HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
in the Trenches
By Stan Scislowski
Issue #20: December-January 2001-02
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 Id had in over a week.
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 couldnt 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
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
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.
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.
didnt you guys walk the cow back and kill it behind the house?"
I asked." Never thought of it," they answered with blank
that night this intrepid group worked, cutting the carcass up into
steaks and roasts. We had the only gas stove wed 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.
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.
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 Molsons 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.
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.