Merry Christmas Mother, I miss you dearly. I hope you had a wonderful bite to eat. I only wish that it wasn't too lonely for you, with both father and I away from home. I miss your all-encompassing hugs and kisses almost as much as your butterscotch pie.
In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait - in the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a live German solider from his very own trench.
Inconceivable! You would say. But you must believe. Talk to any soldier of the 18th Infantry Brigade and they will share the same collective tale as mine, enshrouded in the longing haze of a better time.
The Germans were singing. That was not uncommon. I had often fallen asleep to the faint but fiercely patriotic murmurs of Deutschland Uber Alles. Yesterday however, they hummed a tune which I couldn't help but recognise. The words unfamiliar, but the rhythm and tone unmistakable, like something you had sung to me in the past.
I scratched my eyes and waxed out my ears. By some mix of courage, stupidity, and curiosity - I peaked my head out of our hard-defended barricade.
Candles. An array of flickering lights dotted the German front like constellations in the night.
They sang Silent Night, or Stille Nacht as they called it. Offkey and unorganised and overly baritone, but a holy performance nonetheless.
As competitive as could be, our general would not back down without a duel. In the bombastic voice he often used to command units and inspire action, he sang the English words to the carol. Others joined him, and I too found my lips shaping towards the chorus. Loud and sonorous and much better organised, I dare say we defeated them at their own game.
Binoculars, General Smith ordered, noticing a reflective flicker unlike the candles that warded their flour bag fortress.
I happened to be sitting closest to him. He passed them to me to ensure he was not alone in seeing stars.
A German officer, clad in a fierce green coat and diamond-shaped pip. The perfect position to be picked off by even the most amateur of snipers. Despite that, he stood proudly and vulnerably - waving a glistening bottle of Heineken beer like a bright green calling card.
If it was curiosity that helped us peek our heads above the surface, it was utterly blinding stupidity that made us do what we did next. Under the hesitant approval of our managers, we too joined the act. General Smith led the charge with a ration of dark rum, held above his head with both hands. Like the opposing general, he made himself a standing red target.
It would have been so simple. A flick of a switch. The narrowing of a gap. A nod of implied approval, even an accidental one, and General Smith's head would have been blasted into smithereens and we would have lost another talented soldier and the night would have become another ceremony of advent crimson.
It did not. They chose not to, and neither did we.
We approached cautiously, carrying metal. Tins of butter biscuits, ill-processed jerky, cannisters of sugar-drenched peaches. Dry ale, ginger beer, and naturally, a thermos of concentrated breakfast tea. It was not the metal we were used to. This metal was not designed to hurt. This metal would not protect us.
It was a step of faith to come so empty-handed, into the wintry unknown so foreboding and unexplored.
I tasted demise on my tongue - like rust and ash. God protect me, I pledged over and over as both the Germans and the British, carried our inoffensive metal into No Man's Land.
Not a shot was fired that night. Hundreds of brave men stood at a quiet impasse. Beneath our feet, bullets and debris. On our chests, badges made of home. At our sides, empty holsters - nary a pistol or flintlock. Only the unsettling atmosphere that came with standing on the grounds where many lives - that of our brothers in arms, were lost in needless fighting and conflict.
With a stern handshake, our generals exchanged presents. A bottle of Heineken for a swig of British rum. They clinked glasses and drank. As the liquid entered their bodies, the atmosphere too seemed to warm in response.
I could make out the creases on the German general's face, his educated and fatherly demeanour. This man was responsible for the deaths of many British men stationed on the Eastern front and yet somewhere within his strategically sinister brain and his ashen green eyes sat - there it was, humanity.
He was just a man. Somebody's husband. Somebody's father. Somebody's son. A man who wanted to live and let live.
I didn't want to believe it at first, but the fire within me was unmistakable. A stubborn ember that would not go extinguished - Compassion.
Compassion for the enemy.
Unlikely gifts and souvenirs. We ate and we drank and most inexplicably, we sang. I saw them by their laughter-filled faces instead of their dusty garbs and artillery. I found myself remembering names, many of which I could hardly pronounce, much less write.
I requested their words. Fröhliche Weihnachten, they wrote on my napkin. 'Merry Christmas', I wrote in return. And there too I received a pouch of Germany's finest tobacco in exchange for my own. Theirs has a noticeably sharper, spicier bite. I haven't decided which one I prefer.
Together, we buried the dead. Hands clasped in prayer, the souls of our allies lifted up to the Lord. I do not know what they prayed for.
I muttered a prayer of gratitude - for this moment of reprieve in this terrible war; and of forgiveness - for I knew what was to come. I knew that as soon as the sun rose and proverbial rooster crowed, my hands would hold metal once again.
The Christmas of 1914 ended with a game of football. Our very own trenches which we fought viciously and persistently to defend, became nothing more than makeshift goalposts. A limp lump of leather - I do not know which of us owned it, became the sole target of our hostilities. We kicked, we tackled, we gave it our all. The day ended 3-2 in Germany's favour.
And I hope one day, once this damned war is behind us, that we could have a rematch. Our finest eleven against theirs, in a field with greener grass, thinner uniforms, and an eye-catching, spotted ball. Where our very own people could be the cheering audience, instead of the angels that watched on the night the guns fell silent.
I want to peer my head above the barricade again. I want to do so without my helmet, without fear of misunderstanding or the risk of a bullet through my skull. I want again to see candles and pretzels and the golden drip of beer with slurred carols and contagious laughter.
Determination has left my body. The need for aggression - replaced by care and concern. Mother, I don't want to fight anymore.
I want to return to the night where we shook hands with the enemy.
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Just wow, “He was just a man. Somebody's husband. Somebody's father. Somebody's son. A man who wanted to live and let live.“ I think I cried then.
I love this story and in fact it reminds me of a true one. An elderly British man I knew told me about how his grandfather fought in WW1 and on Christmas eve when the British soldiers had finished their tea, they hung the teabags on a line in no man's land so that the German soldiers could enjoy a cup of weak tea from a second steep. I was wondering if you leaned on a real story you had heard to write this one?
Oh wow, that's genuinely quite incredible and heart-warming, if not a little unsanitary lol. This story was in fact inspired by the Christmas Truce of 1914 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce), particularly from an excerpt by Henry Williamson who was a 19 y.o. private during the war. Thanks for the kind words Wally :)
So incredible to think that after sharing in each other's humanity, they went back to the awful business of war. Check out my Kateryna and the Piano Player if you want to read a story about the war in Ukraine