By Hannah Skipper
Word Count: 6235
Summary: A story of the Christmas Truce, using characters featured in the Molly American Girl books.
As the snow let up in the wee hours of the morning on Christmas Day 1944, forty-nine-year old Colonel 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 said dryly, to everyone’s amusement, “Sorry about accommodations and lack of food.”
Colonel 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, precisely thirty years before.
“Here’s to getting this war over by next Christmas.” someone said, and was answered by a round of quiet clapping.
Colonel Bennett did not join in, eying the celebrators with a tinge of disgust, knowing from experience that one should never predict how long a war might last. Then his mind returned to the Christmas of thirty years ago and he wondered what became of the men that he’d met. Hopefully, they weren’t caught up in the Nazi insanity. Hopefully, their families weren’t caught up in it.
Those thoughts inevitably 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?”
Colonel Bennett glanced up to see a young man stepping closer to talk, brushing snow off his uniform as he did so. “They’re not interested in stopping the light show tonight, are they?”
“No, the Nazis aren’t interested in celebrating Christmas,” Colonel Bennett replied heavily, “or at least not the way most people understand it to be celebrated.” He paused, then continued, “You know, it was a lot different thirty years ago when I was in this same little corner of hell.” He scowled before finishing his thought. “But, I hear tell that Hitler didn’t approve of what happened then, so I’m not surprised he hasn’t allowed a repeat.”
“Come again, sir?” the young man asked.
“I first came to Belgium to fight in the last war. What happened that first Christmas was so extraordinary that I’ll never forget it.”
“What happened, sir?”
Colonel Bennett licked his chapped lips, and his 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 die.
“Would you believe that the war stopped that night?” he asked. “And, for one night, enemies realized that they were really friends.”
Nineteen year-old Sergeant James Bennett puffed on his stiff hands, trying to warm them. Having just been relieved at his sentry post, he pulled his trench coat snuggly 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 half-frozen countrymen, some sleeping, some looking bored, and some writing letters. He himself wondered what rations might be left for him to eat a late dinner, knowing 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, whispered as he passed by. “I can’t even recall when I heard the last shot.”
Sergeant Bennett paused to listen, having not really given any thought to the odd silence that 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,” Matthew agreed, a sudden smile showing his yellowish cracked teeth. “Where are you going?”
“To find something to eat,” Sergeant 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.”
Sergeant Bennett cracked 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 with ice in the moonlight, had gnawed holes into several of the cans.
Sergeant 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 of 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—yet.
The rat lumbered away without fear, then sat down to protest the loss of his meal with voracious squeaks.
Sergeant 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 his first Christmas away from home. He thought of his black and white mutt, Ollie, and how the pup loved pulling his bedcovers off in the morning. He knew instinctively that the old dog was lonesome for him and it added his gloom.
Then he thought of his girlfriend, Alice, and how much he loved her. She was the toughest girl that he knew, and he felt sure that she was praying for their safety and health, but war was never easy on young romances, so he prayed for her, as well.
Then 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, too, would say a prayer for him and all his comrades—especially those who wouldn’t be coming home.
Thinking of all the millions who’d fallen in just the few months since war was declared, a tinge of anger rolled through his mind. All of Britain had been crazy with excitement back then as the newspapers screamed headlines about the avaricious Kaiser’s army pillaging their way through Belgium. They’d done everything they could to pump up British pride by espousing British and Commonwealth soldiers as conquering heroes who would blast the Imperial German Army back to Berlin.
And, of course, the Royal Navy would blast every German ship to bottom of the sea.
The press, he recalled with a fierce scowl, had lauded the Allies’ superior military might to the extent that many young men believed they’d be home by Christmas. They also said that it would be such an epic win that this would be the war to end all wars.
What adventurous young lad could resist the urge to take part in 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, he 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 lie dead on or beneath this frozen muddy ground.
Finishing out 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 should share it with someone or pig out on it all by himself.
Well, I may not home tonight, he thought ruefully, but I’ll bet the Germans told their lads the same thing and they’re not going anywhere, either. He felt satisfaction in knowing that…
Suddenly, he heard a noise and his body went rigid with a mixture of fear and anticipation; his tongue felt as dry as cotton as he instinctively fumbled for his rifle and hurriedly stumbled toward where some 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 to survive this long, so he was in charge. With nervous excitement, he continued, “Can’t you hear? The Germans are singing!”
Sergeant 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 and, as the last chords faded into the starry night, they wondered about this strange phenomenon, asking eagerly for suggestions that might prolong this 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 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,” Matthew obediently began, singing in a soft tenor.
“Let nothing you dismay,” Sergeant 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 before. Smiles lit everyone’s faces as the last chords faded into silence, as if they’d forgotten that they were in a war zone.
“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!” Sergeant 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 guys 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’s enough, you two!” the major snapped, stone-faced. “We’re professionals here.” He paused briefly, letting them regain control, then added, “I don’t see any harm in wishing them a Merry Christmas.”
“On three, boys?” Sergeant 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?
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 in aggravation, 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, having learned that war could do things to a man’s sanity.
Suddenly, a small object whizzed into their trench. It hit a captain in the side of the head and the poor man nearly wet his pants in his terror. The 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 Mathew reached down and picked up a small box.
“Well, well,” he said in awe, “the Germans have cigars!” He looked around. “Does anyone want one, or do I get them all to myself?”
“You’re out of your mind,” the frightened corporal cried brusquely, his eyes lighting up. He took a swipe at the box. “Give me those!”
Matthew held them out of reach, laughing. “Corporal, Corporal, where did you learn your manners?”
The man’s eyes bulged out, his face turning red with fury and growing insanity, “Give me those cigars, you sorry—”
“That’s enough!” the major ordered, getting between them. Glaring at Matthew, he snapped, “Give Bob a cigar, Sergeant. He’s had a rough stint lately.”
Matthew 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,” Sergeant 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 and showed 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 Sergeant Bennett, but the captain who’d been hit in the head with the 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 with pitying eyes. “He hasn’t been right in the head since we attacked 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 Sergeant Bennett, he managed a small smile. “Go head and toss that chocolate over, Sergeant.”
“We’d all like a furlough, I think, sir,” Sergeant Bennett replied, as he launched the chocolates across No Man’s Land with a hard overhanded 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 do we,” the major bellowed back, somewhat surprising everyone. He turned towards his men, looking pensively, “This is crazy, isn’t it? I received no orders to stop fighting.” Giving them a small ironic smile, he added, “My goose is probably going to be cooked if—”
“All of us geese will be cooked, sir,” Sergeant 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?” Matthew asked, incredulous, “Really? In their trench?”
“That’s what he said,” Sergeant 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.
“Maybe it’s a trick.”
“Or maybe he really does want us to look at his bloody Christmas tree!” Matthew said, annoyance tingeing his voice. “Would you all think I was crazy for wanting to see it?”
“Yes!” a chorus of hushed voices answered.
“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 here than just yours.”
“I’m going to do it anyway,” Matthew 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; Matthew 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 at last, visibly wincing.
His answer surprised and cheered almost everyone, and Matthew eagerly began toeing a foothold into the trench to support his weight as he climbed up. He didn’t want to give the major time to change his mind.
“Be careful, you fool,” Sergeant Bennett murmured quietly, his heartbeat racing with both anticipation and dread.
“I’ll be fine,” Matthew muttered, mostly to himself. His breath grew heavy as his nervousness increased. “I’ll be fine.”
Then he was gone, over the top, and silence followed.
Hours later, Sergeant Bennett stood near a gaunt, older-looking German with unruly hair and keen eyes. Both held half-filled flasks of 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 with both gratitude and despair. How could two warring nations come together like this after so many months of slaughter? Watching his countrymen laugh, eat, and drink with the men who were enemies only hours before dredged up the memory of an old Biblical passage that his mother had made him learn when he was a boy. It was something about laying down your burdens and finding rest for your soul.
He paused to consider his burdens.
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 deep down he didn’t think he should.
Then 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, shaking himself to rid his mind of the despair, he forcibly turned his thoughts to the sights and sounds of the last few magnificent hours. He was proud of both sides for enabling this truce to work.
Hearty handshakes, warm greetings, and jokes had followed their tentative overtures from the trenches and soon afterward family photographs, food, drinks, cigarettes, cigars, and candy were being passed around almost as if they were at a prep school reunion, not belligerents in a war against one another.
Then he’d spied a young German using an old tin can in place of a soccer ball, juggling it with alternating kicks between his feet. Running out to receive the kick, Sergeant Bennett had called for the man to pass it, and soon a mass kick-about had ensued in No-Man’s Land under the ghostly brilliance moon’s light. No one cared about the score; they were just having 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, Sergeant Bennett found the older German, flask still in hand, standing in front of him. “It sure is, yes,” he 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.” He paused, then added, “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?” Sergeant 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,” Sergeant 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!” Matthew called, hailing his friend with a wave, “come.”
“That’s my best mate, Matthew,” Sergeant Bennett told the German, pointing. He paused. “I guess this is goodbye.” He extended his hand again, “Good luck to you and here’s to peace.”
They lifted their flasks, draining them together. “Here’s to peace,” Franz echoed.
“What are you in such a hurry for?” Sergeant Bennett asked, jogging up to his friend.
“I want you to meet someone—I think you two would get on very well if our situation was different,” Matthew explained. “James Bennett, Walter Bonhoeffer—Walter, this is my best mate.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Sergeant Bennett said, extending his hand toward the studious-looking but muscular man who seemed too young to be here.
“Likewise,” Walter replied, speaking slowly, as if tentative about his English.
“What did you do before this blasted war started?” Sergeant Bennett asked.
Walter looked confused for a moment and Sergeant Bennett wondered if he understood. Then the German’s confusion cleared.
“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.” Sergeant Bennett said, reaching out 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?
In the light of day, Sergeant Bennett wondered if anyone outside this section knew of these goings-on, or if perhaps they’d had the same idea. He only hoped that 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 voice of one of his countrymen staring at a mangled body, and 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 he began to wonder if they could do something for the dead. Now that he could see their bodies clearly, he couldn’t imagine leaving them to lie exposed to the weather and whatever animals might be crazy enough to wander into No-Man’s Land.
“”Sergeant!” the major called, hastening toward him.
“Yes, Major?” Sergeant 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 that died out here. We’re going to hold a joint service this afternoon.”
“Yes, sir!” Sergeant Bennett said, too ecstatic to keep a straight face. He sprang into action, then stopped, turning around slowly, his face taunt again. “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, Sergeant 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 as he hurried to follow orders.
Everyone gathered quickly and soon an efficient system developed. There were so many bodies and parts of bodies to bury that the task was overwhelming, but both sides were equally dedicated.
Still, questions swirled in every mind.
Who would identify the 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 of all who would be buried here?
“Is the earth deep enough for all these bodies, Matthew?” Sergeant Bennett wondered aloud.
“No,” his friend replied curtly, flexing his sore arms, ignoring the mud that smeared him from head to toe.
“And what’s the point of all this, old friend?” Sergeant Bennett continued, mindlessly giving a voice to all his pent up thoughts. “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,” Matthew snapped frostily, cutting his friend a dark glare. “Just shut up.”
“I take it that you’re no more ready than I am, then,” Sergeant Bennett continued softly, 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,” Matthew answered testily. “You know that as well as I do. We’ve got no choice.” He continued, heightened tension making his voice raise 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 soccer game for heaven’s sake—it won’t sit well with the brass back in London, or Berlin either, I imagine.”
“No, the fact that I might kill Walter Bonheoffer or he might kill me, or Franz Marc might kill you or you might kill him is of little consequence if all of us end up dead by firing squad because we spent a merry evening chatting.”
Sgt. Bennett shuddered at the reminder of the devastating consequences for both sides’ mortality if their high commands took a dim few view of their illicit truce.
“Come on, you two,” a commanding British voice called. “This is no time for a rest.”
“Are you from our section?” Matthew asked, surprised by the appearance of the slim, well-muscled man.
“I am, sir,” he replied respectfully, even though they were all the same rank.
“Are you new, then?” Matthew asked, looking confused.
“No sir. I just blend in well, I guess.” He smiled broadly. “My name is Walter Tull.”
“Walter Tull?” Sergeant Bennett repeated; it struck a memory. “Not the footballer?”
“The very one,” Walter answered, his smile broadening. “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,” Sergeant Bennett murmured softly, as the three men shook hands.
Both Bennett and Matthew resettled into their work, finding it mentally easier but morally devastating to remember that burying all these bodies was a sanitation project, not just honoring the dead. Neither of them wanted to look at the sun to be reminded of the dwindling hours of peace, but eventually its fading brightness wouldn’t be ignored and they couldn’t quite keep from glancing at it.
Finally, at long last, the joint service was ready to commence and the armies stood together one last time.
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 soldiers reluctantly began shaking hands, bidding farewell to their new friends. Sergeant 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. But when he turned around, he found the German who’d been standing across from him during the service. Extending his hand, the man had 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.”
Sergeant 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, and the ones who do 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 and when the English sergeant grasped it, he continued, “See there? All can be forgiven and all will be forgiven today.”
Sergeant Bennett’s face reflected the peacefulness of his former enemy’s message, 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 Sergeant Bennett began walking slowly back to his own trench, his heart heavy with all the memories it had collected.
Why did this war have to continue?
“Hurry up, James!” Matthew 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,” Sergeant 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 newfound friends on the other side in favor of 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, Sergeant Bennett recovered the rifle that he’d forsaken in favor of the wonderful Christmas Truce, and everyone 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 Sergeant Bennett steadied himself for what was to come.
The Germans answered.
These shots, too, felt like twin punches to the gut, but Sergeant 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, an unofficial truce was implemented in some places along the Western Front. Being unofficial, the truce wasn’t a blanket event and fighting did occur on Christmas in some places. However, in other places the peace lasted into January 1915.
As word leaked out about the truce, 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 truce in the years that followed were quashed with threats of disciplinary action. Plus, as the war progressed, troop rotations often separated the men who had witnessed the truce, and the extraordinarily death toll in WWI made it less likely that a man serving in 1914 would still be alive in 1918, so the Christmas Truce became somewhat of a legend. If it weren’t for letters and photos that were sent home and survivor accounts, this amazing story might not have ever been told.
The corporal who goes crazy and is knocked out is suffering from shell shock, which is what PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was called a century ago.
As for the four men Sgt Bennett meets during the Truce, let me make a disclaimer here. I have no idea if any of them actually took part in the Christmas Truce. I used them simply because they all died during the war.
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 hid 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 thirty-nine when he was killed. I chose him to represent the men who worked in the Arts, but were killed.
Walter Bonhoeffer (1899-1918): He is really the only one I can say with certainty did not take part in the Truce; he was too young to sign up in 1914, which is why I eluded to his youngness in the story. He was only called up in 1917 when things were really dire and his family’s upper middle-class connections took a backseat to the desperate need for manpower. Unfortunately, he was killed the following April. I chose him because he is the oldest brother of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who went on to become a pastor and prominent Nazi resister.
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 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 1886-1915): He and his little brother Willi rowed on the same bronze medal team in the 1912 Summer Games. He died in September 1915. I chose him to represent the sportsmen who died.