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Christmas, Cologne Cathedral, 1918

by Paul Fournier

In the war of 1914 -1918, my Father's army serial number was 538. The Canadian army was a colonial army then; sort of an adjunct to the British Force. By the low number, you can appreciate that he'd been one of the first engineers to join what he saw then was the great adventure. His first day on the Front, as he was running along a communications trench, both the man before him and the one behind him were struck dead by machine gun fire, and it wasn't an adventure for him anymore.

Dad never really talked much about the War, but I was the youngest in the family, and very inquisitive. Though I may have seemed to be insouciant, and rather half-listening, I had this peculiar talent of remembering conversations verbatim, (which later became a source of insomnia.) One evening, when he was working off his second heart attack, I pretended to have just discovered some of his engineering maps, and lay them about the floor. So there were the two of us, on hands and knees, and Dad commenting from the maps and the diacritic marks thereon.

Nobody believed the Armistice would hold. The German army was supposed to get back behind its national boundaries within fifteen days, and then back up another fifteen miles to create a sort of buffer zone. On November 11th, the German artillery opened up with what was likely the most intense barrage of the war, presumably because they didn't want to lug all this stuff back on the poor roads. Dad said we returned the courtesy in spades, for the same reason.

One Canadian general, on hearing of the Armistice, said he was immensely grateful that we could go back to serious soldiering again, and ordered all ranks to shower, put on their best uniforms, spit and polish the mules, wagons, weapons and the like. As the Canadians proceeded towards the Rhine, defeating booby traps and removing the mines from bridges (one bridge was mined with 15,000 pounds of high explosive, all painted black to look like structural members), they saw the wretched condition of the returning German soldiers who had been taken prisoner. The Belgians were naturally delirious with joy to be free from sudden death. They threw flowers and embraced the Canadians as they marched through their towns. After a few days of this, he said the unit began feeling pretty cocky. This sentiment grew as they approached the Rhine.

He recalled how he came upon a group of German prisoners of war unloading several great barges filled to the point of sinking with loot. These men had been ordered to load these same barges only three days before by their officers, and were completely disgusted with the whole procedure. Dad thought this was unfortunate for them, but laughed anyway.

The people across the Rhine were understandably surly. On December 22nd, the unit was ordered to parade in the town square and show the flag. Several sergeants, swagger sticks in hand, were posted around the square to ensure the locals removed their hats as the flag was raised. Dad's sympathies, to his own surprise, were with the people watching the parade.

My Father was 24, a dashing, blue-eyed French Canadian captain, acting major. Those eyes had seen the unspeakable, and he hated pompous little displays like this. Nor was he a real career soldier - he really wanted to get home again, and tear up the dirt roads in Northern Ontario on a motorcycle. After the parade, he reported he had to get to Cologne on some business, and took some of his men with him. Oddly enough, they were all Catholic - this got them off parade duty, which was not accidental.

The road to Cologne, some 30 miles from the bridge where they'd crossed the Rhine, was something of an adventure for them, as they seemed to be the first allied units the German civilians had seen. Snow began to fall on Christmas Eve, and they were awed as they approached this titanic, magnificent cathedral. There was some traffic on the streets, and the shops were lit up in an attempt to bring a bit of cheer to the occasion.

As they entered the cathedral, the great organ was just ending a joyous prelude. Though the whole choir was flooded with light, they could hardly see the ceiling in the gloom above. Dad noticed many other Canadian soldiers in the congregation, as well as many more field gray uniforms. A few days before, these uniforms would have been bloodied with anger and reeked of cannon smoke - yet here, they had come to adore a child.

The Asperges me, sung by a boys' choir, was the sweetest sound he'd heard in three years. Then: " Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te." The Lord said to me: You are my Son; it is I who engendered You this day. Dad learned to love the way Germans sing Gregorian Chant that night - better than the higher pitch the French favour.

Later he found himself kneeling beside a German colonel: a thin priest reciting, as he distributed Communion: " Corpus Domini Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen."

After the third Mass, as he stood on the wide steps in the snow, an old gentleman and his ancient wife approached him. "Come with us," he said, "Come with us and let us have a few moments of Christmas together." As an engineer, Dad had learned enough German to get by, so he was about to refuse, as this was fraternizing with the enemy. However, he was afflicted with a spirit of contradiction, a fault he learned to control by the time I knew him, so he accepted. He could tell the woman was not pleased with her husband's suggestion, so he said he would follow them a block's distance.

When he met Dad at the door, the old man had a spade in his hand, and asked him to follow him into the back yard. After a bit of digging, a bottle of very fine brandy was unearthed and brought, with some reverence, to the old oak table. Much to Dad's dismay, the woman served him two eggs - items well beyond a normal Cologne menu that night. They stood to say the Benedicite together, and sat to the Christmas feast. Well, feast for one. Dad didn't contribute much to the conversation - he had far too much to reflect upon.

He wondered how he might in some way contribute something worthwhile to these old people. Remembering an old French Canadian custom where the father of a family confers a New Year's blessing to his children, Dad knelt down before the old man and asked his blessing, which he did, willingly, with grateful tears streaming down his old hard face.

The next day, Dad delivered a package of stolen goods to a certain door in Cologne, and ran down the street as fast as he could after knocking on the door.

He needed time to think, so he wrote himself a pass to Paris, and went AWOL for three weeks. As he was about to board the train in Paris to return to his unit, he met his commanding officer who asked where he'd been. Dad said: "AWOL'. The colonel laughed and said he was doing the same thing, and that Dad should join him. "No money" Dad replied. But the colonel laughed again and said; "I've got plenty for two. Come along, that's an order, sort of."

And he did.

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