Authors: Mackenzie Ford
Gifts? What on earth did the Germans have to give us and, more important, what did we have to give
the exchange of gifts even appropriate? But I liked the idea of a discussion about burying the dead. Corpses, or parts of corpses, lay all over no-man’s-land. The stench of decaying bodies, and the shrill squeaking of the rats as they gorged on the remains, never let us forget that, at the Front, death was not the end. Each and every one of us had lost good friends, even relatives, and a decent burial—any kind of burial—was the one thing we could do for men who were beyond all other forms of aid.
But what gifts could we exchange? Our men had nicknamed the trench the Great West Road, and Bond Street it wasn’t.
“We’ve got plenty of plum puddings, sir,” said Stephenson. “How about them?”
By God, he was right. “What’s your idea,” I said, chuckling. “To poison the Germans?”
Back in London the
had organized a campaign to see that all units at the Front were supplied with plum puddings for
Christmas and, because the
and the rest of the press were watching, the puddings had got through, in huge numbers. Boxes of the stuff occupied as much space as our ammunition dump.
“Brilliant idea, Sergeant,” I added. “Let’s kill them with kindness. Make the puddings ready, will you.” I hated the
and its hysterical jingoistic war coverage, and the idea of off-loading its Christmas gift onto the Germans appealed to me.
If the Germans opposite wanted to discuss burying the dead, we would have to make the most of the time available, so I instructed the men to bring together all our shovels and told Stephenson to start looking for wood, for crosses. It was such a change from my normal type of order that the men set to it with something approaching gusto.
At noon, I was the first out of the trench. It was unnerving to show myself but, after those first heart-stopping seconds, when any one of three hundred Germans could have riddled me with bullets, the fear vanished, to be followed by exhilaration as I stared across the landscape, viewing it like an ordinary person would in peacetime, the sort of ordinary person I had forgotten how to be.
The cut of my uniform and the outline of my cap would have been easily visible from the other side, marking me out as an officer. I walked forward a few paces to our line of barbed wire and stopped. After weeks and months of trench warfare, I can’t begin to describe the sense of freedom that being above ground gave me. I felt lightheaded. I took out my cigarette case and lit a Craven “A.” It was a casual gesture—the kind you made on a London street all the time—but out there it felt… well, nonchalant, flamboyant, extravagant even. It was a momentary return to an earlier life that we had suppressed. Apart from anything else, the smell of burning tobacco helped kill off the stench of decaying bodies that the intense cold couldn’t quite obliterate.
The other officer climbed out of his trench and splashed toward
me. He was good-looking, slim, blond, with a straight nose, a well-defined jaw, and he wore a white silk scarf around his neck. Compared with me he was positively dashing.
As he moved forward, I turned and motioned to my men. In a line, they too clambered out of the trench. The German line soldiers did the same.
I had stopped when I had reached the barbed wire but my German opposite number didn’t. Many gaps had been blown in the wire, but he found one where a tree had fallen across it, and he stepped into the very heart of no-man’s-land. I followed his example.
We had almost come face-to-face, nearly within hand-shaking distance, when a commotion broke out to my left and slightly behind me. I turned quickly, noticing fear on his face, a fear that I felt too. What had happened to interfere with our careful choreography—was it going to be turned into chaos, or even mayhem?
What had happened was that two rabbits in no-man’s-land, disturbed by the unexpected presence of so many humans, had suddenly broken cover and bolted. This was too much for the men on both sides. Rabbits—fresh meat—were difficult and dangerous to capture under normal circumstances, but today was not normal circumstances. Today the rabbits did not have the war shielding them. Men on both sides gave chase, shouting and cheering, slip-sliding in the mud, diving this way and that.
The rabbits, of course, were no respecters of barbed wire, still less of no-man’s-land, and in no time the men were scattered right across the landscape, so splattered with mud that it was difficult to tell who was who. More to the point, both sides were now
in corralling the rabbits, cunningly shepherding them into an unusually large shell
. Two loud cheers went up as first one, then the other rabbit was captured and held proudly, imperiously aloft by the ears,
wriggling and squealing. True to the spirit of the chase, the Germans took one of the rabbits and we claimed the other. I have often wondered what would have happened had only one rabbit appeared.
After that joint success, however, there was no stopping the men. They formed small knots all over the ravaged terrain, shaking hands, swapping tobacco, buttons from their uniforms (strongly forbidden, at least in theory), and showing one another photographs from home.
I turned back to the German officer. We grinned at each other and shook hands. I told him who I was, speaking in German. “Lieutenant Henry Montgomery, Forty-seventh Gloucester Rifles.” He replied, to my surprise, in perfect English: “Oberleutnant Wilhelm Wetzlar, Thirty-second Saxon Infantry. Happy Christmas, Henry. I have a present for you.” Whereupon he took from the breast pocket of his gray tunic three juicy cigars, each fat as a thumb and about six inches long.
“I can’t accept them,” I said. (Throughout, I spoke German and he spoke English.) “I have nothing for you, except this.” And I shamefacedly produced the box with the plum pudding in it. I felt we British were losing this war of gifts.
“I accept with pleasure,” he said, reaching forward. “Tonight, Christmas night, I shall feast on rabbit and Christmas pudding.” He laughed. “It will be a dinner I shall never forget.”
What could I do in the face of such charm? I took the cigars, smelled them, rolled one next to my ear, before placing them in the breast pocket of my tunic, making myself the silent vow that I would smoke them on special occasions.
“Your English is very good,” I said as I buttoned my pocket.
He smiled. He had brown eyes, and his lips were more brown than red too. “Until June I was a teacher in your country.”
I was flabbergasted. “Where?”
“Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare is very popular in Germany— he translates very well. Falstaff called Prince Henry ‘Hal,’ right, in Shakespeare?”
I nodded. “It’s what my family call me.”
“Hal it is then.” He continued, “I was on an exchange scheme—I taught German in Stratford and my exchange partner taught English in Göttingen, where I work. I was born in Mannheim but I grew up in Göttingen—that’s an old, very beautiful university town, like your Cambridge. Where did you learn German?”
I told him about my years in Berlin and Munich.
“Did you ever go to the Paris bar?” he asked.
“On Kantstrasse? But of course. Never before two o’clock in the morning, though.”
He laughed again. “I know what you mean. Is there anywhere like that in London?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I worked in London just before the war started, but only for a few weeks. I know Berlin and Munich better than I know my own capital city. And I did a Goethe course in Weimar.”
“Well, what’s Munich like? I’ve never been.”
“If you’re a bohemian it couldn’t be better. There are more painters, more playwrights, more musicians, more cabaret performers than anywhere I’ve ever been. To think I may have killed a few, over the past few weeks and months…” I trailed off. “It doesn’t bear thinking about. Did you like Stratford?”
He nodded. “The river is very beautiful. Smaller than rivers in Germany, but so many swans. They can be quite aggressive, swans, especially if you get too close to their young. And there are cricket games by the river—such a lovely idea for everyone to dress in white.” He smiled. “As Shakespeare has always been popular in Germany, so Stratford is popular too. You know it?”
I shook my head. “No. I’ve never been. I’m ashamed to say that you are probably more familiar with Shakespeare than I am.”
“What a pair we are,” he said, grinning again. “You’re English and know more about Goethe than I do, and I’m German and know more about Shakespeare. Maybe we should swap places?”
Dare I say it but I liked him. I certainly liked him a good deal more than many of the officers of our own side that I had encountered in Flanders, not all of whom one would want to spend time with back in London.
Nevertheless, I thought it right to bring the conversation around to the business of the bodies. We agreed that we would spend the rest of the day on this task, each side burying its own, and not interfering with the other. We also agreed that we would each repair, as best we could, our own barbed wire, if time allowed. Wilhelm—I think of him as Wilhelm—then asked if the truce should be extended to the following day. I said I couldn’t guarantee it, and added that I thought he couldn’t guarantee it either. Both sets of top brass were vehemently against fraternization, he and I were disobeying orders as it was, and if word came down later that day from further up the chain of command, both of us would have no choice but to obey. He agreed, but we told each other that we would wait out the night, enjoy our Christmas dinners, and take the morning as it came. I then added that we British would not be the first to fire, unless explicitly instructed to do so by superior officers, and that so far as I was concerned the truce would last until midnight British time the following evening.
He accepted that, and agreed.
We knew the men would take their lead from us, so we prepared to part, to set about the supervising of the burial parties. Just before he turned away, however, he said, “Are you married, Hal? Do you have children?”
“No, twice over. Not married, no children.”
“I am.” He reached into another of his tunic pockets and took from it a photograph. He handed it to me. It was a portrait of a very beautiful blond woman—a girl really. Clear skin, wavy hair but swept back and held in place by an Alice band. A shy smile of someone who hadn’t quite discovered yet what effect she had on men.
“You’re lucky,” I said. “She’s very beautiful. What’s her name?”
“Short for Samantha?”
“Oh, no. Her real name is Sally. Sally … Ann … Margaret Ross, so she’s always been called after her initials—S.A.M.”
I looked at him.
“Yes, she’s English. She’s a teacher, at a school in a small village not far from Stratford—that’s how we met, when I was on the exchange course. We got engaged just before I was recalled to Germany, in June—I was in the reserve.” He took back the photograph of his girl and pulled another from his tunic.
“I have a favor, Hal,” he breathed softly. “This is a photo of me in uniform. Sam, of course, has never seen it—she hasn’t heard from me since war broke out.” He turned the photo over and held it out to me. I shied back, but he kept his hand out. “Her name and the name of the school she teaches at are on the back. Can you see she gets it? It would mean such a lot, to her and to me. I can surely never send it, but you can. I haven’t written anything, like a note. That
be dangerous, if it were found on you. Or if it were intercepted in any post that you sent to her.”
When he saw that I looked doubtful, he took a step forward. “We were very much in love—but will our feelings outlast this war? Will
outlast this war? She didn’t fall in love with me when I was one of the
enemy, and if she had a photo of me, as I am now, maybe that will help clear her mind. She will have to keep the photo secret, of course. How could she live in England if she had a German fiancé? If the photo—the uniform—frightens her, turns her against me … well, that’s cleaner, honest, we will know where we stand, she can start putting me out of her mind. But I shall never forget her and the first thing I will do when this war is over is go looking for her. This photo will tell her all she needs to know.”
He still held out the snapshot. “Will you do it? Will you see that she gets this? Please. As a Christmas favor.”
He put the photo of his girl into his tunic pocket, and as he did so I was reminded of the disparity between Wilhelm’s gift—the three cigars in
tunic pocket, which I had accepted—and the pathetic plum pudding. Agreeing to do as he asked would make up for the disparity, a gesture that would reclaim some British honor in this exchange.
So I took the photograph and put it in my tunic pocket alongside the cigars.
THE TRUCE LASTED THROUGH BOXING DAY
, though there was no more fraternization, not in our sector anyway. At midnight, however, the war resumed. To begin with, it was weird, shooting at men you’d enjoyed a smoke with. But then the bombardment started up again, the whistle of bullets filled the air at other times, and, inevitably, blood began to flow. The horror and madness resumed where they had left off.