WWI – some Christmas truce thoughts from Anne Barwell

Thanks, Charlie, for hosting me today. (My pleasure, Anne!)

The first chapter of my upcoming release On Wings of Song takes place during the Christmas Truce in 1914. By December 1914, the war had been raging for five months, and people were losing hope that it would be over by Christmas. Along Europe’s Western Front, men in trenches on both sides of the conflict laid down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together. They shared food, gifts, and sang carols. Some exchanged belt buckles and uniform buttons. The English and German soldiers also played a football match in no man’s land. Both sides took advantage of the truce to work together to bury the fallen, and hold a Christmas service.

After the truce, many of those involved protested about killing an enemy who now had a human face. They’d struck up a brief friendship with some of the men they were ordered to shoot at and it was difficult to continue to believe in the propaganda fed to them. Those in authority were not impressed, and many of the units were disbanded, and the men sent elsewhere, away from the influence of others who shared their views.

When I decided to write a story set during this time, I read everything I could find about the truce of 1914. The Forgotten Voices series about the Great War has many anecdotes of the truce, as does another I’d highly recommend, Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub. The library also had a copy—I’ve since purchased one—of the movie Joyeux Noël. If you have the opportunity to watch this movie, make sure you watch the interview with the director, Christian Carion, too. He talks about the research behind the movie and how much of what was originally thought unbelievable was found to be true. One story told of two men who had met during the truce. One had given the other his address, and told him to visit him after the war. The Englishman ended up settling in his former enemy’s village and meeting his wife there—the story was told by their daughter. If not for the truce she would have never been born. Another story had a sadder end. The cat that had crossed no man’s land between the trenches, carried notes and was fed on both sides, was executed for being a spy!

It was many years before the truth of what had happened came out. Letters home were censored, and many thought the truce, and the stories connected to it, was a myth.

On Wings of Song is a story I’d wanted to tell for a while and with this month being the centenary of the truce, it seemed the right time for it.

Lest we forget.

Six years after meeting British soldier Aiden Foster during the Christmas Truce of 1914, Jochen Weber still finds himself thinking about Aiden, their shared conversation about literature, and Aiden’s beautiful singing voice. A visit to London gives Jochen the opportunity to search for Aiden, but he’s shocked at what he finds.

The uniform button Jochen gave him is the only thing Aiden has left of the past he’s lost. The war and its aftermath ripped everything away from him, including his family and his music. When Jochen reappears in his life, Aiden enjoys their growing friendship but knows he has nothing to offer. Not anymore.

OnWingsofSong

Excerpt:
“I’ve seen it,” Aiden said quietly. “I wish to God I hadn’t.” He looked directly at Jochen. Jochen met Aiden’s gaze. He’d seen an echo of Conrad’s fire in Aiden when he’d talked about his music earlier that afternoon.

“Don’t die on the wire, Aiden.”

“I’ll try not to.” Aiden’s words were an empty promise. They both knew it, but what else was he going to say?

The red-haired man Aiden had spoken to about arranging the burials walked over to him. He too held a shovel, and he wiped perspiration from his brow despite the cold. “There’s going to be a combined service for the dead,” he told them. “In about ten minutes in no man’s land in front of the French trenches.”

As they made their way over, men were already beginning to gather, soldiers from opposite sides sitting together, conversation dwindling to a respectful silence. A British chaplain stood in front of them, a Bible in his hand, a German beside him. Jochen recognized him, although he didn’t know his name. The young man was only a few years older than Jochen and was studying for the ministry—would he ever get the chance to complete those studies?

Jochen and Aiden found somewhere to sit a few rows back from the front and joined the company of men. The German spoke first. “Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel. Geheiligt werde dein Name.”

The British chaplain repeated the words in English. “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.”

They then spoke a few words each, some from the Bible, the rest from their hearts. Their congregation was silent apart from a few quiet “amens.” Jochen saw a couple of men wipe tears away. He was close to it himself.

Finally the chaplain bowed his head in prayer. When he’d finished, he spoke quietly to the man who had come to stand next to him. It was Captain Williams. He nodded and looked over the crowd, his gaze fixing on Aiden.

Aiden must have guessed what Williams wanted. He inclined his head in response and then stood. Jochen glanced between the two men, confused. What did Williams expect Aiden to do?

“Aiden?” Jochen asked softly.

Aiden smiled at him and began to sing. “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining….” He lifted his head, his voice strong and clear, each note building on the last to create something truly beautiful, something angelic. Aiden’s eyes shone; his body swayed slightly in time with the music. He was the music.

His audience sat in awe. Jochen could feel the emotion rippling through the men around him, tangible, as though he could reach out and touch it. He felt something inside himself reach out, wanting to be a part of it, to be carried along the wave of pure music, to grab it and never let go.

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