By Maureen Tai, 20 December 2018
“These are the bells that started to chime
When friends were made at Christmas time,
When enemy soldiers held out a hand,
A sign of peace in No Man’s Land,”
Some years ago, I chanced upon a Sainsbury’s TV advert that turned me into a blubbering mess (you can see it here once you’ve armed yourself with a box of tissues). It told the almost unbelievable true story story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers on either side of an unoccupied piece of land lay down their arms on Christmas Eve.
A blanket of snow covers the ground, which is bordered off by fences of curling barbed wire. It is a full moon night. The landscape is hauntingly beautiful, until you look closer and see the artillery shells littered everywhere, the abandoned saucepan and cup, the broken wheel from an army wagon, and the rats sniffing the air with their inquisitive noses. In the distance, the empty husk of a bombed church is visible. This is No Man’s Land, a place that is neither British nor German. It is unoccupied territory, unclaimed by either side. For now, it is peaceful.
Behind either side of the barbed wire fences, soldiers of the first World War huddle in deep-dug trenches. It is the night before Christmas and the men are feeling festive. The British soldiers are opening their mail, big smiles on their faces. One man has colourful stockings hanging from his ears. On the other side, the Germans have planted a scraggly little Christmas tree in a large pot, and a soldier is decorating it with red and green strands of tinsel. His moustached compatriot looks on, a Christmas card open in his gloved hands. With the tree decked in its finery, the Germans light candles and break into song. “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” they sing into the clear, cold night. The music reaches the ears of the Brits, who, upon seeing the lights, clamber from their trenches, unarmed and unafraid. The Germans follow suit. Men from both sides are now visible to the other, but not as enemies but as fellow humans, as fellow fathers, and husbands, and sons.
What happens next is really the stuff of fairy tales and daydreams. The men meet in No Man’s Land and join hands in the spirit of friendship. They gather at the ruined church to quietly listen to a sermon. As the sun rises on Christmas Day, a leather bound football is produced and a spirited game ensues. It is a football match like no other, played in the snow, played in No Man’s Land.
As the day draws to an end, we see the devastated homes and villages, the cracked statute of a smiling angel, and the sorrowful faces of the men who know they must return to their trenches. The scavenging rats on almost every page are a constant reminder of the dark times in which the men inhabit. As the last candle burns to the end of its wick and is extinguished, the skies light up once more with fireworks of grey and black. The sad little Christmas tree lies discarded in the snow, a bullet hole through the yellow star that sat on top. Peace was once here, and now it is gone.
This Christmas story is told in rhyming verse, a cumulative tale in the style of the nursery rhyme, “This is the House that Jack Built.” A moving story of hope in despair, and of humanity in one of the worst times in history, a solemn reminder during the festive season that peace is a choice, and a choice we all can and should make.
For ages 5 and up.