A Christmas story from the trenches of a World War

The late Don Calvert of Marten Beach told us this story in 2011.

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Hanging on the wall of Don and Joan Calvert’s Marten Beach home is a small, framed collection of militaria. It contains three or four medals, an assortment of brass buttons, regimental insignia and a photograph of a soldier.

The soldier is Lance Sgt. Joseph Albert Calvert of the 49th Battalion of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, as he appeared during his service in the First World War.

“My dad was a great storyteller,” Don says.

Don never wrote any of it down, but he remembers plenty.

Before the war, Joe Calvert was living in or around Fort Saskatchewan. He worked with his dad freighting. This included helping his father haul Lesser Slave Lake whitefish from Athabasca Landing to Edmonton in the pre-railway days.

It wasn’t all work for the young Calvert, however.

“Dad organized a baseball team in Fort Saskatchewan,” says Don. “A young German fellow was the hotshot first baseman. He became a real good friend of dad’s.”

The first baseman, whose name Don unfortunately can’t remember, took some time off work in 1914 or thereabouts to visit his family in Germany.
“He was conscripted into the German army,” Don says.

Sometime later, Joe Calvert joined up with the Edmonton Expeditionary Force – probably in 1915. He was transferred to the 49th Battalion of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, shipping out from Halifax on the Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic. It was a stormy and memorable trip for the young Calvert and his battalion.

Calvert saw action in most of the major battles Canadian troops were involved in, Don says. He lost two cousins, Earl Calvert and Charlie McLennan, and many more friends and companions. By the end he had risen to the rank of Lance Sergeant. He also won the Military Medal for bravery in the field, for rescuing two Canadians who were wounded and delirious in no man’s land between the trenches.

Sitting around the farmhouse years later, Joe Calvert told stories about the taking of Vimy Ridge; also about clearing the maze of tunnels on the far side of the ridge of enemy soldiers. Don chokes up a bit recounting the story about how, when a fellow Canadian soldier bayoneted a wounded German instead of taking him for medical attention, Lance Sgt. Calvert had him arrested.

Those stories were enough to keep an audience of Vilna farmers riveted. But the best one of all was his dad’s account of a Christmas truce – probably at Vimy in 1916.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is the one everyone has heard about; much has been written and it’s been featured in movies. It happened mostly between German and British troops along the Western Front – a sort of spontaneous and unauthorized cessation of hostilities that went as far as exchanges of gifts and soccer games in no-man’s land. Of course the higher-ups disapproved and subsequent outbreaks of good will were discouraged.

However, two years later, a similar incident took place at Vimy between Canadian and German troops. It apparently remained unknown to historians until fairly recently, when a letter from a Canadian soldier came to light. At least so claims an article in Wikipedia.

“I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line,” wrote Private Ronald MacKinnon. “Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars.”

MacKinnon was killed shortly afterwards during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, says the article.

Whether this was the truce Joseph Calvert was involved in is hard to say, but it seems quite likely.

The story Don heard was that on Christmas Eve the firing stopped, and in the quietness, some German soldiers began singing ‘Stille Nacht’. The Canadians didn’t recognize the words, but some of them joined in on the familiar tune with the English words of ‘Silent Night.’ More carol singing ensued. Then soldiers started climbing out of the trenches and calling across to each other.

“Then they started collecting in groups in no man’s land,” Don says.

Joe Calvert, meanwhile, was still in his trench, cleaning mud off his boots, when a missile landed near him with a thud. It turned out to be a cigarette package.

“Ordinarily, he would have jumped and yelled to his colleagues to do likewise, expecting to blow up,” Don says. “But because of what was happening he had no fear.”

The package, which had been weighted for throwing with a chunk of hard clay, contained a message.

“Hello, Edmonton,” it said. “Merry Christmas!”

“It was signed by the young first baseman from Fort Saskatchewan. So dad immediately climbed out of his trench and walked over to the German trench, calling out this fellow’s name. He recognized dad’s voice and came on the run to him. So they had an incredible visit there in no man’s land.”

A football game was part of that Christmas celebration, Don says. And not Germans vs. Canadians, but mixed teams. There was an exchange of gifts as well, with the Germans giving more than they received; they had more packages from home thanks to being so close.

Nobody wanted to start the fighting again, Don’s father said. There was shooting to the left and right along the line, but it took hours for hositilities to recommence at the site of the Christmas truce, in spite of the efforts of the higher officers.

Joe Calvert never found out what happened to his first baseman.

One of the buttons in the framed display on Don and Joan Calvert’s wall came from a German uniform. Apparently such exchanges were not uncommon whenever the troops had a chance to fraternize. Somewhere in a German collection is a button from Joe Calvert’s uniform.

Joe Calvert returned to his homestead near Vilna after the war. He rebuilt his house (it had suffered quite a bit in the interim) and got down to farming. In 1921 he married Annie Sveen, whose father had been a blacksmith at Chipman and later at Hamlin.

“I’ve got all his blacksmith tools,” Don says, of his maternal grandfather.

Joe Calvert went on playing baseball, too, with a team from Vilna. Ralph Steinhauer was a pitcher on the team, which traveled by horse and wagon to games in Saddle Lake, St. Paul and other communities. Steinhauer went on to become the Chief of Saddle Lake First Nation, and Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.

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