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Christmas in the Trenches

By Stan Scislowski

from Issue #20: December-January 2001-02

One of my most memorable Christmases was under the dark and fearsome conditions of war. It all began on the night of December 19th/20th of 1944 on the Adriatic side of the Northern Italian plains. Some of us would not be around to celebrate after this next battle. Some of us would be lying dead out there in the soggy fields or ditches to our front. And some would be carried out on stretchers grievously wounded.

The battle lasted all that night and well into the next day — a night in which an appalling fall of shells and mortar bombs took the lives of many of our boys.

And then came Christmas Eve, and miraculously, enough of us were still on our feet to celebrate or at least ponder the significance of this Holy Night.

How could we have known that this Christmas Day would turn out to be one that none of us, in the wildest stretches of our imaginations, would have ever predicted.

Just three days after the horrific day and night of hell, I stood at an open upstairs window of a house a mere 60 yards from the Senio River dike. On the far side, an entrenched enemy waits to do us lethal harm. It was a time of alertness, a time of tension.

We were waiting for the counterattack, which could occur at any minute, at any hour, Christmas Eve or no Christmas Eve. How could an enemy, such as we were facing, give any thought to honouring the anniversary of the birth of the Prince of Peace? How could he, when the harsh sounds of war kept up its unholy din, pause in celebration of Christmas and the meaning therein?

Shortly before nine, when my relief came, the night turned strangely quiet — ominously quiet. Only the muted sounds of gunfire far off to the west disturbed the stillness that suddenly had descended on our sector of the front. My first thought? "The enemy is getting ready to throw in an attack!" After all, on the previous Christmas the Germans fought a no-holds-barred battle for the whole of Christmas week against our 1st Division. They fought like vicious, cornered beasts of the jungle, killing and being killed. So why should they have a change of heart this Christmas?

But as it turned out, the night passed quietly, and I went downstairs to my blankets spread out on the floor near the fireplace. As I lay my weary body on the hard floor, lingering thoughts of home drifted through my mind. Finally, I dropped off to an undisturbed sleep, the first I’d had in over a week.

The next morning, as I peeked out the door of our fortress-like two-storey house, I beheld our boys strolling about between platoon positions. They were completely oblivious of the dangers ahead, as though they were promenading down the avenue on a bright Sunday morning in June. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Just the day before, a sniper shot hit the doorjamb six inches from my head as I stepped outside. It was suicide to even stand at an open window on the side facing the enemy.

It seemed they had decided to celebrate Christmas and were standing in bold view on the dike-top singing carols, drinking wine, laughing, gesturing to our people to join them. One was even riding an old swayback mare without a saddle, galloping back and forth on top of the far dike, while taking long swigs of wine from a slender bottle.

Let me tell you what had gone on while I slept on the floor in front of the great fireplace. Several of my platoon, now only 17 out of 34 that started out into the flame-shot night of December 19, were busy preparing for our Christmas feast. Six of the boys had gone out into the dangerous darkness to round up our Christmas fare by executing the first cow they came across.

They found it in a stable some three hundred yards to our right and dispatched it with a shot to the head from a Tommy gun. They dragged the carcass all the way back to prepare it for the oven and the pans.

"Why didn’t you guys walk the cow back and kill it behind the house?" I asked." Never thought of it," they answered with blank expressions.

All that night this intrepid group worked, cutting the carcass up into steaks and roasts. We had the only gas stove we’d come across in Italy, and it just so happened to be of modern make. The gas, thankfully, still flowed through the pipes. Soon, four burners were working full tilt, cooking up our Christmas fare. We were lucky to have four wonderful cooks who had two great roasts simmering in the oven.

It was one of the best and most appetizing Christmas feasts ever, helped of course by the ample supply of vino rosso and vino bianco (as found in almost every farmhouse in Italy). Sparse drinker that I was, there was plenty of apple cider to help wash the food down — it was the first time I got a wee bit tipsy.

The table was covered in expensive linen, resurrected from a hidden cache of goods found buried in wine barrels in a lean-to. Expensive cutlery, dishes and goblets were also found. There was much singing and revelry. And then, in the midst of our feasting, shortly after noon, in came Santa Claus — in the form of our company commander. Accompanied by his jeep driver, they brought candies, nuts, turkey, fruit, and even quart bottles of Molson’s beer for each man. Yes, it was a time for uninhibited celebration. Along with the enemy across the way, we made the most of it.

Promptly at six p.m. Christmas Day, a lone 25-pounder cannon somewhere in the gun lines behind the Lamone River barked. The passing of its shell overhead signalled the end of the truce. The war and the killing were about to begin once again.



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