Christmas in the Trenches – a short story
I’m not in the habit of self-publishing stories, but it’s Christmas Eve and this is rather fitting for the occasion. It’s an old story of mine that I wrote several years ago, and has been languishing on my computer ever since. Hope you enjoy.
Christmas in the Trenches by Steve Haywood
Christmas Eve 1985
It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve. The rest of the family had gone to bed and now the whole house was quiet. The glowing coals in the grate were still giving out a fair amount of warmth and the twinkling of the fairy lights on the tree gave their own feeling of cosy warmth, the light flickering over the great heaps of presents lying under the tree. Christmas was always my favourite time of the year, holding a particularly special place in my heart, ever since that time over seventy years ago.
Christmas Eve 1914
It was four o ‘clock in the afternoon, and my bunk-mate and I were trying to catch a few minutes of sleep in our dug-out when the word was passed round. We were not to fire on the Germans unless they fired at us first. Rather than hate, today it was peace and goodwill to all men.
Darkness was falling, and there’d already been some shouts from the Germans. “Merry Christmas lads” and “we won’t fire if you don’t”. A few of our lads responded in kind. Then an hour or so later I was on sentry duty, keeping an eye on the German trenches, when I saw the strangest thing.
“Hey Charlie,” I called to the next sentry along. “Do you see what I see?”
“Bloody hell,” Charlie exclaimed, “Are they Christmas Trees?”
That was exactly what they were. Small Christmas fir trees just in front of the German trench line, barely fifty yards away. Around the trees were the dark shapes of German soldiers, hanging lanterns on the branches. After the endless barren landscape of mud and barbed wire, it was a truly wondrous sight.
A while later, the silence of the night was broken by deep German voices singing.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar…”
We all missed home; we didn’t belong on these blood-washed frozen wastes of northern France. I wanted to be back in the quiet Cotswold village I called home, carol singing in the village square or in the Red Lion drinking beer and laughing with my friends. I imagined the Germans, wrapped up in their furs, eating bratwurst and singing their hearts out wanting the same. “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…”
“Know any English ones, mate?” one of our lads shouted at the top of his lungs. A minute or two later, he was rewarded with renewed singing.
“O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O Come ye, O Come ye, to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, both the King of angels;”
“Come on men!” someone called out. “Let’s show these German grunts that we Englishmen can sing too!” Slowly at first, but quickly picking up, we started to join in.
“O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Hiii..im, Christ the Lord.”
After coming off duty I dozed, falling asleep to the deep, rich sound of Christmas carols, and for a time I was not in the trenches at all, but back home listening to the Tidwitch male voice choir singing in Christmas Day.
* * *
Christmas Day 1914
The frost lay hard on the ground on Christmas morning, and the air held even more bite than usual. Out in no man’s land there were little white peaks on the clumps of mud, like the white capped crest of waves on a particularly deadly sea. If it wasn’t for the bodies littering the ground and the stretches of cruel barbed wire splashed red, it might have been a proper view.
The icy cold weather was something of a relief because it froze the sloshing mud solid and struck down the stench. I would happily take this frozen winter-land any day over the warm and soaking mud.
We’d all had presents from home to open this morning. I got cigarettes, a plum pudding and a new pen, to help me write home more often presumably. I also got a long letter from my mother with Christmas wishes and plenty of Christmas gossip. I ached to be with my family on Christmas Day as I had been every other Christmas of my life. My little sister would be opening her presents about now I reckoned, with only mother, father and granny to play with.
A commotion slightly further down the line interrupted my train of thought.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“A couple of lads have gone over the top. There’s some Germans out there shouting Merry Christmas and inviting us to join them.”
“What? Are they complete idiots? Got to be feint. Lure us out there and shoot us dead.”
“I don’t think so; look you can see them now.”
I got up on the fire step and cautiously peered out. “Well I’ll be damned.” They were shaking hands with the Germans, and chatting to them too it looked like.
“Come on, who’s joining me?” Charlie called.
My heart overtook my head and I was caught up in the moment. I stuffed a few cigarettes into my jacket and jumped up over into no man’s land following after everyone else.
There were lots of calls of Merry Christmas, Seasons Greetings and the like, accompanied by hearty handshakes and the occasional meaty claps on the back. I wasn’t a natural in situations like this, usually leaving this sort of thing to my more gregarious comrades. After we’d been milling around a little while, I was thinking about going back when I noticed a tall, blonde German chap hanging back slightly. He must have been several inches over six foot, but the way his shoulders were slumped he could have been mistaken for someone of considerably shorter stature.
I went over. “Happy Christmas. I’m Frank.”
“Konrad. Konrad Huber. Greetings of the season,” he said hesitantly, his eyes shyly meeting mine with a quick smile. He was the sort of person I’d always imagined Germans to be; big, with a thick thatch of blond hair, a single huge bushy eyebrow that stretched across his face, and deep blue eyes.
“Good to meet you Konrad. Where you from?”
Konrad, it turns out, was the youngest of six brothers and came from near Sangerhausen, a small town in Saxony. He’d signed up only after the rest of his brothers and didn’t think he was cut out for war. Something we could definitely agree on.
We talked for a long time – in English – as he was very good at it and my German was limited to a few words. As strange as it sounds, we really got on in that day we were together. We talked about home, family and our hopes and dreams. We helped each other bury our comrades. And then we shared some beer the Germans had got from a nearby French brewery, and a few of the cigarettes I’d been sent for Christmas. We even exchanged addresses on scraps of paper, perhaps in the pretence that these were normal times and we’d visit each other in the New Year. In all the decades since that day, I’ve never made such an easy friend, and a friend he was, in my heart.
Inevitably though, it couldn’t last long. We were called back for Christmas Dinner (or what passed for Christmas Dinner on the front line) and then Christmas or no there was still plenty of things to be done that day. Today appeared to be the one day of the year we could conduct repairs and bury the dead with the security of knowing we weren’t going to get shot at.
At the end of the day, Konrad and I wished each other well, prayed for a swift end to this pointless war, and went back to our own lines for the final time that day. At the time I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.
* * *
It was several weeks after the Christmas Day Truce, as it was beginning to be known, and any last vestiges of peaceful co-existence had been firmly stamped out by the field commanders, who had always disapproved anyway. We’d been rested for a week and then sent back to the frontline trenches. Unfortunately for us, there was pressure from the top for some sort of victory, or progress at least.
So, we were being sent over the top.
That was the bad news. The good news was that it was a night-time raid on the enemy’s trenches. Very dangerous work, but better than being sent to storm across no man’s land in the daylight, to be picked off by snipers or the relentless assault of machine gun fire. At least this way you stood a fighting chance – literally – of coming back alive.
There were ten of us and our mission was to sneak across the wasteland and into the enemy’s trenches unnoticed. Once there we were to kill the sentries quickly, silently, then destroy as much of their armaments as we could before escaping. All was going well, until we were surprised by a small group of German soldiers. Charlie was leading our team and was the first to react. A quick swing of his trench knife, a spurt of blood and the first of them was down, without even having a chance to cry out. One of the enemy shouted something urgent in German, no doubt a cry for support. There would be more of them before we knew it and now we were really fighting for our lives, trying to escape. I drew my pistol; we were already discovered, and silence wouldn’t help us now.
A German appeared suddenly around the corner. I raised my gun to fire and then hesitated for a fraction of a second as in the darkness there came a flash of recognition. Our eyes met. I didn’t want to hurt him, but there was no choice. There was a “crack” from my gun, a sound I’d remember forever, along with the image of Konrad falling, blood oozing from his forehead. I pushed past him and ran.
Only three of us got back to our trenches alive. Charlie wasn’t one of them. He was killed by sniper fire as we half ran, or crawled, back across no man’s land. I wept that night for Charlie, for all my fallen comrades, for Konrad and for all the Germans we’d killed too. Their faces would haunt me for the rest of my life.
* * *
Christmas Day 1985
“Grandpa, it’s your turn; here’s a present for you to open.” My youngest granddaughter, Emily, handed me a present, neatly wrapped in thick brown craft paper printed with red reindeer on. The tag read, “Happy Christmas, with love always, Konrad, Lenora and family.”
“Open it, open it!” the children called. I slowly unwrapped the paper, but to me what was in there didn’t matter. I would love it whatever it was. I thought back to that Christmas in the trenches in 1914 and the events in no man’s land the month after. It still pained me as I smashed the butt of my gun against Konrad’s forehead. It felt like a betrayal and haunted me for years after as I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. So many people had died, so much pain and tragedy, fallen friends and broken dreams. At least there was one small happy ending.
I finished opening the present. It was a small ceramic German house, like the ones in Konrad’s hometown. It was beautiful. I was about to throw the paper in the bin when something fell out. It was a cigarette. I smiled. I didn’t smoke anymore, and I don’t think he did either, but that wasn’t the point.