I have in front of me my Today’s History Lesson spreadsheet. In it are a series of pages…one page per year, one event (occasionally two) per day. Some days have events running out to 2016, which still surprises me. History is big.
But today is Christmas Eve, and a quick look at the spreadsheet (which shows topics, for this day, through 2011) , doesn’t really include anything that conveys the spirit of this season. So, I think I’ll ditch those on the list (actually, I’ll just push them all out another year), and talk briefly about something I read just this afternoon.
I’m just about finished with Charles Whiting’s book Ardennes: The Secret War. His story of the Battle of the Bulge is told largely from the German perspective, and it makes for interesting reading. In describing the last Christmas Eve of the war, he writes, “As night descended upon war-torn Europe, it brought with it a strange kind of respite from the bloody struggles of the day and the new ones of the morrow.”
The town of Malmedy enjoyed, relatively speaking, a “sleep in heavenly peace” from the ravages of war. Just a week before, nearly 100 captured American soldiers had been slaughtered in one of the more infamous atrocities of the war. In the ensuing days, it had been recaptured by the Americans as the German advance reached its zenith, far short of its intended goals.
And then disaster struck Malmedy again, this time courtesy of the U.S Ninth Air Force. Unable to find their primary target on December 23rd, the B-29 Superfortresses of the 322nd Bombardment Group headed for their secondary target, the town of Lommersum. Still lost, they inadvertantly bombed Malmedy instead. To make matters worse, they didn’t just bomb the town once, but three times.
Malmedy was a shambles, with dozens of American soldiers and hundreds of civilians killed. The following evening, December 24, 1944, Red Cross trucks showed up at the hospital with gifts for the injured children. The nuns tending the children stopped their work and sang Silent Night to the soldiers bringing the gifts.
They may not have realized it (and I’m digressing a bit), but the nuns were celebrating the anniversary of one of the most famous Christmas carols ever written. On December 24, 1818, Josef Mohr (a German priest and the carol’s lyricist) sat down with Franz Gruber (an organist who composed the music) in Gruber’s apartment and, for the first time, put words and music together. They would introduce it at Midnight Mass as evening turned to morning that night.
Back in Malmedy, however, another drama was unfolding. Two German soldiers volunteered to sneak into town and bring back their dead comrades lying about. Moving as quietly as possible, they took each dead soldier to their jeep, working ever closer to the American positions.
Whiting then continues…
“Suddenly, just as they had freed yet another body…, there was the crunch of a boot on the hard snow. They froze. The noise came closer. Dark shapes appeared out of the night. The two men found themselves staring into the faces of an American patrol, waiting for the first angry challenge to be followed by the shots that would surely kill them.
Nothing happened. The Americans took another look at the two Germans, then proceeded silently on their way, like neighbors passing each other in the night.”
It’s a shame all differences aren’t handled like that.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Recommended Reading: Ardennes: The Secret War