A Tale of Two Christmases - 1914/1944

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    A Tale of Two Christmases - 1914/1944

    Post by Battalion Colours on Sat Dec 17, 2011 6:03 pm

    http://www.cliffchadderton.ca/blog/?p=246

    A Tale of Two Christmases - 1914/1944 - Part I


    It was Christmas Eve of the year 1914 near Ypres, Belgium. Several weeks earlier, Kaiser Wilhelm had reviewed the intelligence reports regarding the thin line of British Empire troops which stood between his Saxon regiments and the vital channel ports. It is said that he couldn’t believe his eyes! His well-trained, sternly-disciplined Germans outnumbered the Empire troops by seven to one.

    What’s more, the British force consisted of a mixed bag, many of whom were drawn from the untried resources of the colonies. The Kaiser thought the whole idea of the scattered and ill-equipped army trying to hold back his elite troops was “contemptible” – a statement which was to give title to one of the most famous fighting forces of the first Great War – “The Old Contemptibles.”

    Barney Gregory, a corporal with the Queen’s Westminsters, was one of these – and he joshed and kidded with his fellow soldiers as they moved into the line. The Kaiser’s remark had helped the esprit de corps more than anything his own leaders could have said – and the Queen’s Westminsters, along with the rest of the “Old Contemptibles,” exuded a confidence and enthusiasm which belied their somewhat shaky state of training and their deep-down knowledge that they were facing a tremendous task – to keep the Germans from the English Channel.

    In telling the story afterwards, Barney doubted very much whether any of the Westminsters had given much thought to the fact that it was Christmas Eve. They were concentrating on the problem of reaching the front line in one piece. The German artillery had been a nightmare!

    Suddenly, as the Westminsters neared the forward area, the shelling stopped. A period of utter silence followed – and then, softly at first but increasing in volume, there flowed from the German trenches the almost-unbelievable sound of a Christmas carol. As the hymn ended, a stillness stole over the darkening area. The Westminsters were wondering, “What next?”, when a flare broke over the Saxon trench and a German figure jumped onto the parapet. Speaking in broken English, he shouted: “Welcome Englanders. Merry Christmas!”

    With this, he returned to the trench and along the whole front the Germans broke out with the loved “O Tannenbaum.” The Westminsters roused themselves from their bewilderment and replied with the English version – “Oh Christmas Tree.” The Germans answered with “Stille Nacht” and the men of the Westminsters joined in with the English words – “Silent Night.”

    From some supply dump, the Germans had gathered coloured flares. Trenches on both sides were bedecked with Christmas trees and makeshift decorations. As the festive spirit took over, the British and German soldiers left their trenches to gather in no man’s land.

    Barney had soon struck an acquaintance with a German NCO, but he relates that “the officers were hanging back.” The two NCOs discussed this and decided to do something about it. Barney returned to his Company HQ for his platoon officer. The German did the same – and the troops were treated to a long-remembered incident – the formal introduction between the stiff Prussian oberleutenant and the somewhat dazed British subaltern. With the introductions over, the men continued their carousing long into the night.

    When Christmas dawn broke, it was evident that the troops had called off the war. This was all the more surprising inasmuch as the high commands of both the Allies and the Germans had specifically refused to order a cessation of hostilities on the Birthday of Christ. In fact, both Field Marshal Sir John French, the British Commander, and Field Marshall Hindenburg of the Kaiser’s Forces, had issued direct orders that the war was to continue. Nonetheless, a mutual understanding had sprung up among the front-line troops – an understanding that transcended the declarations of war and the direct instructions of the General Staffs.

    By Christmas afternoon, the whole front-line area had taken on the look of a party. Impromptu soccer matches were held; Allied and German soldiers posed together for snapshots; souvenirs were swapped and, of course, beer and schnapps flowed freely.

    Barney was to look back on this occasion with much sadness in later years. It had a significance for him, and for the soldiers of both sides. The occasion pointed-up the tragedy and the foolishness of war. The following day, there was a reluctance to take up the battle. In recounting his story, Barney often said that the Westminsters just flatly refused to fire on their friends of the day before.

    While all this was taking place, great consternation had broken loose at the respective High Commands. Field Marshal French reprimanded the local commanders and ordered an immediate shifting of his battalions – presumably to get away from the somewhat natural hesitancy of his troops to make war on the same Germans with whom they had found a common spirit. The German High Command issued an immediate order forbidding future fraternization.

    When Christmas Day came around in 1915, there was no repetition of the friendship of the previous yuletide. The bitterness and venom had eaten too deeply into the fighting forces – a hatred which was to continue until the Armistice and after.

    Barney Gregory was wounded in October 1917 and was repatriated to England. At the end of the war, he and his wife came to Canada, where they lived out the rest of their lives.


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    Adam

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    Re: A Tale of Two Christmases - 1914/1944

    Post by Battalion Colours on Sat Dec 17, 2011 6:06 pm

    http://www.cliffchadderton.ca/blog/?p=247

    A Tale of Two Christmases - 1914/1944 - Part II


    This story now shifts to Ortona, Italy – Christmas of 1944. This was a new war . . . Again, Canadians were locked in battle with German soldiers. In the forefront of that battle was Cy Gregory, Barney’s son. Cy’s platoon was, on that very day, perfecting a new technique in house-to-house fighting. The street in which his section was operating had long-ago lost its identity and was just another row of half-ruined dwellings running from the harbour to the high ground behind Ortona.

    At 0715 hours Cy’s platoon hit their first resistance. They dove into the doorway of a three-storey house and waited while the German MG bullets ricocheted around the rubble-strewn street. On the order from his platoon commander, Cy and another rifleman searched the house, finding it empty. “Good,” the lieutenant replied. “Bring up the beehive.”

    Two sappers from the engineers emerged with a bulky explosive charge. Following Cy up the stairs, they reached the second storey and placed the charge against the heavy stone wall which, when blown, would provide an opening into the next house. The fuse was snapped and the men scuttled downstairs, scant seconds ahead of the blast. The Lieutenant was ready and before the dust cleared, he was leading his men upstairs again, through the hole in the wall and into the second storey of the next house. The lower floor housed four Germans. The blast of the beehive charge had forced them into the street where they were shot down by other members of Cy’s platoon . . . and the Canadians had gained another 50 feet of ground.

    This same technique was to be repeated over and over again and by noon of Christmas day, the Canadians had advanced all of a block and a half – and not without casualties of their own.

    This Christmas Day, there was no chance that the awful business of war would be set aside, even to celebrate the most sacred occasion of our year. In fact, enemy records reveal that the German Tenth Army had considered the Christmas period as an ideal time to launch a concentrated offensive in the Adriatic zone. Specifically, the German records state:

    “The Christmas feast days are best suited to our purpose as the enemy will think that the Germans will then be in a soft mood.”

    The battle for Ortona – which came to its culmination on Christmas Day – had actually begun two weeks previously. There was every chance that Ortona would be secure in Allied hands by Christmas and the Canadians could have a day of rest to think of their families and at least preserve some semblance of Christmas. The Germans had other ideas and, on Christmas morning, the men of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver were heavily engaged with the German First Parachute Battalion.

    The Germans were pressing relentlessly and the Canadians realized that they must keep up the momentum of their offensive – Christmas Day or not. They had long ago recognized that the men of the Parachute Division were steeped in Nazi philosophy, which produced hardened killers with little regard for Christian ethics . . . moreover, these killers were armed with flame throwers and rocket launchers to back up their philosophy.

    Ortona has gone down in history as one of the finest victories of the Canadian Army. The fact that some of the toughest fighting took place on Christmas Day stands as a special memorial to those who sacrificed their lives to drive the Germans from this fortress town. Cy Gregory was one of them!

    It seems an interesting reflection that, as the First World War got into high gear, the soldiers of both sides could see through the propaganda, and still preserve enough human decency to call off the war at least for Christmas Day. It is a pretty sad commentary on the so-called progress of civilization that on another Christmas 30 years later, in still another war with the same adversaries, there was no possibility of a truce. In fact, the Nazi Generals were thinking seriously of taking advantage of Christmas to launch an offensive on the suggestion that they might catch the Allies off guard!


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    Adam

    "Honneur et Fidélité"




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