|Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night|
In this year of centenary remembrance, many contemporary poets have written about the Great War. Anthony Wilson, a poet and faculty member at the University of Exeter, has generously allowed me to share his poem on the Christmas truce.
|Natalia Goncharova, "The Christian Host"|
Just who gave the order
no one knew.
They say there wasn’t one.
Stille Nacht in no man’s,
its accordion leaking like gas
across the frost.
One by one came stars,
better to pick out limp rags
What I remember next is nothing,
if absence is what nothing is,
a song into which we sang silence.
Witnesses, we witnessed it.
We were part of that cloud, and lost in it.
The poem breaks the silence with “Just who gave the order,” and then changes the landscape of military command in the short line “no one knew.” No order, only rumor and not knowing – that is what made the miracle of peace possible. Men stepped out into the no-man’s land of not knowing. In the absence of hostilities, into the empty space created by the silent guns, the imagined soldier of the poem remembers filling the nothingness with a song “into which we sang silence.”
Subtly, the poem invites us to compare the first Christmas with the truce of 1914: the “limp rags of surrender” suggest the swaddling clothes, the stars that appeared “one by one” are reflections of the single star that paused over Bethlehem, and the soldiers who witnessed the truce recall the witness of the shepherds and the cloud of angels that appeared to them.
December 24th, 1914 was another kind of holy night, one in which men lost themselves in the miracle of communion with others, as fleeting as a cloud.