L'Enfer

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VIII

25 December 1914

On the 25th of December, 1914, something quite strange happened. At midnight, just when the placement of the moon marked the commencement of the new day, shots from either side had stopped completely. Throughout the week, ceasefires had become more common, but never at such a crucial point in the fight. I froze, not entirely certain of what was happening, until I realised that the twenty-fifth day marked Christmas. Of course, no man would wish to fight on such a sacred day. I thought this through thoroughly, and knew that the Germans had nothing to gain by trying to trick us into coming out of our trenches. Silenced filled the air, any sounds muffled by the snow that had fallen upon the dreary remains of the muddied field. Contemplating whether or not it was safe, I eventually climbed over the trenches. I felt Alain grab at my leg, but I only shoot him off stubbornly.

Emerging without a gun, I walked to the middle of No Man’s Land, my gaze distant as I tried to see throw the thin veil of snow drifting down from the sky. “Peace!” I called; in French, yet I hoped that the Germans were still able to understand such a simple word. “It is Christmas!” Soon, I was aware of a young German soldier before me. He had taken off his shiny helmet, standing before me and holding out a trembling hand. At that moment, I realised that he was just as frightened and uncertain as me. I took his hand and shook it amiably, much to the amazement of the French behind me. We had been less forceful to the Germans leading up to that point, but to truly venture into the middle of the battlefield and shake hands with the ‘enemy’ was remarkable.

I realised then, that he was not the enemy, after all. It was not the Germans we should have been fighting, but their leader that had sent them to their deaths. Alain had been right all along; we were fighting the wrong people. These innocent men, some of whom no doubt had friends who were French, forced to kill them senselessly. Thinking that a handshake suddenly was not enough, I pulled the German soldier into a tight embrace. I felt his heart race, yet also could I feel mine. “Merry Christmas,” I murmured softly, and he replied something in German that I did not doubt was the same thing.

From my pocket, I produced one of several small, wrapped gifts to the man. He accepted it graciously, and I smiled back at him, giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze. He was a man, just as I was, and it was not his fault that he was born a German, born the enemy. If this exact same man had been born just across the border, he would have been on the same side as me. That is what I found truly astounding; it is only a matter of where one was born. I looked at the German, who had tucked the little blue and white box away into his pale coat. I wondered what his face would look like as he opened the gift, revealing sweets that had, admittedly, been sent to me by my wife. However, I was able to find the very same ones from the shops behind the trenches, thus making all the gifts consistent, which pleased me greatly.

When the man departed back to his own side, I turned to see my fellow Poilus conversing with the Germans quite gaily. It was incredibly heartening to know that everyone saw their opponent at this time as nothing more than a human. There was no need to shed blood on the day of Jesus’ birth, and I was glad that I was not the only one who agreed. Sébastien seemed to be talking to a German in the other man’s native tongue, and though he had a thick French accent, I found it quite impressive how they were able to understand each other. I watched on, fascinated, trying to figure out exactly what it was they were saying. Eventually, the German pointed to me, asking a question that conveyed genuine interest. Sébastien looked at me, grinned knowingly, and replied to the German with a hearty laugh and loud voice.

Later, once the man in the spiky helm had parted with a bow, I gave Sébastien a curious look, raising an eyebrow in genuine confused. Sébastien only gave me that same sly smirk, one which gave away only the foggiest of intentions, and assured me that it was absolutely nothing to worry about. Despite his words, I was still incredibly curious. Yet I did not let my curiosity get the best of me, and spent the rest of the early morning using my facial expressions to convey greetings, and exchange gifts. By the end, I could feel the large pockets of my uniform become weighed down with gifts, and the generosity of the Germans truly astounded me. France had always made Germans out to be the bad ones, the ones that had stolen a part of our country back in 1870, the ones upon whom we had to exact revenge. However, what the posters, the papers, and the politicians failed to mention was that these men were forced to fight, just as we were. I looked in wonderment at the man before me, with his sandy blond hair and dazzling, murky green eyes; I wondered if they were often closed in prayer, just as mine were, or if from them sprung tears as he worried if he would ever see his wife again.

Feeling an immense amount of pity for the man I did not even know, I wished do tell him, “It is not my will to fight you”. Though, if I said this, I knew I would be a hypocrite, as no matter whether I was forced to fight or no, the fact still remained that I did shoot at Germans, and I have killed a few, if not, several. Where words had no place, I could only look at him with a deep apologetic sorrow in my own eyes. He seemed to understand wordlessly, the small smile gradually ebbing from his equally drink-warmed face. I felt something hard hit my shoulder, just when the silence between us nearly became unbearable, and already on high alert, spun around quickly to see Sébastien, covering an amused grin with his hand. I looked down with great suspicion, only to see, with a sigh of relief, that it was nothing but a football.

Glancing up at my new German comrade with fresh energy, I kicked the ball to him. He only hesitated for a moment before he realised what was happening, and returned the ball to Sébastien with an impressive kick. Upon seeing the display, Alain ambled up excitedly. “Just ‘cause I’m missin’ a leg don’t mean that I can’t play football just as good!” he exclaimed, stealing the ball from Sébastien. The considerably smaller man – compared to Alain, as he was still about half a head taller than me – made a surprise noise that mixed with displeased, until he saw that it was his friend, who had wanted to join in on the game.

The initial tensions that had clung to the very particles of the air soon fell away, as if, like mist, the rising sun evaporated it. We played football until the morning painted the sky a dim purple, and the higher-ups back in the trenches understood what exactly was happening in No Man’s Land; it certainly was not war, and anything that was not war was strictly forbidden. An officer shouted at the entirety of the army to return to their real jobs, which was to kill the Germans. Any protests were quickly silenced. Despondently, I parted with my new German friends, hoping that they would not be unfortunate enough to get caught by one of my bullets. It felt so incredibly wrong, to shoot such loud, vicious devices on the day of the Saviour’s birth. It was a Holy day, one of the Holiest, and I only wished that the leaders of the countries at war could come together for at least a moment, to discuss for what they were truly fighting. No longer was it a war for revenge, nor was it a war out of hatred. It was simply political, and nothing more than that. It pained me to think that the president Poincaré would benefit from the deaths of men, and, more specifically, German soldiers.

I shook my head, as though to rid my mind of terrible thoughts. Thinking of such this was certainly not suitable for Christmas day, and I scolded myself quietly. At any rate, my thoughts could not change the outcome of the war, and protesting against the firm beliefs of the leaders of the great nations of Europe would only cause me to lose my own life. I sighed in defeat, feeling lost as my eyes scoured the rows of beds crammed together, yet as I did so, I was reminded of the lighter I was carving, upon which the woman bore similar traits to my wife. Consequently, I knew that there was a letter in reply to her that still remained unwritten. I hesitated, deeply regretting that I had only sent her what little money I could afford to send her for Christmas. I no longer had enough for the small, yet meaningful gifts I had bestowed upon her in years past. Perhaps, if she was paid well in the shell factory, she could buy something nice for herself, such as a set of earrings, or a meal at a restaurant, or hire a man to tend to the crops in the spring. I quickly dismissed the last thought; that would have been, perhaps, a good gift for me, but not something in which my dear Caroline would be interested.

I sat upon my bed with a quill in my hand, and fresh paper in my lap, running my hand over the smooth surface of the letter to-be as though it would give me some inspiration. I closed my eyes, thinking of what I could say to Caroline that would make her happy, and assure her that I was safe. Immediately, I could not think of much. When I tried to remember the specific events of the truce that had happened only hours ago, or the parties at which I would play my accordion, my memories only went back further, to the hardest times we had experienced thus far. Placing my quill on the paper, I forced myself to write, but the words certainly did not come easily.

The 25th of December, 1914.

Merry Christmas, love.

I know that this letter will most likely reach you some day in January, but that is entirely my fault. I am so terribly sorry, but the war rages on. Officers are not happy with our Christmas truces. In what world is peace not tolerated, in the midst of war? A corrupt world, surely. I fear for all of mankind. Why should these Holy days not be observed as such? Are our leaders so bloodthirsty that they will take lives at any cost? I wish I had the answers for you, dear Caroline, but I fear that these questions are constantly on my mind, to which I cannot find answers. But do not be frightened, Caroline. There are, perhaps, good things that come from this, as strange as it might sound. There was a truce today between the soldiers, even if it was not approved. It shows that the enemy is still entirely human, very much like us, dear Caroline. I only wish that our president could see it. It truly is such a shame. You have no idea how many men we have lost, how many bodies I have had to set my eyes upon… I only fret that one day I will become one of those countless men, dead for France.

Oh, but the thought of you, it keeps me very much alive. I feel as though I could dodge every bullet if it meant that I could at last come home to you. You know how much I love you, but I must say it as often as possible in my letters, simply so that you have no excuse to ever forget. If I should perish in battle, well, you will think fond memories of me, yes? Oh, Caroline, please say that you do, as it would break my heart if you told me I was a rotten kisser, or a terrible lover, or forgot our anniversaries enough that it became a nuisance. Perhaps, if I died on this God-forsaken battlefield, you would remember our last night together, how we held each other close, praying for the next morning to be good, and all the days after that.

Unfortunately, dear… I must say that God must have missed our prayers. I have done all that I can to follow Him, but He does not reside here; this is Satan’s realm. It may be that Satan is indeed stronger than God, no matter how hard I try to find Him. Or it could be that He no longer cares for us, and is instead feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Ha! How great would it be if our God truly made a change in this world? I often wonder what He is doing, sitting up there in his throne in the sky of His. He looks down on us mortals, but what does he see? Does he pity us, does he abhor us? Perhaps He has lost faith in us as we have lost faith in Him, as much as it pains me to say.

In the event of my permanent absence, please promise me that you will not become a nurse. You do not deserve to suffer as I have seen these brave women suffer. Whenever I see them, precious wife, I can only ever worry that some-day, one of the faces will be one I recognise, and it will be yours. I need to know that this will never become reality, for my own sanity. You would not trouble your dear husband unnecessarily, would you? Of course you would not; never on purpose.

But oh, how negative I have been! It is Christmas, and talking of such dark subject matter only ruins the mood. Do forgive me, Caroline, for I know it must cause you great joy to receive letters from me, as I have great joy getting them from you. It must be so terrible when you open your letter only to see the –

I apologise, and I must beg my forgiveness again. Sébastien pulled me away for a moment and I completely forgot what I was writing about. Even re-reading my last sentence does not seem to jog my memory, so I suppose I must leave it at this. I hope that the rest of 1914 is a wonderful year for you, and you have all my love, even from so far. Let us hope that I shall be home before the snow melts again, though, with each passing day, I am becoming less and less certain.

Your loving husband,

Armand Lacroix.

Looking down at the abrupt blank spot on my letter with the utmost dissatisfaction, I wondered where my memory had gone. Though a clumsy one, I was never forgetful, and especially not when the majority of the sentence was directly in front of me. I sighed as I folded up the letter, justifying to myself that it could not have been that important if I did not remember it. Still, it unsettled me greatly, the mere abruptness of this train of thought that had left without me entirely. If I could not have my wife, my freedom, my life, or even my thoughts, what could I have? Attempting not to be the pessimist, I simply blamed Sébastien for urging me out to play in the snow with him and Mercier. The two seemed to get along incredibly well, despite Mercier being a mute. The man did not inspire pity, the way he walked around the camp silently, with less confidence than the others. No, he seemed to have an air of confidence in his own right, in the way that he never looked frightened. This was admirable, even amongst the bravest of soldiers; I certainly considered Mercier to be one of them.

When Sébastien pulled me out into the crisp, wintry air, I could only tug my scarf closer around my neck, the remorseless wind chilling my exposed face. “What are we doing?” I asked to the pair, my voice muffled due to the fabric covering it. Sébastien chuckled, and motioned to a snowman; although, it did not take me long to notice that it was, in fact, a snow-woman, and completely naked. “Oh, goodness… was this Alain’s idea?” I certainly did not look pleased, and took the scarf off from around my neck to clothe the snow-woman, at least somewhat. An amused sparkle lit up Mercier’s eyes, and I looked back at him with a smile. For the briefest of moments, I was captivated by that gaze, thinking of that of my wife. It happened occasionally, whenever I met somebody with stunningly deep blue eyes. Mercier was lucky to have such a colour of eyes, for, in my opinion, blue really was the most handsome of colours.

Realising I was staring, I looked away meekly, coughing out a sort of apology. Suddenly, I felt the hat being lifted of my head, and saw Sébastien place it on that of the snow-woman. “There, now she’ll be nice and toasty.” He grinned and wrapped his arm around the sculpture’s waist. “Mercier over there’s seen a lot of women, I will wager. He knows exactly how to make one out of snow, and he’s good at it, too. Who knew a mute could captivate so many ladies!” Sébastien exclaimed.

“Who knew someone as poorly-shaven as you could captivate so many men?” I retorted, almost under my breath, but with the intention of the other Poilu hearing me. This tactic worked, and he only seemed to laugh at my remark, though it was true. Sébastien had given up on shaving almost entirely, letting his moustache grow thick, while the stubble, he managed to shave about once a week, leaving it looking lazy. I often told him to either keep the beard or keep it clean-shaven, no in between, but the stubborn fool refused to listen to me. Nonetheless, he still thought himself the most handsome man in the regiment, next to me, of course, and attempted to make advances on me, still; often in the company of Mercier, as he seemed to almost always be around him. I knew not why, for what could a mute possibly have to talk about? Nothing; that is what.

Soon after I felt Sébastien’s heavy arm drape around my shoulder did I feel him tug me closer to him, and heard him murmur, “How about, you can feel this stubble tonight, against your chest, as we make passionate love-” Blushing a deep crimson at the words, I shoved Sébastien away, my heart racing at the sinful thought.

“Heathen! You are a heathen!” I cried, not entirely conscious of my outburst. Sébastien seemed confused for a moment, gradually catching on that this was not a joke. “I do not associate with the devil!” I continued, only making a blushing, stammering, and yelling fool of myself in the middle of the camp. Stumbling back a few steps, I felt myself land in Mercier’s arms, who caught me without hesitation. Still wide-eyed, my gaze locked with that of Sébastien. “Why do you torment me, devil?” The tone in my voice was demanding, and it was later said that I had a crazed look in my eye. All the while, Mercier was trying his best to calm me down, wrapping the scarf around me and putting the hat back on my head, before rubbing my side. It only seemed to help marginally, as the touch returned me to thoughts of my wife, and consequently, reality.

I was still not fully aware of what I had done, and looked with confusion upon Sébastien’s frightened features. “I – it was only a joke, Armand. I mean, well, it wasn’t, but if you did not want to, then I would not have persisted, and you know that…” He furrowed his brow deeper. “And you also know that I am not religious in the slightest. Why should I care whether I am a heathen or not? If I followed your God, I know that I would already be going to Hell, so I hardly see any point to that.” The man rubbed at his stubbly chin ponderingly. “What has gotten into you, friend?”

In truth, I did not have an answer. It had struck me suddenly, very much like the shells that constantly exploded beside me without warning. These episodes were not uncommon in soldiers who spent much time in the battlefield, and the gradually became more common, along with distant gazes and a dazed smile. The Poilus said that God had already taken the man’s soul, but his body was still condemned to Satan’s deadly bidding, so he was forced to kill until his body went to the Earth. It was a horrifying thought, to think that I was slowly being possessed by Satan. I knew I had to pray; perhaps it was because I was losing my faith in God. I was so fortunate, and grateful at that moment, that I had a forgiving God, who may give me another chance, and the strength to fight Satan that was trying to take over control inside me, inside my very soul.

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