Monday 23 December 2013

Ypres at Christmas

A rainbow, a cemetery and a child
Cause we don’t trust you and ye hae been four months shooting at us” was the blunt reply from the Glaswegians of the Scottish Rifles, hunkered in cold and sodden mud trenches one Christmas day in 1914, to their counterparts in the German lines just metres away. While the story of the Christmas Truce, unofficially declared and involving the swapping of tobacco and football skills has come to define the futility of war it wasn't observed right the way down the lines. 

This week I revisited that area of Flanders as part of a family jaunt to the Christmas Markets in Germany. It somehow seemed apt as a reminder of what the season is supposed to be all about, amid the plastic commercialisation of much of it. There are no neon signs or expensive video games on the windswept plains of Belgium where the dying was done, nor even much space for it in the market town of Ypres, for so long the centre of the carnage, and usually the first venue incoming soldiers would see as they were marshalled ready to head out to the front line.

Ypres Market Square - the spire used regularly as a target for German artillery
My own great great grandfather, Private James William Underwood, arrived in Ypres Market Square on October 16th 1914. He would have been among many hundreds, amid shouting, horses and general chaos. He was a 30 year old railway labourer with two infant daughters at home. Old enough to understand what death might mean for him, but more importantly his daughters and wife Clara back in England. No room for jingoism here.

Marshalled with the 2nd Wilts Regiment he was among the first sent to the front, and knew nothing of the cataclysm to come. On October 24th he was reported missing, his position having been overrun by German troops. He spent the next four years in a prison camp in central Germany, presumably only realising the scale of what he had been spared by arriving prisoners, fresh from the human meat grinder of the war.

Tyne Cot cemetery. A Jewish tradition of stones on headstones, accompanied by a gentile's tribute
Tyne Cot cemetery stands silent testimony to the scale of the carnage, standing on the brow of the hill that so many allied troops died in order to take, with two German concrete pillboxes visible amid the countless grave stones.

The field where Pte Underwood was taken prisoner,1914
So on we went, driving through the battlefields and on to Germany to see Cologne, in all its Christmas Market glory. The commercialism is there, but so is a heavy emphasis on tradition and it is one of the few places where you can still see the season as preceding generations may have done. Rich scented gluhwein, wooden arts and crafts and costumed women performing with clockwork music machines; much as the young men on the German side, little boys themselves only a few years earlier, of the trenches would have remembered as they tried to coax their Glaswegian fellow conscripts to put aside the killing, if only just for one day.

Cologne Christmas Market 
Perhaps all of them died before the end of that war, which laid the foundations for the next, but their memory and common humanity is another reminder for me at least what this season is all about. Happy Christmas, and have a peaceful New Year.

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