* * *
Walter Graves huddles at the back of the dug-out. He fumbles with the pages of his book, unable to grasp the paper through his mittens. He nibbles a square of chocolate in consolation. The last couple of months have taught Walter to appreciate these snatched moments of quiet before the next onslaught begins.
“Captain! Captain! Oh, you ‘ave to come ‘n see this!” says Freddy Hamilton. He bounces up and down at the entrance to the dug-out.
“What is it?” asks Walter.
“No, no, you ‘ave to see it!”
Walter sighs, and slips a photo of his hometown into his book. He does not want to lose his place. Walter hopes the war will be over soon; he did not bring another book and he is almost finished this one. Walter’s fiancé, Gwyneth, may send him another. He must remember to write to her. He would have written sooner but shattered nerves do not lend themselves to correspondence.
Walter’s boots sink into the thick mud of the trench as he steps outside. He cannot work out why the mud in the trench refuses to freeze like the mud of No-Man’s Land. His grimace turns to shock when Freddy heads up the ladder to the parapet.
“Are you insane, man? Do you have a death wish?” cries Walter. He tries to grab Freddy’s foot, to pull him to the safety of the cold, filthy trench.
“No, it’s alright, sir! Come ‘ave a look!”
Freddy clambers over the parapet and stands up. Walter’s shock subsides when he realises he cannot hear gunfire. No shells burst overhead. The machine guns keep their staccato laughter to themselves. Christmas carols and jovial banter drift on the freezing air.
“Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht...”
“What the deuce is going on?” asks Walter.
“You need to come ‘n see, sir!” says Freddy. He mimes a man climbing upwards, determined that his captain should join him.
Walter hauls himself up the ladder, his mittens snagging on stray splinters. He gazes across No Man’s Land in disbelief. A line of Christmas trees marks the parapet of the German trench. Four of his men stand nearby, swapping rations with the enemy. To his left, a handful of Germans are smoking with two of his corporals.
“By Jove, they were right,” says Walter.
“What do you mean, sir?” asks Freddy.
“Well, they did say it would be over by Christmas!”
Walter watches a group of privates from both sides follow the stretcher-bearers across the desolate plain. They carry the wounded or dead. The barbed wire entanglements are mercifully free of twitching bodies. Walter sighs. Yesterday saw heavy losses on both sides.
A short distance away, a football match is in full swing. Owen Peterson stands between two cloth caps that form the goal. Young Jack Benson tries to kick the ball towards Dougie Birstall but his foot catches on a frozen clump of Ypres soil. The ball skitters away, and is intercepted by a German player. He passes it to another private.
“Howay, Jackie man, divvn’t pass to Fritz!” shouts Dougie. The German offers Dougie a sheepish grin and runs after his teammate.
“Merry Christmas, sir,” says Freddy. He holds out his hand toward his captain.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Freddy. I wish you many of them,” says Walter. He shakes Freddy’s hand.
They stand and watch the football match. Walter smiles. He could almost be standing at the edge of the village green, watching the local boys play the team from the colliery. Walter’s smile fades. Those boys came to the frozen fields of Flanders with him. Only four have made it this far.
The match ends in a draw, although it leads to a heated debate over the final score. The men call it even and enjoy a drink in a last act of defiance towards the generals.
Tonight will be the last silent night they ever enjoy. Tomorrow, the machine guns will begin again.