Sunday, August 14, 2005

Christmas

Morning came to the trenches, obscured by the rising smoke of the heat of last night's battle. The cold pale sun rose over the distant forest, over the barbed wire, casting the first rays of illumination over the dead no-man's land that lay between the perimeters of the enemy camps.

Wind cooled the brow of John Hudson, corporal of the 8th Infantry Brigade, as he stirred from his post. His shift had begun an hour ago, in the light of the setting moon, and he was still feeling exhausted. But a strange quiet had come over the once-bloody heat of the battlefield, as if from some mutual, unspoken consensus between the two sides. Hudson rose and stretched from where he had been sitting, watching the pale dawn.

It was Christmas Day.

Hudson's mind flashed back to pre-war days, before he had left for what had then seemed such a short and easy conflict. Saying goodbye had been so easy then, the promise of adventure sweet. It was that time of the year again, and he knew that his family would come out in full force to make their house the loveliest in the neighbourhood. Hudson smiled briefly as he envisioned the old house decorated in all the bright colours of Christmas, of the thick socks hung off the mantelpiece, of the thick green conifer that would now be standing at the side of the room, surrounded by presents. His thoughts wandered to the snow-packed path up to the porch, of the carols that the school-group choirs would sing in the streets, of the eccentric but kindly neighbour who loved to dress up as Santa Claus, handing out small tokens to the children.

Christmas day, he thought sadly, as he slid out of his dreamy reverie, and surveyed the bleak, brown battlefield around him. Soon enough the offensive would start anew; artillery barrages would herald the dreaded "over-the-top" commands given by the officers, and fire and blood would reign. But the smell of tension was not there, the dreaded sense of anticipation was distant, and the trenches were quiet, quieter than he'd ever known.

Hudson clambered to where Corporal Adrian Ross was standing. Ross was a good friend of Hudson; they'd entered the army together. Ross was similarly uncertain; the look on his pasty-white face was unmistakable.

"What's going on, John?"
Hudson shrugged, apologetic. "I don't know." They exited the makeshift dugout and crossed trenches to the front trench, the last barrier before the land dissolved into the void between the front lines. All the time they spotted confused faces, uncertain faces, smeared with mud and dirt and blood. No man was at his post. They were staring at the parapet, where soldiers were hoisting themselves up the fire step. A wooden pole with a large scrap of white cloth tied to the ends was being carried up the parapet. As Hudson and Ross stared, soldiers worked together to set the pole straight, the end with the white cloth rising towards the sky. The cloth fluttered lightly, glad and free, in the breeze. A brief patter of whisperings and even a few cheers emanated from the crowd.

"Oh my God, what are they doing?" whispered Hudson. He strode to the parapet, boots falling heavily on the rotting duckboards. "What's happening?" he shouted to a cheering soldier.

"It's Christmas, sir!" cried the boy, a slight youth with red freckles. Tears flecked his face. He pointed in the direction of the trenches, grinning widely. "The Germans hoisted a flag up! It's peace! Peace for all man!"

Hudson could hardly believe his ears. He clambered up the fire step, peered through the loophole, and drew in his breath, eyes widening. Sure enough, a white truce flag was fluttering in time to their own, behind the German lines. The smoke was clearing even as the winter gusts strafed the cooling ground. In the clearing air, Hudson could make out the heads of German soldiers, peering over their trenches and gesturing excitedly.

Slowly, he came down again and set feet once more inside the trenches. He looked around and saw common infantrymen, faces shining, some wary, some hopeful. Surely the Germans would not sink so low, he thought. Ross was looking at him, half-frantic, half-hopeful. "What? What did you see up there?"

Hudson said nothing for a while, then craned his neck to face his friend. "It's true. The Germans are flying their own flag." His voice was uncertain. "They are suing...suing...for truce."

***

Before their eyes, soldiers, in ones in twos, began going over the top, weaponless and palms out, over onto the no-man's land. And on the other side of the trenches, on the other side of war, German soldiers were emerging into the growing dawn, and for the first time since the dawn of the war a British and a German walked toward a common goal.

Hudson walked with them in a dream. Later he would claim that the power of hope drove his feet. The fluttering white flag drove a cut through the brightening blue sky. His feet creaked on the duckboards. He climbed up the fire-step, pushed himself up past the sandbags and the flagpole, and hauled himself up on two hands. Before him, soldiers were walking even as the enemy approached. His legs pushed his body up and he began the long crossing past the barbed wires, past the endless fortifications, to the unseeable rendezvous. It was Christmas, he told himself. Christmas. The soil was comfortably soft, yet comfortingly solid on his weary feet. Looking up again, he could see the Germans, as slow, as careful as they themselves were, but countenances radiant with the same hope as he had seen on the faces of his own men.

They want the war to end too, he realized. And the revelation was almost shocking.

"Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!"

The soldiers were shouting, smiling all the way, as the Germans reciprocated by belching out their own greetings. The magic of Christmas cheer had spun a miracle. Suddenly the war did not exist there anymore, in the medes of France. Even as the two armies approached each other they felt their hearts lightening with the wondering feeling, that liberation of tension, that they felt when realizing -they were with the enemy, and not a shot could be heard.

It was almost like returning home, returning to peace.

The two sides met half-way, amidst the ruins of the boiling battle of days past. And behind Hudson, more soldiers, artillerymen and even officers emerged, joining the peacable gathering of enemies turned friends. More Germans streamed out of their fortifications, and soon the barren nothingness was filled with hundreds of soldiers, Germans warming up to Brits and Australians and French, soldiers talking, first guardedly, then, as tension dissolved like dew on a summer's day, forgetting boundaries and hurts and inhibitions, smiling more warmly and talking more animatedly as the sun rose in tandem.

Brits who spoke little German tried conversing laughingly with Germans who understood not a word of English. All around him Hudson could almost feel the tears come as he witnessed the miraculous spectacle that Christmas had wrought. A German soldier, wearing a peaked cap, removed it with clear relief as he approached Hudson, smiling tremulously. Hudson grinned. "Merry Christmas," he said, and nodded peacably as the soldier grinned in return. To Hudson's surprise he replied, "
Frohe Weihnachten," and continued in passable english, "Oh, I understand your language. I was planning to go to Cambridge before the war broke out." He held out a hand, then realized that it was gloved, and promptly tore the glove off, whereupon he held his hand out again. Hudson removed his own, and returned the handshake. "John Hudson," he said, introducing himself. "Hermann Schiedner," the German replied, "Priva..." he let the rank designation trail off. They both let out soft chuckles.

***

A joint burial service was held in No-Man's land, after the company's chaplain had asked for leave to bury their dead. Hudson set to work with the rest after taking his leave of Schiedner's company; the officers had promised that there would be a time for mingling later. After the last mound of earth was packed flat the religous service for the dead began. Hudson stood still with the rest of his squad, side by side with the Germans, but the incongruency that Hudson had felt at this inexplicable period of friendship and goodwill had faded somewhat.

The chaplain stood before the formations, beside the German commander; to Hudson's surprise, Schiedner stood behind them, head bowed and demeanor solemn. "The Lord is my Shepherd," the chaplain read from his Bible. "I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures.
He leaveth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake." The chaplain paused briefly, looking up above the rim of his glasses. "Yea," he concluded, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." Reverently, he closed his worn copy of the Bible. "The 23rd Psalm."

And Schiedner came foward then, and removed his Bible, and repeated the verse in German, intoning the words with the harsh inflections of the German tongue. But somehow, Hudson thought, the message turned his voice mellow and his words wiser for their harshness, for here and now, German and British, once bitter enemies, could gather together in friendship and harmony, listening to shared faith, united
in their rememberance of the dead.

Hermann closed his Bible, and after a short prayer, which he, too, read in German, the chaplain saluted the German commander and bid him farewell in goodwill and friendship.

***

Afterward Hudson and Schiedner sat together again, talking, as they watched the game of football wind its way through the erstwhile battlefield. "You're a divinity student?" Hudson inquired. Hermann nodded, his thick blond shock of hair bobbing wildly. "Yes. I had originally planned to try to go to Oxford to study Divinity." Turning, he faced Hudson with a soft, sad gaze. "I feel the war is wrong," he murmured softly in his thick German accent. Hudson nodded mutely in agreement. "I feel...and I am no coward," he quickly assured Hudson, "that, if all men were to lay down their weapons, as we do now, the world would be a better place for living."

Hudson sighed. "A lot of us have thought the same, Hermann. You're not alone, I assure you."

Hermann shook his head. "I am sorry. I find it...difficult to phrase my thoughts in English. You have heard the verse spoke earlier. The Lord is my Shepherd, Psalms 23 says. What are we to place men's greed above our Father in Heaven? Here," and he drew out a battered leather purse from a pocket, and from it fished lovingly out a photo of him with his wife and family. He stared at their faces fondly. "Martha, my wife. He pointed to the picture of a smiling young woman with cascading blond hair. Her stomach bulged heavily with child. "Pregnant when I left for the war." He pointed, again, this time to an elderly couple. They, too, were smiling. "Vati and Mamma," he said softly. "I don't even know if they are still alive." He blew out his breath. "It's been so long..."

He raised his head, and Hudson saw shadows flitting in his eyes. "I don't even know whether I will see them again," he whispered.

There was an awkward silence. "Ah, sooner as later the war'll be ending. It's been a year. Don't worry," Hudson said after a while. The ball flew past near them, and an onrushing horde of laughing soldiers stormed past. "Counting on us winning?" Hermann said, smirking. "Thats what's wrong with the world, you know. Men have stopped their ears to the Word. And like Cain and Abel before us brother is forced to kill brother, kin slaughtering kin." He sighed. "The war will not end so soon. And we will pay for that with our blood." And, having said that, he let his hands fall from Hudson's shoulders and gave him a firm pat on the back, stood, and left.

The ball whirled across the baked plain, richocheting off scuffed boots. The game was still on, and the British had upped the ante, their players pursuing the hurtling ball furious as hounds. All around there were the sounds of regaling laughter and friendly curses, English and German. Suddenly a stray kick sent the ball soaring into the air. Men's eyes followed its descent even as they ran towards it. Then, all at once, the player's voices rose in disappointment. Curious, Hudson stood up to see what had happened. He smiled. The ball had caught against one of the spikes of the British barbed wire and had been punctured. It was unusable now, and the game promptly ended, with soldiers strolling away, talking animatedly.

Hudson sat down again and ruminated over his new friend's words.

***

The ceaseless chimes of night wore on and soon a new day came. The truce held, and there was joy in every heart. Day by day artillery was quiet, rifles stacked in the dugouts, unused. Machine gun turrets lay, dormant, and all the while the twin flags of brotherhood danced in the winds. Officers and enlisted mingled, British and German fraternized. And for once there was true honour in battle, as each side discovered humanity buried in every heart. The sword was buried and the doves came, and the land grew bright and lively once more.

The guns lay quiet, and only when the brigadiers came for their inspections were a few token and mock shots fired, mostly in the air, to warn their fellow men. And soon as they departed for trenches beyond they streamed out again, past the borders of their trenches, and talked, and played, and prayed. The war was over in this little trench. Some say it never began, for hatred begets war, and fraternity belies it.

But as all good things go it never lasts. January eighth, 1915, a German officer approached the Allied lines. All was quiet, and his face was darkly grave. "I must see the English commander," he sighed in his heavy baritone. And the commander came, but his face, too, darkened. They saluted. The German's eyes were sad.

"I have come with...very sad news, commander. The truce is over, and we must resume war."

The British commander nodded. He, too, was...sad. Sad, as the leaves that fall at summer's end. He sighed heavily. "Very well, then." For the last time, they shook hands, and saluted again. The white flags were taken down with much reluctance, the soldiers took their positions again. The artillery churned draconian fires, rifles bristled with dreadful viperish threat. At the very last minute of the truce, a singular volley was fired, a feu de joie.

"Pass it along, the Kaiser's dead." Hudson heard, and passed it to the next soldier. The truce had ended.

***

"OVER THE TOP,"
brayed the commander's gargantuan voice. The barrage of artillery fire had ended, the sky burned with stinging smoke and deathly fires. The earth seemed rent from end to end. Corporal John Hudson climbed out with the rest, rifles slung and ready. The German positions were in disarray after the last dreadful hammerings of thousand-pound shells, reaving the tortured frontlines apart. From far they espied the German positions, their defences in disarray. Their troops were retreating. All around Hudson saw familiar faces, men he had met and fraternized with during that heaven-blessed time of peace and joy. It was all a muddled impression in his mind, now. A dream of the past. Their eyes met and widened. Hands tightened their grip on rifles. And that momentary contact and recognition passed, submerged into the heat of battle.

A German stood, tried to fire the machine gun, unleashing incendiary fire at the onrushing British troops. Hudson had no time even to think. In the murky haze of battle, he leveled his rifle- and froze. The gunner stared back at him. They gazed at each other across the coming rain, heedless of the cries of men around them. Hudson's lips formed a singular, murmured word, whispered through the filmy water that stained his lips.

"Hermann."

***

The Christmas Day Truce
is a real event; however, all characters listed here are ficticious. I have also altered the chronology somewhat for greater dramatic impact. Like the Bard...

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