The guns had fallen silent, but soon they would be pounding again, shaking the earth, shaking the rats out of their holes, making the dead tremble out in No Man’s Land. Christmas Day, yet nothing to show for it – no snow, no laughter, no celebration. Nothing to celebrate. Rags of torn clothing hung on the barbed wire like bunting, khaki and grey draped there every day, gradually losing their colour. Christmas hadn’t put the bunting there. The war had.
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
Alles schlaft, einsam wacht…”
The British soldiers sitting slumped in their miserable swampy trenches, remembering past Christmases, thought at first they were imagining the carol. There’s no point singing in a frozen muddy hellhole like this, with the dead your only audience. But wait … Yes! The singing was real. Drifting over from the German trenches across No Man’s Land. The enemy were remembering Christmas, too.
Of course they were. Christmas is universal. And what were they over there – those German infantrymen over there – but young frightened men far from home, wishing they were somewhere else, anywhere else this vile wartime Christmas Day in France? Only weeks before, the British Tommies might have swallowed all that propaganda about German Huns murdering babies and burning churches.
But they knew better now. The enemy they knew as “Jerry” was just as frightened, just as cold, just as hungry, just as homesick. He, too, had a wife back home somewhere – children maybe – sitting through a lonely Christmas Day clutching his mud-spattered letters and remembering. longing for his safe return …
“Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm, all is bright …”
The Royal Welch Fusiliers over in the next trench were joining in now. Forever singing, those Taffies. Some sang in Welsh, others in English. Same carol, just different words. Same meaning. Same Christmas.
Suddenly everyone burst out singing.
Then a German officer called out: something about schnapps, something about sharing a drink. He rose up into view waving a bottle, and the singing petered to a halt. The Tommies exchanged uneasy glances; cigarettes froze halfway to mouths. Would he be shot down by a sniper?
How can you shoot a man when you’ve just been singing along with him? Disbelieving sniggers rippled through the trench; Tommies grinned and shook their heads. Hands unclenched from revolvers, drifted away from rifle stocks. Not here. Not on Christmas Day. Other heads rose above the parapets, dirty, fatigued faces gazing at one another across the grassless, treeless, lifeless No Man’s Land between the English and German lines. Some soldiers waved. Others lifted their helmets in greeting –
Something round and brown dropped out of the slab-grey sky, and all heads ducked. Hands flew up to shield vulnerable eyes and ears. Was it a shell? A mortar? The brown globe bounced twice, then rolled to a standstill in the frozen mud, all eyes upon it. It was a football.
A football in No Man’s Land? Was it English or Welsh or German? It was neutral – No Man’s Land belonged to nobody, except perhaps the dead who lay out there, hanging on the barbed wire or slumped against scorched twisted trees.
Then a grey-coated German clambered up onto the parapet, swung a leg over and emerged into the frozen emptiness, calling back to his comrades. Others followed; first one, then five, then a dozen men soon scrambled out of their trenches, German and British, each man encouraging his friends to follow. A few hung back, suspicious of an ambush. But enough jogged out onto the barren wasteland, greatcoats hanging stiffly down to their ankles, cigarette smoke curling from cupped hands. Enough for a game of football.
Jerry and Tommy swapped cigarettes, swigs of liquor. Brandy and schnapps exchanged hands. Bundled-up coats made goalposts. There were shouts and cheers, little puffs of smoky breath as the players panted back and forth. A barrel-chested sergeant puffed to and fro, red-faced in the chilly air as both sides heckled him cheerily. Legs entangled, men slid into the mud, and the ball sailed through the goal mouth on a tide of laughter and groans.
Then out of the chilly mist – far away up the line – came a gentle whoomp, whoomp, like a beating heart. A faint orange glare bloomed on the distant horizon, and icy puddles rippled. Artillery. Smokers dragged deep on their cigarettes and threw them down. The players shook hands, gathered up their greatcoats, pointed to the red flashes in the misty sky. The crackle of gunfire drifted closer. Without any direct commands, the men returned to their trenches at a leisurely walk. No hurry. Machine-gunners checked their ammunition belts. Riflemen eased the springs of their carbines. The Welsh were the last to stop singing.
Nothing had changed. The end of the war had come no closer. There would be no spontaneous laying down of arms in defiance of commanding officers, no mutinous refusal to fight anymore. But something magical had happened out there in No Man’s Land, something every man there would cherish in the mud-spattered letters sent home, and remember until he died – whether next morning out on the wire or in the far distant future, to see other, peacetime Christmas Days.
The mortars thudded down, crazing the slab-grey sky, making the muddy slurry trickle down into the trenches. Cowering soldiers hunched their shoulders against it and buttoned up their greatcoats. Out in No Man’s Land the football lay forgotten, like a lonely Christmas hazelnut after a splendid feast.
© 2020 | Tom Burton