Monday, December 24, 2007

That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown

This story is reprinted from this weekend's Hamilton Spectator:

Truce 'a short peace in a terrible war'

Mark McNeil
The Hamilton Spectator
(Dec 22, 2007)
It has to be the most moving Christmas story of the past 100 years.

"Beginning Dec. 24, 1914 German and British troops in Belgium laid their weapons down, and crawled out of their trenches to celebrate Christmas with carols, gifts and an impromptu game of soccer in No Man's Land.

And while the story from the First World War is well known -- what is less known is that two letters that describe the historical event are kept at McMaster University's archives.

They were written by a soldier named Gerald Blake who served with the London Rifle Brigade, British Expeditionary Force.

The letters are part of a collection of more than 60 notes he wrote to his mother and brother Clive between November 1914 and June 1916. McMaster acquired the letters as part of a larger purchase of military artifacts decades ago, apparently without knowing about the references to the Christmas truce.

More recently, researchers working on a digitization project took a closer look at the collection to find that Blake participated in the famous temporary armistice.

"It began with the singing of various songs by the Germans who also had a cornet and concertina going. Our fellows cheered each song and the two sides shouted Christmas greetings," Blake wrote in a letter to his brother dated Dec. 27, 1914.

In a letter to his mother, dated Jan. 7, he retells the story and also mentions hearing a German soldier call out "are you as fed up with the war as we are? ... A very quaint proposal was made to us that England and Germany should call it a draw and divide France between them."

Alan Cleaver, a newspaper journalist in Britain, and his partner Lesley Park host an extensive website dedicated to collecting and transcribing letters about the Christmas truce.

Through a network of Internet volunteers, they have transcribed more than 500 letters over the past four years, many of which are included in the book Not a Shot was Fired.

"I think (the story) still strikes a chord with people because it offers hope," Cleaver says. "In a world bedevilled with hatred and war, the story of the Christmas truce offers people with the possibility that one day men might simply lay down their guns, cross no man's land and shake hands."

Yet Gerald Blake is almost matter of fact in his letters. Going from killing to celebrating and back to killing again is an irony that seems lost on him.

As researcher Justina Chong writes about the Blake letters, as part of the digitization project of McMaster archives called Peace and War in the Twentieth Century:

"The peculiar thing about Blake's account of the Christmas truce is that it is inserted so casually, almost dismissively, amongst his detailed reports of other military and naval matters. Why is such a miraculous interlude described in no more than half a paragraph?"

Unfortunately, little else is known about Blake. McMaster has no picture of him. Chong's case study says it's believed he was later captured by Germans and it is unclear what happened to him after that."

Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Baron cried out "Merry Christmas, mein friend!"

Christmas bells those Christmas bells
Ringing through the land
Bringing peace to all the world
And good will to man

No comments: