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The Spirit of Christmas on the Italian Front: 1944

By Stan Scislowski

Stan Scislowski, author of Not All of Us Were Brave, shares this memory with you from Canada.

    No one who was there on the Senio River line  in the north of Italy on that magical Christmas Day in 1944 would have hoped for or even expected that a Peace on Earth and a Goodwill spirit would happen on this day. It was only five days earlier that hell instead had confronted my regiment for all of a night and the greater part of the next day. Whatever hopes and prayers dwelling in the minds and hearts of the men of the Perth Regiment,  a good many of them not that long  out of school, as the hour for battle drew near, were swept away in the awful hours that lay ahead. Thoughts of dying on or just before Christmas were hard to shut out of mind.  Although death at any time, be it in the glorious sunshine of a  summer's day or on a dark and dismal day in the dead of  winter would be a terrible tragedy for their families to bear; but death at this time was unthinkable. And they tried to shake the gloomy thought from their mind as they moved out on the evening of Dec.19 in an advance to the line of the high-diked Senio River where they could expect the enemy to be waiting in defensive positions, weapons aimed their way.

     At no time in the approach to battle did the men go with a song on their lips. At no time did they go with the feeling of patriotism and 'die for country' attitude. These anachronisms of long ago wars they shed from their thoughts many confrontations ago. They were too smart for such high and noble feelings. When the dread moment came, however, to hitch up their battle gear they did so, but with the ever-present feeling of apprehension. Though they could not know it, this was their bravest moment. For to go forward when you know that down that road  hidden in the dark behind some barrier are other men waiting under cover with murder in their hearts, it takes courage far beyond what each man  believed  he still had.

   Hope rested only in the thoughts that this advance would prove to be a cake-walk, a simple occupation of a few acres of farmland, an unopposed crossing of a narrow river line and then a pause for Christmas. But it was not to be.

   It was less than a mile down that road when hell fell upon them in a rain of shells and mortar bombs beyond anything they had ever come under before. The dying and the hurting had begun. To describe all that had gone on during the whole of that terrible night and through most of the next day is not the purpose of this short piece. What I wanted was a portrayal of how, sometimes great good can come out of adversity and out from the hearts of men driven to war. And that great good manifested itself here on the Senio Front on a sunny but cold Christmas Day of 1944 when all hope had fled that there would be a pause in the  violence  and the killing. It came about like 'so':

   At 8:30 on Christmas Eve with a dusting of snow on the ground, while standing alert and ready at an upstairs window of a large farmhouse, with a Bren gun, I was all keyed up in expectation of an enemy patrol attack. Towards the end of my shift I became aware that the usual sounds of a battlefield had  died down, and then. . .silence.   Was it the dread moment before an enemy assault? Or was it, hope upon hope, that maybe the enemy was honouring the birthday of the Prince of Peace  through an unwritten truce?  And with this hope, as my relief came, I made my way downstairs to find a comfortable spot on the floor close by the fire-place for some much needed sleep. I didn''t expect anything special, except more danger  to wake up to in the morning.

   But there was something special going on, on Christmas morning, and it wasn't a battle. I took a look outside and be damned if there weren't a lot of our guys walking around between platoon positions and houses as though there was nothing out there to be afraid of. It was unbelievable! Only the day before, I almost got picked off by a sniper as I was about to walk the ten paces to a stable where a cow was bawling to be milked. Life expectancy outdoors had to  only be seconds at most. But now it was a miracle that a 'live and let live' spirit  seemed to have come about.

   Atop the far dike of the Senio River stood a half dozen German soldiers singing their hearts out that favourite of mine, 'Silent Night', I couldn't believe what my eyes were taking in. There was the hated enemy not sixty yards away, not shooting at us like they had been doing only  the day before, but singing and rejoicing, pausing  between verses as they  tipped bottles of vino to their lips. They were in great spirits and even waved to us to join them in the celebration. It was tempting, and some of our guys were  all set to go across the river and join them  in the singing and merriment. More logical NCO heads, however, prevailed, and our boys stayed 'put'. What a feeling it was to see all this going on! ‹ the enemy out there in the open and our boys too in a "peace on earth good-will towards men spirit, as it should be.

   In our house, or 'casa', a feast of Christmas  like no other Christmas feast could have brought forth the good feelings such as the one that got underway.  We didn't dine on roast goose  and didn't expect to dine on turkey, which, in fact we did end up eating.  And we didn't dig into all the delectable side dishes of corn, beets, cranberry sauce, or had rich brown gravy to spread on our mashed potatoes as we did at home, but even so,  it was indeed a feast  never  to  be forgotten. We sat at a linen covered table, a grimy and unkempt dozen as we were, to an unusual fare of steaks from a cow butchered the night before, mashed potatoes, scrawny potatoes that had a faint taint that comes from being stored in a root cellar  a little too long, and along with our mixed rationss of canned bully beef, spam and other similar canned goods the boys had  gotten  in parcels from home we sat to a truly festive table. And, of course there was the milk waiting for us in the udder of the cow close by. And then, in whatever we came across while rifling through kitchen drawers, dressers and closets,  we  found all sorts of things we used as decorations. The house soon radiated in Christmas spirit. The only thing missing was a  Christmas tree and gifts underneath it.
         And then to top off the festivities, who should show up in a Jeep but our company commander bearing with him all kinds of goodies, like sliced  turkey, candy, fruit, nuts, and even a quart bottle of Molson's beer for each man. And the revelry went on all that afternoon as we sang every Christmas song we knew. Though our voices were not of choir quality, they were voices filled with the joy of Christmas, a Christmas that not one of us would ever forget, and  look fondly  on. And the wine and apple-jack flowed freely, But  then, as the saying goes, "all good things must come to an end."  And so, at 6:00 p.m. right on the dot, a lone 25 pounder artillery piece somewhere on the south side of  the Lamone River to our rear, fired, and the shell whistling overhead signalled the end of the truce. The war had begun again.

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