Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas Prayer from the Trenches


Cyril William Winterbotham
Shortly after recovering from emergency surgery to remove his appendix, Cyril Winterbotham, a young barrister from the Cotswolds, joined the 1st/5th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in September of 1915.  Among the men of his battalion, he had a reputation for being “almost recklessly brave.”  And yet his mother described him as “essentially a man of peace” who “had a horror of war and bloodshed, but when the call came, he did not hesitate – every other feeling gave way to the desire to serve his country, and to deliver the oppressed.” 

Winterbotham’s own description of a spring day on the Western Front allows us to see how both accounts of his personality were likely accurate:

It is a strange sight, this firing line.  Imagine two untidy lines of sandbags, looking more like rubbish heaps in the distance and between them straggling lines of wire on rough poles at all sorts of angles with a dead cow here and there and odd articles scattered about.  Then dotted about are ruined houses with tileless roofs and broken walls standing in the remains of their gardens.  Over all, absolutely no sign of life or movement. 

I sat and looked round on Sunday morning.  An aeroplane was being shelled up above and the sky was dotted with little white puffs of smoke.  I couldn’t help trying to reconstruct the scene in peace and imagine all the roofs on and all the mess cleaned up…Waller and I remarked simultaneously that the whole thing is preposterous nonsense and that men ought to leave each other in peace to enjoy the weather and, I added, go fishing.  After which we went off to try and spot a sniper and if possible put a bullet in him. 
--From The Soldier’s War: The Great War through Veteran’s Eyes (Richard van Emden)

Winterbotham wrote two poems while serving on the Western Front.  His “Christmas Prayer from the Trenches” admits to the lonely fear and darkness of Christmas in war time, and yet looks to the hope of the Incarnation and Christ’s comforting presence, promised to even the most battle-hardened of men. 

A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches

Not yet for us may Christmas bring
Good-will to men, and peace;
In our dark sky no angels sing,
Not yet the great release
For men, when war shall cease.

So must the guns our carols make,
Our gifts must bullets be,
For us no Christmas bells shall wake;
These ruined homes shall see
No Christmas revelry.

In hardened hearts we fain would greet
The Babe at Christmas born,
But lo, He comes with pierced feet,
Wearing a crown of thorn,-
His side a spear has torn.

For tired eyes are all too dim,
Our hearts too full of pain,
Our ears too deaf to hear the hymn
Which angels sing in vain,
'The Christ is born again.'

O Jesus, pitiful, draw near,
That even we may see
The Little Child who knew not fear;
Thus would we picture Thee
Unmarred by agony.

O'er death and pain triumphant yet
Bid Thou Thy harpers play,
That we may hear them, and forget
Sorrow and all dismay,
And welcome Thee to stay
With us on Christmas Day. 

The poem is honest about the cruel irony of being ordered to wage war at Christmas.  After the 1914 Christmas Truce, generals on both sides of the battle lines made certain that fraternization would not occur again.  The poem’s opening stanza bleakly states that there will be no peace, no goodwill, and no angel’s song on the Western Front in 1915.  The only songs will be the roar of the guns accompanied by the whistles of the shells; the only gifts will be bullets.

Exhaustion and pain have so numbed the men that they are unable to fathom the news of a holy child’s birth.  The “unmarred” Christ child is a stranger, and yet the men are able to draw near to Christ in agony, his body pitifully mutilated with wounds, his soul wrenched by agony. Praying to the crucified Christ, the hardened soldiers plead for assistance “That even we may see/The Little Child who knew not fear.”

This prayer from the trenches does not ask for an end to the war, but rather for Christ’s presence in the darkest of places, “O’er death and pain triumphant yet,” and for His healing help that at least for one day, the men might forget “Sorrow and all dismay.” 

Cyril Winterbotham would not live to see Christmas 1916.  One of the missing of the Somme, he was killed on 27 August, 1916, near Ovillers, France when his battalion was ordered to attack a German trench.  Although the German position was taken, at least 15 men from the unit were killed, 10 of whose bodies were never recovered due to the continued pounding of heavy artillery on the battlefield.  Cyril Winterbotham’s name is listed on the Thiepval monument (Pier 5B), just one of the 73,335 British men commemorated there whose remains were never found nor identified. 

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