpe, brothers Ivor and Blackie Jenkins the midfielders. Bertie Fresden and Eddy Norton were the forwards with Ronnie Dean as centre forward and captain.There were a couple of professional players in the German side, brothers they were and they were cracking strikers. To this day I still remember their names. I struggled in goal when those two came blasting through. Their names were Ulrich and Oliver as I recall: tall, blonde and very Nordic looking. They each scored, the blighters, and I recall that one of them had the ball, I can't be sure who, and ran right past Blackie, who slid heroically on the frosty ground to tackle him and failed. Then he danced round Thommo, who was a very good left back but had no chance against this fellow, and when he aimed for goal, the ball went straight past Davy's head as he leapt into the air  to header it out of the line of goal, leaving him with a crooked neck for days after that. I got ready to try and catch it; as it came flying towards me at such speed I thought it would send me right back into the tunnels, but I totally misjudged and it whizzed past me like a bullet and a goal was had! We lost that match 2-1 and at the end the Germans wanted to swap shirts, but our sergeant wouldn't let us.

    Nightfall came early and we prepared to retire to our trenches. I shook Walter's hand and he wished me luck. I remember he had the most sparkling blue eyes I had ever seen and his wide smile was genuine. 

     "Hey," he called to me as I went off on my way. I turned and he was still grinning. "I hope you get to marry after the war is over."

     "Thank you and I hope also that you get to be home when your son is born," I replied. 

     As we were all sitting in the trench that night eating the cold turkey dinner we had been supplied with, I could not help but feel sad as all around me the others were chatting away about the day and what a momentous occasion it had been. I thought about Walter and how if things had been different, we would have been friends - perhaps very good friends. I had liked him; he had a certain persona and I think he might have felt the same way. 

     Early next morning I awoke. The sun was just coming up and it looked like it might be a sunny morning. We could hear voices shouting and I figured it was the Germans and the English shouting good morning to each other. I climbed up in my squelching boots and poked my eyes over the parapet. I saw him, my friend, standing on the ground in front of his trench waving a greeting. He called my name - "Jimmy!" he was shouting. "Guten Morgen, Jimmy!"
     I laughed and waved back as my fellow comrades were also doing the same. It was good to see them, our new friends. It hadn't sunk in yet that soon we were going to start the killing again. Nonetheless we carried on the banter until suddenly, there was a loud shot. I heard it and then I saw Walter's body twist and fall forward onto the ground. He hadn't been wearing a helmet and it looked as if the shot had hit him in his head. 

      "Nooooooooooooooo!" I shouted, and I clambered over the sacks just as the Germans disappeared into their trenches. I had not realised it then, but a German sniper further down the line had shot one of our soldiers on sentry duty and his mate had come out for revenge. 

      Stupidly I began to run toward his lifeless body. At that moment, to me, he wasn't a German, a Fritz to be killed on sight. He wasn't the enemy. He was my friend and I wanted to comfort him like I would have done any friend who had been hurt. Luckily for me, two mad fools ran after me and dragged me back to the trenches as the Germans began returning fire. The truce was over and for me it had ended in the most soul-destroying manner. 

     The death of that German lad would be one of those memories that would haunt me for always, just as seeing Thommo, Carter, Foxy and a lot of others die in No Man's Land in that terrible war. Many things happened after that in those trenches, terrible monstrous things that I have never been able to speak about and probably never will. I have always preferred to recall the truce at Christmas 1914 and every Christmas I have told that story, of friendship and the respect for human life that we experienced on that day, to my children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. 

      I am an old man now; soon I will be dead, and it won't be long. I did get to marry after the war, but I will always remember that Walter never got to see his son born, nor did he see his family again, and that somewhere in Germany there would be a woman and two little girls weeping the loss of their husband and father. For me and mine, we were the lucky ones. Not so the thousands of men on both sides who lost their lives. 

So when you lift your glass on Christmas Day, remember the little peace we had in the midst of war and hold onto that in this stark world of hatred, war and genocide. If there is love and friendship we can rise above all that is evil.  


  1. Paula, this is such a wonderful piece that touched my heart so much. I really could feel the joy and the heartbreak for Jimmy, and for Walter. Thank you for remembering the soldiers in such a poignant and personal way. :-)

  2. So very moving and beautifully told.

  3. Although we all know the true story of this famous truce and the game of football, your post, Paula, has touched me more than I can articulate. My own grandfather was in that war, and very nearly didn't make it home, as so many didn't. If he hadn't, then I wouldn't be here. This is true for so many families, and your post has made it personal for all of us. A beautiful and eloquent piece of writing. Wonderful!

  4. A very touching piece of work Paula.

  5. wow...great story....even in war, peace prevails!...Agape!

  6. Such a sad story, but within it love, trust and friendship.

    Thank you Paula for sharing