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Of Canteens and Christmas Truces

Lucky Garvin
Lucky Garvin

There is always a peril which attends the telling of a story one has heard; is it true or counterfeit, partially true yet containing skewed details? All that true, I shall proceed with the telling of a Civil War tale I heard years ago:

I don’t recall the battle-setting of this narrative, but I do remember it was near dusk. A darkening ravine separated the combatants. As night continued its fall, the rifle shots trailed off to an occasional crack, and in that relative silence, another sound became more audible: the screams of men in pain and dying of thirst; but it would be suicide for either army to try to aid their fallen.

Then a soldier – only God knows his rank or the army he fought for – begged canteens of water from his comrades. He broke off a long limb, and there attached a white handkerchief, and cautiously crossed over the ramparts which shielded him and his men. He was now an open target. Instead, the enemy did not fire; they watched…

They watched as this solitary man made his way cautiously down a bank into No-Mans’ land. They held their fire, wondering what was unfolding before their eyes. The man came to the first soldier, a Confederate; knelt beside him, cradled up his head, and gave him water. The next man he encountered was Union; knelt down, head up, drink. Clearly, the man was there to help anyone in thirst… Anyone.

Seeing this, the command was issued by both sides: Cease fire! Now!

So it was that in that bloody ravine, darkness hard upon the ground, that the only sound was men crying out for help. For water.

He continued, ministering to all, blue or gray until his canteens were empty, whereupon he made his way back under an impromptu armistice.

I heard this story and the following thoughts came to me: the men who gave up their canteens to him, knowing it was their only water, certainly there’s a saintliness in that act. Did anyone else – on either side – hoist a flag of truce and emulate the first man’s fear-freighted venture directly into the war zone? Did the first man make another journey… or more? This last is not reported.

The rest of the story holds that this gallant, spirit-led man was killed in his next battle, The Battle of Antietam…

The next story takes place in Belgium on the killing grounds of WW 1. In those days, the genocidal horror of ‘trench warfare’ was practiced with an enthusiasm which only the slow of wit can achieve – this indictment I lay at the feet of the military strategists of the day. These be-knighted fools, safe far from the war, felt it made perfect sense for a soldier to charge machines guns and mustard gas. [Happily this tactic was displaced with the agonizingly slow introduction of the armored tank as a tactical vehicle of war.]

Despite the savage animosity between groups, each of whom prayed daily for the death of the other, Christmas Eve arrived. Gifts had been sent to the front-line troops among which were small Christmas trees. The trees were bedecked by candles and perched atop the berms which afforded opposing troops but scant protection.

However, seeing these wee trees, all shooting stopped; then voices were heard shouting greetings one side to the other. Finally it seemed safe enough for the soldiers to approach each other without fear. Small presents were exchanged, carols were sung and a cease fire was convened by general accord.

Word is, the festivities extended through Christmas Day. A soccer game was played; as well as this apparently odd, almost humorous, promise made by each side. Once belligerencies began anew, there would be, between the hours of 8 AM and 9 AM, no sniper fire at the latrine – this apparently had been like shooting fish in a barrel: sleep-dazed men stumbling their way to toilette. Apparently the latrines of both encampments were to be designated by flags, the color of which had been chosen by both sides.

As pleasant as those few days proved to be, it was over all too soon. New troops arrived to replace the war-weary survivors in each army, and these green troops, doing their best to manage their own fears, looked across the battle field and saw no friends; recalled no Christmas memories, and the savagery began anew.

There is, it seems, at least a streak of humanity in every foe, or so one could be forgiven for hoping.

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