1916: Christmas Eve at the Front. The War has dragged itself along on its steely, mud-caked claws for over two years, and the end seems no closer now than when it all began. At an RFC aerodrome not ten miles from the first line trenches, a group of airmen sit through the morning’s briefing, and prepare themselves for the day’s work. They are nearly all young men, at least in years. But with war comes age beyond a calendar’s mark, and one would find that each man is far older than first appearance would tell if a moment were taken to look into his eyes. As the meeting breaks the jovial banter can be heard amongst the group: the good-natured ribbing and warnings, the verbal jousting, the camaraderie and the closeness that bonds souls together in such tenuous and temporary times. Across the mud at a German aerodrome, a similar scene is being played out. The Jagdstaffel pilots there are also preparing themselves for the task at hand. To look at them, you might imagine they were schoolmates of their British counterparts, rather than enemies soon to be locked in mortal combat. For they too laugh and joke, and share that same bond. And they too are of the "old young".
The hour is at hand. On each side the signal is given and the small, fast scout planes skim along the cold, icy ground, and one by one lift into a winter sky as grey as the earth below. They form up, and after climbing to their prescribed altitudes, they head towards No Man’s Land and on to do their best; for King and Country; für Kaiser und Vaterland. They meet, and there is the initial gun pass as each sizes up the other. A few moments later and the aerial battle begins in earnest. To those in the fight it is a mind-numbing blur of action that runs in both accelerated and slow motion simultaneously. A split second given to pull the trigger as a plane zips across the sights: an eternity spent to try and twist out of the path of the bullets. An entire lifetime won or lost in less than an eye blink. To those on the ground it appears as a graceful ballet of the sky, the canvas-feathered birds turning and rolling and climbing and diving. But it is a dance to the death more often than not, and it will end when one or more has fallen.
And one has fallen. The long, slow, spiraling pirouette as the finale comes to the dance. The others have now tired and as if by mutual agreement or unseen signal the partners separate and turn away. The audience below does not understand how it can be over so quickly. They cannot see the fatigue and exhaustion of those in the air; cannot see their battered ships, or their bruised and aching bodies; or their tired, aging eyes. No, they can see none of these things, any more than the men in the air can see the pain or the agony endured by those who must fight on the ground. Each sees the other from afar, as through a glass darkly. It is an irony of war that in each case, either in the Sky or on the Earth, a man better understands and is more akin to the enemy he fights in his realm than to his own countrymen above or below.
Christmas Eve at the Front. Night has fallen and the pilots sit about the dinner table at their respective aerodromes, and talk of flying and fighting, and of family and friends. Wishes of the Season are shared, letters from home are read. Songs of hope are sung and toasts are made to fellow flyers, and to mothers and sweethearts. At one of the tables an empty chair stands in remembrance of the comrade lost that day, and to whom the final toast is made. He will be missed, and to a loved one back home he will forever be a young man with bright, happy eyes; forever a photograph, a memory of a life that could have been. It matters not which side he fought for. He was a man, a part of human kind, and with his passing we are all the lesser for it.
May you have safe and blessed holidays wherever you are, and may we each remember the true message of this season: Peace on earth, good will toward men.
Great tale as always Lou, kind of reminds me of one of my favourite films this time of year........
"A great deal of an aeroplane could be holed without affecting its ability to fly. Wings and fuselage could be—and often were—pierced in 50 places, missing the occupants by inches (blissfully unaware of how close it had come until they returned to base). Then the sailmaker would carefully cover each hole with a square inch of Irish linen frayed at the edges and with a brushful of dope make our aircraft 'serviceable' again within an hour."