As the snow let up in the wee hours of the morning on Christmas Day 1944, forty-nine year old Col. James Bennett and a small contingent of British and American officers hunkered down in a dilapidated wooden shack on the outskirts of Antwerp, Belgium, waiting out the dying Nazi offensive with grateful relief. Despite, being pushed back, the Allied line had not been broken.
"Merry Christmas everyone," an American Lt. Colonel said dryly, to everyone's amusement, "Sorry about accommodations and lack of food."
Col. Bennett smiled slightly at the lame humor, then fixed his gaze on the landscape outside. This wasn't the first Christmas that he'd celebrated on the charred and bloody Belgium soil and as he stared at the distant flashes of artillery, he couldn't help but remember the first time he'd celebrated here, precisely thirty years before.
"Here's to getting this war over by next Christmas." someone said, interrupting the English Colonel's thoughts.
Here, here," other men responded, a few pumping their fists in lieu of beverages to drink.
Col. Bennett eyed the celebrators with a tinge of disgust; he knew from experience not to predict how long a war might last, no matter how well things were going. He himself had done that when he was a young man and he'd paid dearly with the loss of many friends and the idealism of his adolescence.
Sighing, he stared down at his feet, wondering if any of the Germans that he'd shared his first Christmas here with were again fighting on the other side.
He didn't want to think that any of them would be foolish enough to believe the rubbish that Hitler and Goebbels constantly espoused, but, obviously, someone believed them and England had gone to war again to stop them. Then a bitter thought flashed into his mind. It rooted itself there, unwilling to be shaken away.
What if one of the men that I met back then has a son or nephew or brother on the other side tonight?
Inevitably, the thought reminded him of his own family; the love of his life, his wife Alice, was home in England and his beloved daughter Emily was with the McIntire family in America. He was relatively certain that they were safe—or at least safer than he was.
"The Nazis are pretty noisy tonight, aren't they, Colonel?"
Col. Bennett glanced up to see a young Lieutenant, an aide to one of the other officers, stepping closer to talk. Brushing snow off his uniform, the young man continued, "They're not interested in stopping the light show tonight, are they?"
"No, the Nazis aren't interested in celebrating Christmas," Col. Bennett replied heavily, "Or at least not the way most people understand it to be celebrated." He paused, then continued, "You know, Lieutenant, this isn't like the first Christmas that I've spent in this little corner of hell on earth." He scowled, before finishing his thought, "but, I hear tell that Hitler didn't approve of what happened thirty years ago, so I'm not surprised he hasn't allowed a repeat."
"Come again, sir?" the Lieutenant asked.
"I first came to Belgium to fight a war over thirty years ago, Lieutenant. That first Christmas over here was so extraordinary that I wouldn't believe what happened if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."
"What happened, sir?" the Lieutenant asked.
Col. Bennett's eyes took on a faraway twinkle as the sights, sounds, and smells of that unforgettable Christmas took hold, and his mind rekindled memories that could never ever die.
"Would you believe that the war stopped that night, Lieutenant?" he asked, "It stopped and, for one night, enemies realized that they were really friends."
It was Christmas Eve 1914 and nineteen year-old Sgt. James Bennett puffed his warm breath into his hands, letting the steam rise the cold clear night. Having just been relieved at his sentry post, he pulled his trench coat snugly around his shoulders, hunched down, and began weaving his way through a trench near Ypres, Belgium. Slogging through the shin deep mud and snow, he trudged around his tired frozen countrymen, some sleeping, some looking bored, and some writing letters. Most of them seemed relaxed, which was a nice change—on this night most of all. He himself seemed only able to wonder what rations might be left for him to eat a late dinner.
He knew better than to expect anything special for Christmas. Tonight and tomorrow would likely be just another day of killing and trying not to get killed.
"Don't you think it's awfully quiet tonight, James?" his best friend and fellow Sergeant, Matthew Stafford, whispered as Sgt. Bennett passed by him, "I can't even recall when I heard the last shot."
Sgt. Bennett paused to listen, having not really given any thought to the odd silence that had penetrated the British and German trenches and the thirty feet of no-man's land between them.
"I guess I hadn't noticed," he mumbled, his lips numb. Shrugging, he added, "Thank God though. I'd hate to have to kill someone on Christmas."
"Me too." Sgt. Stafford agreed, a sudden smile showing his yellowish and cracked teeth. "Where are you going?"
"To find something to eat," Sgt. Bennett answered, "I just got off sentry duty."
"Well keep your head down. It'd be a shame if your ugly mug broke this silence."
It was Sgt. Bennett's turn to crack a smile, "Yes, it would—I'll be careful."
Continuing on through the crowded trench, he stepped over and around weary men until suddenly stopping short at the sight of an enormous rat gnawing on the tin cans of rationed food. The creature, its fur glistening in the moonlight with lice, had gnawed holes into several of the cans.
Sgt. Bennett lit a match and flicked it at the brazen rodent, knowing that fire was just about the only way to run them off. Then he yanked a can of dried pork off the ground, peeled the top off, and shoved a hunk of meat into his mouth before he had time to consider doing otherwise. His stomach twisted in disgust as he chewed eagerly, but he felt a twinge satisfaction about still feeling revulsion at eating something that a rat had gotten into.
At least this ghastly war hasn't dehumanized me that much, he thought, then added—yet.
The rat lumbered away without fear, and sat down to protested the loss of his meal with voracious squeaks. Sgt. Bennett threw him a dark glare. "Merry Christmas to you too, rat," he muttered.
Stuffing a second chunk of meat into his mouth, he chewed methodically as his thoughts took a decidedly gloomy turn. This was the first Christmas that he wasn't celebrating at home.
He thought of his newest girlfriend Alice and how much he loved her. He thought of his black and white mutt Ollie and how the pup used to pull his bedcovers off of him each morning when it was time to get up.
He thought of his mum and dad, his five younger brothers and sisters, and his grandparents; they'd be sitting around the table for breakfast soon and, undoubtedly, they'd say a prayer for him and all his comrades. He thought of his comrades too—so many of them no longer here—and offered up his own prayer for them and their families.
A tinge of anger rolled through his mind as he recalled how all this insanity started. All of Britain had been crazy with excitement when war with Germany was declared. If the newspapers weren't screaming headlines about the avaricious Kaiser's army pillaging their way though Belgium, they were pumping up British pride, espousing that British and Commonwealth soldiers were conquering heroes who would blast the Imperial German Army back to Berlin.
And, of course, the Royal Navy would blast any German ship to bottom of the sea.
The press had screamed that the Allies had such superior military might that the war would certainly be over by Christmas. They'd said that it would be such a sure and epic win that it would be the war to end all wars.
What adventurous young lad could resist the urge to be a part of such a defining moment in history? Certainly not James Bennett or his friends! They'd all eagerly signed up then gathered at the Tower of London, anticipating the ride across the channel and the war.
And here we sit, Sgt. Bennett thought, working his jaw with jaded disgust as he stared at the high trench walls and twinkling stars above, thankful to breathe the sharp coldness of fresh air.
How stupid, how naïve, we were to think this would be a quick war.
Congratulations newspapers, his harsh inner monologue continued, you got this one right. It's Christmas and I'm not home. It's Christmas and God only knows how many of those adventurous young lads that signed up with me lies dead on the frozen muddy ground or buried beneath it.
Finishing the last hunk of pork, he uncaringly tossed the can into the mud, not the least bit concerned about littering. As he moved away, he noticed a tin of chocolates and without thinking scooped it up, briefly wondering if he'd share it with someone or pig out on it by all himself.
Well, I'm not home tonight, he thought ruefully, but I'll bet the Germans told their lads that they had superior military might and that they'd whip us by Christmas too.
He felt satisfaction knowing that that wasn't the case.
Suddenly, Sgt. Bennett heard a noise. His body went ridged and his tongue felt as dry as cotton as he instinctively fumbled for his rifle and hurriedly stumbled toward where most of the other men were huddled.
"What's going on?" he whispered, agitated, "Which part of the trench are they attacking?"
"What attack?" a Major hissed. He was the most senior officer in their section due to the deaths of more senior men. With nervous excitement, he continued, "Can't you hear? The Germans are singing!"
Sgt. Bennett listened closely, his heartbeat slowing as he realized that an attack wasn't imminent. He couldn't understand their words, but he knew the tune.
It was Silent Night, his favorite Christmas hymn.
After listening for a minute, he couldn't help but join in, singing softly in English. Slowly more English voices rose together in song. Finding their courage, they sang the last verse with gusto. As the last chords faded into the starry night, they wondered about this strange phenomenon and eagerly asked each other what they could do to possibly extend the peaceful mood.
"Let's sing another hymn."
"Well, alright; which one?"
"I don't know. Why are you asking me?"
It was your idea, you idiot. I only thought—"
"Will you guys shut up! They can probably hear you!"
"Well, which song? I like his idea."
"It doesn't matter. Sing any bloody song you want."
"All right then!" the Major finally inserted some discipline, "We'll sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." He gave everyone a steely look, daring them to argue with him.
"God rest ye merry gentlemen," Sgt. Stafford obediently began, singing in a soft tenor.
"Let nothing you dismay," Sgt. Bennett joined in, harmonizing with his best friend.
The Major followed with a strong baritone and by the end of the first verse, all were singing with as much passion as they'd had before. Smiles lit everyone's faces as the last chords faded into silence, as if the war was ebbing from their memories.
"Let's wish them Merry Christmas," someone said, offering up another way to possibly extend the peace.
"What if they think we're yelling slurs?" a Corporal wondered nervously, "Do you think they speak English?"
"Most likely someone over there does," the Major replied, licking his lips to keep them moist, "I've met plenty of boys on our side who know some German."
"But do you think we should risk it?"
"For heaven's sake, man!" Sgt. Bennett scowled, "We just sang two Christmas hymns with them. What do you think that they'll think?"
"I don't want my head blown off by the guy I just sang Silent Night with!" the Corporal snapped, a curse on the tip of his tongue, "That would be a pretty letter home to mother."
"That enough, you two," the Major said, stone-faced, "We're professionals." He paused briefly, letting them regain control, then added, "I don't see any harm in wishing them a Merry Christmas."
"On three, boys?" Sgt. Bennett asked.
"Merry Christmas!" the British men called across no man's land, "Merry Christmas!"
Silence followed and they gazed uneasily at one another, everyone's hearts beating a little faster. How would the Germans respond?
Then suddenly rousing cheers rose over the thirty foot divide of barbed wire, burned out artillery, lost weapons, mud, snow, ice, bodies and parts of bodies.
"Frohe Weihnachten! Frohe Weihnachten!"
Most of the British men gave a collective sigh of relief, but the Corporal piped up again, "What did they say?"
The Major spun around as if aggravated, but upon seeing the fear in the man's eyes, he instantly softened, "They said Merry Christmas, Bob." He added a cheerful smile, trying to reassure him because war could do things to a man's sanity sometimes.
Suddenly, a small object whizzed into the trench. It hit a Captain in the side of the head and the poor man nearly wet his pants in his terror; two men on either side of him threw themselves to the ground, covering their heads. Everyone else stood rooted in the mud, transfixed by mindless terror for nearly a full minute before Sgt. Stafford reached down and picked up a small box of cigars. "Well, well," he said in awe, "The Germans have cigars!" He looked around, "Does anyone want one, or do I have them all to myself?"
"You're out of your mind," the frightened Corporal said brusquely, his eyes lighting up. He took a swipe at the box, "Give me those!"
Sgt. Safford held them out of reach, laughing, "Corporal, Corporal, where did you learn your manners?"
The man's eyes bulged out, his face turned red with fury and growing insanity, "Give me those cigars, you sorry—"
"That is enough!" the Major snapped, getting between them. Glaring at Sgt. Stafford, he snapped, "Give Bob a cigar, Sergeant. He's had a rough stint lately."
Sgt. Stafford winced with shame and handed over a cigar, then shook his head piteously as the Corporal gazed at it with so much fascination that everyone knew he wasn't right in the head.
"It doesn't look like the Germans want to fight tonight, sir," Sgt. Bennett said slowly, turning away from the sad scene as he put his hands in his pockets; the tin of chocolates was still there. He pulled it out, showing it to the Major, "I'd like to toss this over, sir—to return the favor, so to speak."
"Chocolates?" the Corporal cried happily, "You had chocolates in your pocket and you didn't share." He lunged at Sgt. Bennett, but the Captain who'd been hit in the head with cigar box grabbed him and punched, sending him crumbling to the ground.
"Take him back and let him sleep it off," the Major said shortly, nodding at the unconscious man, "He hasn't been right in the head since he helped attack the German trench a few weeks ago."
"Do you know what happened to him, sir?
"I was told that he saw his best mate take a bayonet in the back." The major grimaced, "Bob was just behind and he slipped in his mate's blood, fell down and got tangled up." He shook his head sorrowfully, "I tried to get him a furlough, but the request was denied." Looking at Sgt. Bennett, he managed a small smile, "Go head and toss that chocolate tin over, Sergeant."
"We'd all like a furlough, I think, sir," Sgt. Bennett replied, as he launched the chocolates across no-man's land with a hard over-handed throw.
This time there was no tense pause; almost immediately a German voice called over, "Danke! We don't want to fight at Christmastime."
"Neither to we," the Major bellowed back, somewhat surprising everyone. He turned, looking pensively at them, "This is crazy, isn't it? I received no orders to stop fighting."
"And we're professional solders," Sgt. Stafford finished for him, smiling at the irony.
"That's right, Sergeant," the Major said, returning the ironic smile, "My goose is going to be cooked if—"
"All of us geese will be cooked, sir," Sgt. Bennett dared to interrupt, "if the High Command so wills it."
Just then the same German voice called across the field of slaughter, asking if the English would like to see the Christmas tree that he and his friends had erected in their trench.
"A Christmas tree?" Sgt. Stafford asked, incredulous, "Really? In their trench?"
"That's what he said," Sgt. Bennett answered dumbly.
"He's got to be joking," someone muttered under their breath, "Or someone hit him in the head."
"Or he takes us for fools," someone added.
"Or he wants to hit us in the head." came another suggestion.
"Or he really wants us to look at his bloody Christmas tree," Sgt. Stafford said, annoyance tingeing his voice, "Would you all think I was crazy for wanting to see it?"
"Yes!" answered a chorus of quiet voices.
"Well, I want to see it," he retorted stubbornly.
"You're crazy Sergeant," a Lieutenant, who was new to this section, muttered, "Now, I don't care if you want to have your own head blown off, but if the Germans start shooting again, there's a lot more heads than yours."
"I'm going to do it anyway," Sgt. Stafford snapped, ignoring the fact that the Lieutenant outranked him.
The Lieutenant's eyes narrowed, "Oh you will, will you?"
"Major, what do you say?" The Lieutenant looked triumphant.
Everyone turned toward their ranking officer; Sgt. Stafford suddenly looked pensive.
Working his jaw from side to side, the Major weighed his response. He was only the ranking officer in this section because all his superiors were dead and he knew he'd be in hot water for something like this but, honestly, didn't these men deserve a respite? Didn't they long for one? He knew he longed for one. What if it really worked?
"I don't see why not," he said finally, visibly wincing.
The verdict surprised and cheered almost everyone. Sgt. Stafford's eyes lit up and he eagerly began toeing a foothold into the trench to support his weight as he climbed up.
"Be careful, you fool," Sgt. Bennett murmured quietly, his heartbeat racing with both anticipation and dread.
"I'll be fine," Sgt. Stafford muttered, mostly to himself. His breath grew heavy as his nerves increased, "I'll be fine."
Then he was gone, over the top—and silence followed.
Hours later, Sgt. Bennett stood near a gaunt older-looking German man with unruly hair and keen eyes. Both held flasks half-filled with wine that someone had found somewhere. He didn't know who'd provided it and he didn't care.
Looking out across the charred broken landscape, he wanted to cry, both tears of gratitude and despair. How could two warring nations come together like this after so many months of slaughter?
Then again who was he to argue? He was just as glad for a respite as the next man.
Watching his countrymen laugh, eat, and drink with the men who they'd previously been shooting at dredged up the memory of an old Biblical passage that his mother had made him learn when he was a boy. What was it again? Something about laying your burdens down and finding rest for your soul.
He considered his burdens at that moment; all of them involving something to do with this hideous war.
There was the terror of battle and the horror of seeing all those dead men lying torn and broken on the field afterward.
There was the shock of realizing his own mortality each time he had a close call and his guilt-ridden sickness when he heard the agonized moans of the wounded and dying.
There was the nearly paralyzing fear whenever the gas alarms went off—he couldn't seem to get used to them, but he hoped to someday.
There was the pity and guilt he always felt when he saw comrades with amputated limbs.
And, of course, there was his sense of unworthiness whenever he heard the mournful notes of "The Last Post" being played across the gutted landscape at services honoring the fallen heroes of each battle.
Why should such brave men be sent to their graves, while he lived on? How many times had he told himself that he wasn't cut out for soldiering? How many times had he felt like a fraud on the battlefield?
Finally, he couldn't take his own gloomy thoughts. Shaking them away, Sgt. Bennett's focused on the sights and sounds of the last few magnificent hours. He was proud of both sides for enabling this truce to work.
After their tentative overtures from the trenches, both sides found the courage to come out. Hearty handshakes, warm Christmas greetings, jokes, and family photographs, food, drinks, cigarettes, cigars, and candy were passed around as if they were at a prep school reunion, not belligerents in a war against one another.
Sgt. Bennett recalled what happened next: he'd spied a young German using an old tin can in place of a football, juggling it with alternating kicks between his feet. Running out to receive the kick, the English Sergeant had called for the man to pass it and soon torches lit a space in no-man's land and a mass kick-about had ensured. No one cared about the score and that had made it all the more fun.
"It's funny to be out here, drinking to each other's health and wishing one another well, isn't it?" the German said, speaking English with a heavy accent.
Startled out of his recollections, Sgt. Bennett found the older German, flask still in hand, standing in front of him.
"It sure is, yes," Sgt. Bennett replied excitedly, his eyes gleaming with appreciation, "I don't think I could believe it if I wasn't here to see it."
"Nor I," the man replied, extending his hand, "I am Franz Marc. Merry Christmas to you."
"James Bennett, sir," the younger Englishman replied respectfully, "Merry Christmas to you too. He paused, then asked, "If I may ask sir, what did you do before the war?"
"I am an artist and print maker," Franz replied, "and I intend to go back to that work when this war ends."
"Oh?" Sgt. Bennett asked, his eyes lighting up. After an awkward pause, he continued, "I'm sorry, but I don't recall hearing of you. Were you quite successful?"
"You could say that," Franz said, a twinkle in his eyes, "I painted in the Expressionist style. I'm also co-founder of an artistic journal called Der Blaue Reiter—that is The Blue Rider in your English."
"I was always told that painting wasn't a stable career," Sgt. Bennett commented.
"You had good advice," Franz answered, nodding stoically, "The arts are not for everyone, but it is in my blood. My father painted landscapes and he inspired me to pick up a brush."
"James!" Sgt. Stafford suddenly called, hailing his friend with a wave, "Come."
"That's my best mate," Sgt. Bennett told the German, pointing, "Sgt. Matthew Stafford." He paused, "I guess this is goodbye." He extended his hand again, "Good luck to you and here's to peace."
They lifted their flask, draining them together. "Here's to peace," Franz echoed.
"What are you in such a hurry for?" Sgt. Bennett asked, jogging up to his friend.
"I want you to meet someone—I think you too would get on very well if our situation was different," Sgt. Stafford explained, "James Bennett, Walter Bonhoeffer—Walter, this is my best mate, James Bennett."
"Pleased to meet you," Sgt. Bennett said, extending his hand toward the studious-looking but muscular man who looked too young for fighting.
"Likewise," Walter replied, speaking slowly, as if tentative about his English.
"What did you do before this blasted war started?" Sgt Bennett asked, repeating the question he'd asked earlier.
Walter looked confused for a moment and Sgt. Bennett wondered if he understood. Then the German's confusion cleared and he just looked surprised.
"Oh! You mean where was I employed?" he said, "I'm sorry, I was a student before the war. My father has connections, you see. I could have been assigned somewhere else, but duty and sacrifice are very important to my family." He nodded with conviction, "The infantry called and I answered."
"I can appreciate that." Sgt. Bennett said, reaching out and to shake his hand again, "Well done, chap."
As the sun peeked above the horizon on Christmas Day, its bright freshness spread beautiful pastel pink, orange, and indigo rays over the carnage, highlighting it with grotesque splendor. Both sides looked around, uneasy, sorrowful, and unsure if their truce and new friendships would hold now that they'd been exposed by the sun.
How long could this great miracle last?
Now, in the light of day Sgt. Bennett looked around, still hardly believing the great miracle that was taking place. He wondered if anyone outside this section knew of these goings-on or perhaps they'd had the same idea and this Christmas miracle was being celebrated all the way from the English Channel to the mountains of Switzerland.
"My dear friend…"
He jerked his head toward a mournful English voice and found one of his countrymen staring at a mangled body. A lump rose in his throat; he knew both of them.
Unable to look at the sad scene and keep his composure, he quickly averted his eyes, but his thoughts remained on the dead so it was impossible to ignore the sight of so many men from both sides kneeling in the torn ravaged earth to say good-bye. It made him sick to see so many dead men lying exposed to the elements and animals.
""Sergeant!" the Major called, hastening toward him.
"Yes, Major?" Sgt. Bennett answered, stiffening.
"Round everyone up; I've talked with the German officer in charge and we've agreed to keep the truce up for the whole day so that something can be done with these poor souls who are lying everywhere espoused to the weather or whatever animal is crazy enough too trod in no-man's land."
In summation, he said, "We're going to hold joint services and bury the dead this afternoon."
"Yes, sir!" Sgt. Bennett said, too ecstatic and relieved to keep a straight face. He sprang into action, then stopped, turning around slowly, his face suddenly taunt with sorrow, "Major?"
"How long will the truce hold?
"Till six o'clock this evening."
"And what will the signal to resume fighting be?"
"We'll fire two shots, then they'll answer with two shots."
As the Major turned away, Sgt Bennett dug out his pocket watch; it wasn't even eight o'clock in the morning, but as he stared the hands seemed to magically speed up. His heartbeat quickened, even as he hurried to follow orders.
Everyone gathered quickly and then got to work. There were so many bodies and parts of bodies to bury that the task seemed nearly overwhelming, but both sides were equally dedicated.
Still, questions swirled in every mind.
Who would identify these dead men? How could they be identified if they were mangled beyond recognition and their dog tags lost to the mud? Was there time, in just one day, to keep a decent record off all who would be buried here?
These questions haunted everyone, but they shoved them aside just as they did the snow and mud.
Sgt. Bennett even wondered fleetingly if the earth would be deep enough to bury all these souls, and he voiced this frustration and other heartaches to his best friend during a rare moment when they both got to rest their arms.
"Is the earth deep enough for all these bodies, Matthew?"
"No," Sgt. Stafford said curtly, flexing his sore arms while ignoring the mud that was smeared all over his khaki uniform.
"And what's the point again, old friend? Are you prepared to go back to our trench this evening and shoot them now that we've met them? Are you willing to stick your bayonet through Walter Bonhoeffer? Or throw a grenade at him maybe? Or maybe you get to make it quick and clean with your rifle? What about it, Mathew, are you prepared to do that?"
"Shut up, James," Sgt. Stafford said frostily, cutting his friend a dark glare, "Just shut up."
"I take it that your no more ready than I am for it then," Sgt. Bennett continued, ignoring the heat in his friend's face, "I understand, of course, I'm not looking forward to sticking a bayonet in Franz Marc if it comes to that." He scowled, rubbing his numb bleeding hands, "Blasted war."
"We've got no choice, James," Sgt. Stafford said testily, "You know that as well as I do. We've got no choice. "
He continued, heightened tension making his voice rise an octave, "The Major is already getting jumpy about what the High Command will do to us if—or more like likely when—they find out. We could all be shot for this, you know?"
"Declaring our own little truce for Christmas, fraternizing with our enemies, playing a bloody football game for heaven's sake—it just won't sit well with brass back in London, or Berlin either, no doubt…"
"No, the fact that I might kill Walter Bonheoffer or he might kill me or Franz Marc might you kill you or you might kill him is of little consequence if all of us end up dead by a firing squad because we spent a merry evening chatting."
Sgt. Bennett shuddered at being reminded of the devastating consequences for both sides' morality if their high commands took a dim few view of their illicit truce.
"Come on, you two," a commanding British voice called, "Time to let someone else take a rest."
The two Sergeants jumped to their feet, surprised to see a black man barking at them. They didn't question him though—after all, they're break was undoubtedly over.
"Are you from our section?" Sgt. Stafford asked the slim well-muscled man.
"I am, sir," he replied respectfully, even though he was older and they were all the same rank.
"Are you new then?" Sgt. Stafford asked, looking confused.
"No sir. I just blend in well, I guess," he smiled broadly, "My name is Walter Tull."
"Walter Tull?" Sgt. Bennett repeated; it stuck a memory, "Not the footballer?"
"The very one," Walter answered, smiling again, "I'm looking forward to getting back to playing after the war—if I can."
"I'll bet you had fun last night."
"I did sir. It was fun to kick the ball again." He laughed, "Or a tin can."
"Good luck to you," Sgt. Bennett murmured softly, his earlier conversation playing though his mind. All three men shook hands.
Both Sgts. Bennett and Stafford resettled into their work, finding it mentally easier but morally devastating to think of their choir as merely a sanitation project. Dead bodies were disease factories, but always, always, there was the risk that you'd find someone you knew.
Neither of them wanted to look at the sun and be reminded of the dwindling hours of peace, but its brightness wouldn't be ignored and they couldn't quite keep from glancing at it.
At last, at long last, the joint service was ready to commence. They stood together in an alternating pattern; a British man next to a German man and then another British and another German and so on down each side of the mass grave.
Sgt. Bennett fixed his gaze squarely on an older German standing across from him, not daring to look down and be reminded of the cost of war. Chaplains from both sides read from their Bibles and said prayers for the dead, their families, and the leadership of their respective countries. Then two buglers stepped to the front and played "The Last Post" and its German counterpart which is, in English, "I Had a Comrade".
After the last notes had faded into a soft maroon and orange twilight, the solders reluctantly began shaking hands, bidding farewell to their new friends. Sgt. Bennett had a lump in his throat as he looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the men that he'd met during the truce.
Perhaps it will be easier for us if we don't say a final goodbye, he reasoned when he couldn't find them. Then he turned around and found the German who had been standing across from him during the service standing in front of him, extending his hand, a sad lopsided smile on his face.
"So you didn't wish to look at them either?" he asked, with understanding, "I know how you feel. I buried numerous friends today."
Sgt. Bennett wondered if he was responsible for the deaths of some of this man's friends and decided that it was entirely possible.
The German shook his head, "Peace isn't something to be taken lightly. My name is Fritz Bartholomae."
"And I am James Bennett," He took the German's hand, his voice tired.
"I know what you're thinking, James Bennett," Fritz said, "but it is useless to think that way. So what if you killed my friends? I may very well have killed your friends and here we are in this little corner of hell shaking hands and honoring the memory of the friends that we both killed."
"We've got no choice in the matter, but that isn't our choice either," his message seemed oddly reassuring as he continued, "The ones who call the shot won't be among the dead and lame so keep your head down and tell someone about this great night if you come out on the other side."
Again he extended his hand. When the English Sergeant grasped it, he continued, "See there? All can be forgiven and all will be forgiven today."
Sgt. Bennett's face reflected peacefulness at hearing this advice from his former enemy, then he looked perplexed, "Your name is Fritz Bartholomae, sir? It sounds familiar to me."
Fritz smiled slightly, "Do you follow the Olympic Games?"
"Why yes! I love the Olympics!"
"I was a member of the German Empire's rowing team. We took bronze in the eights in Stockholm the last time out." He shrugged, "Who knows? Maybe I'll survive and go back to it and maybe I won't."
The two men saluted in parting and Sgt. Bennett began walking slowly back to his own trench, his heart heavy with all the memories it had collected over the last day or so.
Why did this war have to continue?
"Hurry up, James!" Sgt. Stafford rasped, his face flush from running and tense with urgency, "It's almost six o'clock." He looked angry, "What are you doing shuffling about in a daze, risking your ugly mug like that?"
"I don't know," Sgt. Bennett mumbled, shaking his head slowly in dismay. As they hurried forward, he looked deeply into his best friend's eyes. Had Matthew already forgotten his new found friends on the other side in favor of safety for his old friends and commitment to the craziest thing they'd ever been a part of?
How could either side shoot or charge each other now?
Within minutes of returning to the trench, Sgt. Bennett recovered the rifle that he'd forsaken in favor of a wonderful Christmas Truce. All the men stood tensely in a line as the Major loaded two shots into his rifle.
The sound could have taken his breath away, like twin punches from a boxer, but Sgt. Bennett steadied himself for what was to come.
The Germans answered.
These shots too felt like twin punches to the gut, but Sgt. Bennett completely ignored the psychological pain this time. The war was back on and peace wouldn't come again for almost four years.
A Look Back: In early December 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested that both sides take a hiatus from hostilities to celebrate Christmas, but the idea wasn't welcomed by either side's leadership. However, when Christmas rolled around the men in the trenches took the opportunity for their own unofficial break. Being unofficial, the break wasn't a blanket event. Fighting did occur on Christmas in some places and in others the Truce lasted into January 1915.
As word leaked out about it, both side's leadership viewed it as disobedience within their ranks and thus downplayed it and/or tried to hush the reports. Any further attempts at another Christmas Truce in the years that followed were squashed with threats for disciplinary action and with the amount of killing and the rotation of troops in and out of the trenches, such an anomaly as an unsanctioned truce between enemies become somewhat of a legend—but for the letters home to parents and sweethearts that were sent by people who'd actually witnessed it.
Franz Marc (1880-1916): He enlisted in the army at the onset as a cavalryman, but by 1916 had gravitated toward using his artistic talents for military camouflage, which was hiding artillery from aerial observation. Due to his growing fame as an artist before the war, he was eventually selected as one to be removed from combat and kept safe for his cultural significance. Unfortunately, he was killed at the Battle of Verdun before his reassignment orders could reach him. He was 39 when he was killed. I chose him to represent the men who worked in the Arts but were lost in the Great War.
Walter Bonhoeffer (1899-1918): He is really the only one I can say with certainty did not take part in the Truce; he would have been too young to sign up in 1914 and that why I eluded to his youngness in the story. In fact, he was only called up in 1917 (when he was finally old enough), but, unfortunately, was killed the following April. The Bonhoeffers were an upper middle class family, so I designated him as having been a student before the war—it seems likely due to his age and status. I chose him because his youngest brother Dietrich (who was six when Walter died) went on to become very prominent in the German resistance against the Nazis. Dietrich and another brother, Klaus, ended up being executed shortly before V-E Day in 1945.
Walter Tull (1888-1918): He was the second black/mixed race player to play in the top division of the Football League and the first to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army. He served with in two Footballers' Battalions in the Middlesex Regiment and rose quickly through the ranks, despite the prejudice against his ethnicity. Unfortunately, he was killed at the Second Battle of the Somme and his body was never recovered. He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross and he's remembered at Arras Memorial for men with no known grave. I chose him because of his success in a very prejudicial society.
Fritz Bartholomae 1886-1815): He and his little brother Willi rowed on the same bronze medal team in the 1912 Summer Games. Unfortunately, I couldn't find out precisely what battle he died in before I published this. Does anyone know? The closest I came was finding that he died in September 1915. I chose him to represent the sportsmen who died in the Great War.
The crazed Corporal "Bob" suffers from shell shock, the early forerunner to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.