Silent Night This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

"What ever hope was yours, was my life also…"


Wilfred Owen


The soldier sat on a rough rubble covered ledge dug into the side of their trench. His legs were wedged awkwardly around an upturned crate of mud stained wood resting on the duckboards. On top of the crate lay several sheets of off white paper, pocket creased and worn at the edges from handling. His hands, still trembling from the cold even in his fraying grey wool standard issue gloves, held a pen. Its expensive barrel, monogrammed Edward Rhodes, hovered a few centimeters from the page. It had been bought for just this occasion, writing home. The soldier bent over the crate and scratched into the top right corner:

December 25, 1914           



Christmas. What an ugly Christmas. He would die right now for a home-baked Christmas cookie, the yellow taste of butter and frosting, licked off the beater. Sweet shortbread crumbled and moistened in his mouth. He could see the counter covered in flour, hear the metallic sound of cookie cutters. Swallowing, he found only dirt and sweat, and spit on the ground.

Dear Mother, Father, and Margaret,


There. He lifted his pen from the paper. The preliminaries were done, now what to write? There was so much to say, but nothing he really wanted to tell them. He coughed and pulled the scarf around his neck a little tighter to keep out the bite and stared down at his letter a little harder. His eyes refused to focus on the tangible surface, curling inside his head to keep from thinking too hard.

"What er you doing Eddie?" The cough had drawn attention to his huddled being. "Writing a letter? You're a stuffed frog sitting there all legs. Looks ridiculously uncomfortable." An older corporal, a fighter with a bitter face, sauntered over despite the cold that numbed their feet. "You don't have anything written! December twenty-fifth, nineteen fourteen, dear mum, dad, and Margaret," he mocked, "A date and names. It would be a good start except that you've been sitting there over a quarter hour!" He chuckled to the other men around him, looking for approval.

"I'm just not sure where to start's all."

"Just put the pen to paper boy, who cares what you tell 'em. Tell 'em it's as good as home, that we're here drinking our tea out of paper thin patterned china! Whatever you want."

"Oh don't bug him," said a wiry young corporal, just a few years Edward's senior, "he's not saying anything we don't all know - You know that last letter I got from my Emma? - Well she said it was so cut up parts looked just like swiss cheese. Just think what they're cutting out of my letters, I can't even write her without them mangling it."

"What in God's name were you writing to your sweetie about anyways if they had to get rid of so much?" cried their superior, glaring at the younger corporal. He had turned his head sharply from the blade of his bayonet, startling the soldier. During breaks their lieutenant was almost always found with his eyes glazed over, absentmindedly polishing his bayonet, up and down, up and down, with a torn piece of cotton underwear. While he stroked the cold hard metal his eyes were in another time. 

"Oh I didn't say much, sir." he shrugged. The other men kept staring at him, their raised eyes all asking the same questions. Edward put down his pen as the soldier spoke again, "I see it's impossible to keep something to yourself, normally you couldn't care less." There was a pause, "Fine, I'll spare you the details since you've been through them too, but I just decided to tell her how it really is in this rabbit hole, the smells, the sounds - the mud. I think for once they should let me send something more than just I'm not dead yet. Can we even talk about the weather?"

"Well, all the rain and the mud, the cold and the ice aren't the nicest pictures." offered a pale private who looked barely eighteen.

"But they aren't the worst by any stretch of the imagination either!"

"My mother wouldn't want to hear any of it, she'd probably collapse."

"It doesn't matter whether or not she wants to hear it though - we are living it if you hadn't noticed."

"You know what I love?" interjected another soldier, "Those field service cards, the preprinted ones."

"S**t.."

"So short and sweet: I'm feeling well





I've been admitted to the hospital





a letter follows





so on."

"That's so impersonal though, I'd hate to get one of those in the mail." the young corporal retorted, "I wouldn't even believe what it said."

"Just for my parents. I mean, I don't have the time to write much anyways."

"They're just trying to protect the sheep."

"Sheep?"
   
"Go to hell!" The young corporal shrugged his body further into a niche in the trench, burring his head a journal.
   
"No really, what's he talking about?"
   
"Just drop it. Let's try and enjoy the meager Christmas we have." sighed the Lieutenant. "I'd rather not listen to the bunch of you carry on about postcards and sheep until the Germans jump down our throats." He put down his bayonet and scrambled up small footholds in the side of the trench. Sticking his head just over the top, he mumbled, "And what a strange Christmas it's been."
   
The soldier, having listened quite amused, looked down at his white letter. 'Just have at it' he thought, 'It's happy enough, hopefully any censors picking it up won't mind.' Later of course, it would be a different matter. He bent down to the letter again.
    
    
I hope all is well at home and my letter is reaching the three of you warm and away from the cold. I'm glad to finally have time to write a longer letter. Ludlow must look beautiful now, wreaths on the doors and candles in the windows. I wish I could have your Christmas dinner here on the front, it would be a welcome treat. I'm doing fine though, don't worry, especially you mother, and be sure to tell Margaret this story, I think she'd enjoy it.
    
We've had quite a strange Christmas here, but I can't complain. It wasn't the traditional Christmas mass, stocking hanging, or anything. And no real presents this morning, no real tree, no delicious cooking, but I can't deny we've had our own surprising version. I'll start with last night. After our slightly more generous Christmas Eve supper, after all the artillery for the day had ceased, after dark had fallen on the frost covered ground, a bitter black, we heard an unintelligible chorus reverberating in the crisp air. At first we were skittish, we sat in the dark with our ears perked like foxes during the chase. Finally, an officer slowly hoisted himself up so his head was just barely in the open. We couldn't see his face beyond the edges of our trench, our glowing snake of lamplight in the pitch black cratered fields, but we could hear him shout down to us, reluctantly, as though he didn't believe his own words. The Germans in their trenches across pockmarked no man's land were singing carols. Christmas carols. They were in German of course so we didn't understand, most of us only know a handful of words. If you listened though, listened long enough, you could hear the unmistakable notes of Silent Night wavering fragilely in the abyss between us. We listened to the guttural voices, the harsh German warming the night. After a few minutes and careful glances amongst ourselves, a couple of men along our trench cautiously picked up the words in English. Eventually we all joined in, English and German. Can you believe it? I don't know how to say it, but there we were, staring at each other across a field of barbed wire and bones, singing the same carols. A miracle on the eve of the birth of Christ, one thousand nine hundred and fourteen years later. 
   
Somehow the Fritz had gotten fir trees all along their trenches. They were small, not even reaching the waist, but they were lighting candles to stick on the branches and we could see little buds of light across the way when we looked over. After we'd finished a carol or two someone from the German trenches shouted over "Frohe Weihnachten," their Merry Christmas (I think that's how it's spelled). Some men shouted greetings back in English. An officer from our unit climbed to the top of the trench, fully visible to the enemy. We tried to pull him down, but he wouldn't budge. He waved his hands to the Germans, no doubt they were watching us closely. Our lieutenant was silent. Then more and more heads popped up on both sides, peering curiously at each other. I don't know what happened next, I guess our Lieutenants met in the middle of no man's land, because a cease fire for Christmas Eve was declared. There was a chorus of yells when it was announced from both sides. Whatever you've been told about the bloodthirsty Fritz, they want a break from this war as much as we do. A few unperturbed souls flung themselves over the trenches and made their way across the frozen ground. We all climbed over, walking not running, arms with gifts not guns, the chatter of voices rather than that of shells. We took the small Christmas pleasantries we were given, chocolates, cigarettes, liquor. 

When we met, face to face, when I looked, squeamishly at first, into the eyes of a German soldier, I realized I had no way to talk with him. I couldn't say anything more than a few scrambled words much less understand a response. Yet up and down the middle of no man's land there were men gesturing to each other, speaking disjointed words, handing over their small gifts. The German who met me was named Herman. He was tall, taller than me, but his eyes were startlingly kind. He too was so covered with mud you could hardly tell any more about him. He held out a bottle of wine to me, it was French, they'd probably taken it from a farm they'd captured. I opened the bottle and it smelt red like summer. I gave him in turn chocolate from our Christmas rations. It was pretty good chocolate too, either that or I've forgotten what real chocolate tastes like. After we'd both had some wine and laughed at our incompetence, Herman gingerly pulled from his pocket a tinted photo of his wife, she was quite beautiful, not the lumpish German Fraulein you'd think. So I showed him a picture of us all, the one taken on holiday at Bath two Julys ago. And then one of Pauline too, he thought she was quite a doll I believe. We even exchanged addresses, can you believe it? Maybe after we win this war we can take a trip to Germany, he says he lives just outside Munich. After our parleying, we all

    
"Hey, look at this!" A private was staring intensely into no man's land between the two ditches. The sun had only been up an hour and the quarter inch of snow glistened sharply in their eyes. There had been no morning hate of artillery fire yet and the ground was without it's normal blackened shell holes. In the middle of the open space stood the two lieutenants. They seemed as still and silent as lead soldiers. They saluted and turned from each other towards their own trenches. The British lieutenant's heavy blue coat flapped where his legs moved beneath. 
  
Folding his letter and stuffing it into a hidden pocket of his coat, Edward stood to attention. Once the British lieutenant was safe inside, his men gathered expectantly about him. "It looks like we're going to extend the truce, for the entirety of today. Hold on though, our first mission isn't a cheery one, we're using the temporary ceasefire to gather our fallen from no man's land and bury them. We deemed it a proper occasion for exchanging the dead." The soldiers glanced amongst themselves and iced solid their expressions. "Common then, over the top." Edward grimaced at the attempted joke. Over the top they went. 
    
They streamed out onto the strip of flat land. Scattered here and there, unnoticeable last night, or intentionally ignored in the dark festivities, lay the bodies of men. They had died hot from the sweat of fear and survival and now were frozen hard to the earth, their faces set in stone cold expressions from snow or death. As the English left their trenches, the Germans climbed into the gap, on the same man hunts, picking through bodies on the field to identify, German or English, English or German. With the white dusting they would roll over bodies from the other side, unable to recognize the uniform from the back, and then, lingering a second longer than they would have the day before, withdrew their hands and moved on. When a party passed each other, carrying between them a suspended body, or searching along the ground, they turned their heads downward. There was silence over a small section of the front. To each his own. To each his own in death and burial.
    
When they started digging the ground was frozen and the only noise was the thud of shovels, but once the sun had warmed the night's snow, the ground was soggy and slurped around the soldiers' feet. The layer of mud became deeper and oozed over their boots as they went into the heavily trodden trenches. The men worked side by side repeating their motions, lifting the bodies and moving them behind the trenches, digging holes in the cold farmland dirt, covering over the dead in their Christmas burials. When the work had been finished, the last inadequate grave filled over and patted down and the last wooden cross stuck into the newly turned soil, the soldiers loitered in memory of the buried. 
    
Behind the first line of British trenches, Edward leaned on his shovel, staring without seeing the men around him. A shout sounded in front of him and a football bounced above the top of the trench. A few seconds later and the ball had arced over the sandbags and barbed wire into no man's land. There was a momentary lag, an indecisive second before a few soldiers rushed up to get the ball, keeping it from rolling too far. Rather than picking it up and returning it to the trench, they began to pass it back and forth between each other. The private watched for a moment, fascinated by the laughter that rang so out of place from a soldier's mouth. He threw his shovel down onto the pile and, leaping into the trench, bounded up the other side into the game, tearing the hem of his coat on a bramble of barbed wire. 
    
Soon a German, followed slowly by a few of his compatriots, crossed the gap and approached the band of players.

"Oi! Eddie," yelled a British uniform, "Let's see what they have to say. Stop the ball!" he held it and watched as one of their men approached the German ambassador and shook his hand.
    
Within no time a field was marked out in the snow with foot-drawn lines and scraps of wood to mark the goals. German versus British, British versus German. Soldiers from the two units gathered about the sidelines to cheer for their teams. Though bellicose their situation was, the players and the spectators seemed to forget about animosity. Instead, all eyes and feet were trained on the dirty ball spinning between them, acting out a less gruesome art. 
    
Players changed in and out with frequency and Eddie dropped onto the sidelines as a spectator, without his coat and warmer than he'd been in weeks. He wiped the muddy sweat from his forehead and panted before looking back to the match. The two teams were distinguishable not by brightly colored jerseys, but by varying shades of somber woolen uniforms. As they streaked from one end to the other, faces pitted in concentration or cracked wide with exuberance, they weren't as far apart. The private looked across the field to the German line and his eyes wandered until he found Herman, who gave a cordial wave before being cut off by the torso of a British defender. By end the of the game the Germans had gotten more goals, though it hardly seemed to matter to the men watching on the sides, who drifted together for another exchange of food and drink and cigarettes. They smoked and spoke in two broken languages and would have continued into the afternoon.
    
The early setting sun had not yet begun to sink below the roof of the nearby farm when the two lieutenants commanded their men back to the trenches. Giving somewhat reluctant parting calls, the two sides split, a gaping wound of empty earth emerged, torn open by breathing bodies. Trudging heavily back to their separate trenches, Edward looked over his shoulder to the playing field behind. He raised his eyes to the retreating line of figures opposite and an uncomfortable stab pinched his gut when he saw that German heads were turned too, looking back at him. Emotion was beginning to fade from their faces. To each his own. He couldn't see Herman, but he could feel the rough paper of the address in his pocket next to his unfinished letter.
    
As the two lines parted, there was a faint rumbling a few miles down the front. The private looked to the skyline, illuminated by a small burst of orange light in the distance. The glowing ball was muted, obscured by a billowing cloud of elegant dust. There was a pause, silence settled after the thunder and the soldiers' footsteps broke for a moment. Then there was another. The roll reverberated through Edward's head. 



Shells, shells, shells. What an ugly Christmas. 





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