One Day In 1914

 

It was just after dawn when the Germans came over the line. Captain Timber wanted to give the order to fire. It’d been weeks since he’d last slept and the sight of the Germans climbing up out of their trenches gave him an uneasy feeling.

“We should shoot the whole bloody lot of ’em,” said Sergeant Winkleman, a heavyset fellow with a patchy beard. “Just like what they did to Cooper last week.”

Lance Corporal Cooper had been one of the hundreds who’d gone over the top that week. None of them had made it back.

“These men are unarmed, sergeant,” said Captain Timber.

“Exactly. Catch ’em by surprise.” Winkleman spat on the duckboards. Timber supposed he should’ve reprimanded the sergeant for that, you couldn’t have the troops spitting. But Timber was a little afraid of Winkleman, as he was of most of the conscripts. A captain for only a year, Timber still didn’t feel comfortable in command.

Besides, the duckboards were filthy enough already.

British men were climbing up over the sandbags and barbed wire on all sides, some were already hailing the enemy with cries of ‘Merry Christmas.’ Men they would’ve shot on sight less than twelve hours ago.

Timber couldn’t help but feel they were walking into a trap, but he didn’t want to be the only captain not observing the truce. He didn’t want to take Christmas away from the men.

So he blew his whistle and gave the order he hoped to never give again after today. “Over the top, men. Merry Christmas.”

The last part tumbled out of his mouth against his will, as if the spirit of the season had pried it out from his soul. The stench of rotting bodies hit his nostrils as he followed his men out of the trench. Some of the troops had already been out to clear the bodies, but you couldn’t clear that smell. It seeped into the ground and clung to the inside of your nose, wriggling into your mind and finding a home, like worms.

All around men were singing Christmas carols, swapping cigarettes with the enemy, someone had even found a leather football and were engaged in kicking it back and forth with men they’d been shooting at hours ago. It was as if they’d forgotten their mates who’d died on this very soil.

Either that or they chose not to remember. Perhaps that was the best way through this. Pretend that none of the death and destruction had happened, just act like you were in Belgium miles from your loved ones at Christmastime for entirely different reasons.

The German captain was tidy and clean shaven like he’d just been dropped into the war that morning. He fiddled with the buttons on his coat as he watched Timber and his men approach.

“This is strange isn’t it?” he said in perfect English.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Captain Timber said.

The German captain nodded. “Precisely, what are we fighting over?”

“I’m sorry?”

“The war. Why are you here fighting us?”

Captain Timber thought that was a very stupid question. He wanted to say so, but he didn’t really have any kind of answer that wouldn’t prompt further questions. So he let the spirit of the season do his talking for him again.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

“And to you,” said the German.

They stood in silence like that for a time while all around the men broke off into disorganised huddles with the Germans. All except Winkleman who stood by the British trench, smoking and scowling at anyone who came near.

It seemed like Timber had been left alone with the German captain. It was uncomfortable. He almost wished he could go back to the trench.

“You’re from Liverpool aren’t you?”

Captain Timber frowned. “How did you know that?”

“I lived in London for several years before the war. My wife, Mary is actually from Crosby originally.”

The idea was too strange to even consider. “Is that true?”

The German laughed. “Why would I make it up?”

Timber scratched his head. Why indeed?

“Is your wife still in Britain?”

“No, she moved to Frankfurt with me many years ago. Before the war started. Are you married?”

“No.” Although Timber thought of Liz from back home with her blonde curls and deep blue eyes and wished he could’ve said yes.

“You should. Get married, I mean. Best decision I ever made.” The German gave a sad chuckle. “This kind of talk is unusual, isn’t it? At this time? It’s like we’re meeting at a dinner party.”

Timber recognised Bairnsfather from the Warwickshire Regiment further down the line, he was cutting the buttons off his coat and handing them to a laughing German soldier. And even further along, the sound of boots striking a football rang out where shells had fallen not a week ago.

Nothing was usual about this situation at all.

So Timber took the flask from his coat, took a sip and handed it to the German captain. It seemed the right thing to do given the circumstances.

*

The festivities continued long into the night, with a few pockets of revelry going on across Boxing Day. Timber spent most of it with his new German friend, whose name was Hans. Timber was too polite to ask if that was a first or second name and the German never told him.

They drank, they joined in the carols, swapped cigarettes, and even took part in one of the football games sweeping through No Man’s Land.

As quickly as the celebration had started, it was soon over. The men climbed back into their trenches and got back to the work they’d been sent here to do.

It wasn’t long before Timber’s regiment were back behind their guns, monitoring No Man’s Land for German attack. Long days and cold nights went by. Bullets whistled their carols in the darkness as explosions lit the trenches like candlelight. But for Timber and his boys, No Man’s Land was quiet.

Until, one day in mid-January, the Germans came over the line again. Captain Timber looked down through his scope as the Germans advanced, an uneasy feeling creeping through him. He wanted to give the order to fire.

Hans was leading the charge, looking as neat and tidy as he had done at Christmas. A rifle in hands that’d passed the whiskey flask with Timber not so long ago.

“Sir, the Germans are coming,” said Winkleman. “Say the word.”

“I–” Captain Timber’s hands trembled, his rifle knocking like a drumstick.

Hans took aim with his rifle and fired as he ran. The bullet pounded a sandbag not a kick away from Timber’s own head.

“Captain’s taken leave of his senses,” muttered Winkleman. “FIRE!”

“No.”

But Timber’s voice was drowned out by the roar of the guns.

The German charge went as well as Cooper’s had last month, and all the charges before that. The Germans were chopped down within seconds, including Hans; who had married a woman from Crosby and had called it, in his own words, ‘the best decision he’d ever made.’

Timber watched the body fall, rolling into the muddy field and coming to rest not too far from where he’d stood at Christmas. His wedding ring glimmered in the mid-morning sun.

Timber put his gun down, stood up and walked away from his post. Back through the trench, but Winkleman and a few of the others tackled him to the ground before he could get back to England.

— by Matt Holland 30/12/17

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