Only one chapter left, in which we return to Philomene in Chateau Ducloux one last time for a new year, a letter, and a funeral.
Cologne. December 20th, 1914. The two massive structures on the west bank of the Rhine in Cologne might have seemed to exemplify the spirit of two different ages of man. The cathedral, with twin Gothic spires, reached five hundred and fifteen feet into the heavens. Across a small square was another structure, as earthly in its purpose as the other was ethereal: the city’s main train station had a stone facade and clock tower which did not look out of place amid the historic buildings that surrounded it, but its true wonder was the massive curving span of steel lattice and plate glass which enclosed in elegant modernity seven lines of track and the wide platforms between them. However the contrast, at least in terms of time, was illusory. The foundations of the cathedral had been laid in 1248 and for the next two hundred years the walls slowly rose until the building, even unfinished, dominated the skyline. Yet money for the project had run short, and from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, the bell towers stood half-height, topped not by steeples but by a crane which itself became a city landmark. Meanwhile masses were held in the eastern third of the building, roofed over and enclosed from the elements by a temporary wall.
It was not until the creation of the united German Empire, the youngest country in Europe and yet one deeply invested in its medieval heritage, that this Catholic cathedral was at last finished, with the help of funds provided by its Protestant emperor. Wilhelm I attended the dedication himself in 1880, and when he did so he arrived in the royal train at the station which stood a short walk across the Bahnhofsvorplatz from the cathedral.
Walter arrived on the 06:20 train from Berlin. Back to the east, over the Rhine bridge his train had just crossed, the first hints of approaching dawn were lightening the horizon, but through the glass-paned lattice overhead he could see the stars still shining in the sky. The second class sleeper compartment to which the transport officer had given him a ticket, in deference to the red sergeant’s tabs which now adorned the collars of his tunic and greatcoat, had been a far cry from the cattle cars in which he and the other enlisted men had rolled across the Rhein almost five months before.
It was not only in rating better train accommodations that Walter had felt the difference of experience and rank. During the last few months he had become accustomed to the respect which his experience, even more than his rank, earned him among the enlisted men. They knew that he had been there since the long march across Belgium and the bloody fights along the Marne and the Aisne, and that he was one of those who could keep moving under fire, but would also stop to help those who were struggling. However, when Leutnant Weber had sent him home for a two-week training course, Walter had found that among civilians his status as a promoted soldier back from the front brought him a sort of adulation that was wholly new to him.
That he was a hero to his younger brother was perhaps no surprise. Erich had asked for details of Walter’s experiences at every opportunity, and in trying to satisfy that desire on his first visit home Walter had discovered that he did very much want to tell someone about his experiences, and yet that Erich was not the person with whom he wanted to be honest about the battlefield. The thirteen year old’s ideas of war were formed by the back issues of The Good Comrade, in whose well-thumbed pages he reveled in adventure stories that seemed inevitably to include a lost dispatch, naval code, or secret map which fell into the hands of the boy hero, allowing him to assist the square-jawed men of the Imperial Army and Navy in saving the empire from the clutches of whatever threats loomed against Kaiser and Fatherland. It seemed unfair to tell the boy about the horrors of war -- of helping a man wash his friend’s brains off his face, or of the distant, haunted look of someone who had been under artillery fire past the point of his endurance -- yet even more wrong to tell him about the inexplicable rush which at times came with combat, the feeling of being armed and fleet-footed and ready to deal death at a moment’s notice.
Nor could he have been that honest with his mother, who had clung to him and cried and demanded to know why he could not stay in the family’s flat while in training rather than reporting to the barracks the next morning for the start of the training course. He’d promised to spend the whole day with them on Sunday, but insisted he would not be able to get away in the evenings, even as his mother assured him repeatedly that she could easily cancel her work to be with him. She needed the money, however willing she was to give it up in order to see him, and after just an hour at home Walter knew that he would be happy of the excuse to spend only visits there.
Instead, he had spent his evenings after training with the other non-commissioned officers in the course, visiting the beer halls and the music halls. There, middle-aged men eager to bask in the empire’s glory were happy to buy them drinks and hear their stories about the war. Some soldiers satisfied their audience’s desire to hear heroic paeans to Germanic arms, and others enjoyed the shock which resulted from telling in the most unvarnished terms possible the real nature of battle.
There Walter had discovered that he drew the attention of women who would never have given him a second look when he was wearing a factory worker’s jacket. And having had his first taste of this attention, he had followed the lead of other NCOs he saw in the capital, and purchased an officer’s great coat. This was not a violation of regulations so long as he sewed on it his sergeant’s collar tabs, but its better cut and double row of buttons cut far more of a dash, as did the new ankle boots and close fitting leather gaiters, also a style normally worn by officers, with which he replaced the big, clumsy, enlisted man’s marching boots in which he had tramped across Belgium.
Now he found there were sympathetic ears and arms for the choosing.
The one place his new rank and uniform had completely failed to make an impression was when he visited Paul Erhlichmann from the cycle works. Berta had been there, and had been eager enough to talk to him, so long as the topic was the new job she had taken at a factory making artillery shells and the dispute she was embroiled in with her fellow union organizers, who believed it would hurt the movement to attempt to organize during the war. However, she had been no more interested than before in Walter himself, and he had left early to find someone who was.
The final visit to his mother had been the most difficult part of the trip. She refused to understand why, with only a week until Christmas, her son could not stay.
“I’m not on leave, Mother. I was sent here for a training course, and now that it’s over I’m expected back at my unit.”
“But you’re already here. How would an extra few days make a difference?”
“I’d be absent without leave. It’s a crime and I could be sent to prison.”
In the end, however, with tears and several little packages done up in brown paper which she made him promise to open on Christmas, she had said goodbye.
A woman was coming down the train platform selling pretzels from a cart. Walter stopped her and bought one. It steamed in the cold morning air as she took it from the cart’s warming box and wrapped it in a piece of paper for him.
“How about a kiss to go with it, Fraulein?” he asked.
She laughed at him. “Frau, sergeant. Frau. I must be ten years older than you.”
Well, perhaps. In her long coat and her wide brimmed hat, it had not been easy to guess her age. Still, was that a swing in her hips as she pushed her cart on down the platform? Surely she had not really minded.
Walter took a seat on a bench by the platform where the military train for northern France was due, peeled back the paper, and bit into the hot, crusty bread. It would be good to see the men again. He had several bottles of schnapps in his pack: one for Georg and Herman who had been looking after the 7th Korporalschaft in his absence, and one each for Leutnant Maurer and Leutnant Weber. Perhaps they could all have some Christmas cheer.
Near Longueval, France. December 24th, 1914. The second bataillon of the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment had already been in the front line for six days, while the other two bataillons enjoyed the greater comfort of the second line and the reserve camp, but the regiment’s sector was quiet and somewhere either it had been decided to keep all units in their current places until after the holiday, or else the person responsible for scheduling rotations had himself gone on leave. No orders had come for the second bataillon to pull back to the reserve line, and when the oberstleutnant had sent enquiries to the regimental headquarters, he had received no reply.
To the north, the British were attacking near Arras, and to the south the French were attacking near Suippes. If there was no relief for the second bataillon, the British forces opposite had at least been quiet for nearly a week. On the 19th, the enemy had made an attack just before dawn, but alertness and the six maxim guns had quickly stalled the attack. The only traces of it were a few huddled lumps of khaki still lying out in the no man’s land between the trenches.
In this quiet the mobile kitchens had moved forward, and the mail was now being delivered to the front line trench every day, not just letters but parcels and Christmas hampers from the German Red Cross and from various patriotic societies.
It was late morning, a quiet time of day after the morning stand-to when all the soldiers in the kompanie lined the fire step, rifles ready, for the two hours surrounding dawn, the time most likely for an enemy attack because the daylight was still dim. The British facing them, though giving no sign of actually leaving their trenches, had cheerfully blazed away with their rifles for a few minutes to greet the sunrise, then settled back into quiet and left 5th Kompanie free to get their hot muesli and coffee.
The weather had turned cold after days of drizzling rain, and the mud had begun to freeze, so the men who were not on watch had gone to eat their breakfast underground and then stayed there, huddled out of the biting wind.
The lantern-lit NCO’s dugout, whose thick ceiling beams and twelve feet of earth above protected it from all but the heaviest artillery, had the cozy, dimly lit feeling of a well-chinked cottage on a winter’s night, even though the mantle clock which had been scavenged from an abandoned French house showed that in just over an hour their korporalschaft would have to go above ground and take the noon watch.
“We should have wars more often,” said Georg, sorting through a box sent by the Schneidemuhl Ladies Patriotic Guild. “Tinned beef tongue. Smoked herring. Tinned ham. Cookies. Dried fruit. We never had this much at home. Next thing you know this heathen over here is going to want in on the holiday. What’s this? Knitted socks. Knitted for an elephant with uneven feet by the look of it. Here, they’re not Christmas socks so you can have them.” Georg tossed the socks across the dugout towards Herman who batted them away.
“I don’t care about your Christmas socks. This box is the real goldmine.”
“What is it?” Georg had plumbed the depths of the hamper and moved over to see Herman’s find.
“That box is from company headquarters,” said Walter, who had been smoking the last stub of a cigar and writing a letter to his mother and Erich. “A crate came in with the last supply shipment, and inside were twelve boxes, with instructions to distribute one per korporalschaft, so I brought ours around.”
“Well look at this.” Herman held up a long stemmed pipe, the porcelain bowl of which featured an image of Kaiser Wilhelm and the inscription ‘God is With Us’ around the rim.
Walter put down his pen. “Do we each get one?”
“No,” said Herman, pulling it back out of reach as Georg reached for the pipe. “There are just sixteen. One for each of the long suffering enlisted men in our korporalschaft.”
“What?” Georg demanded. “I’m going to commit some offense and get myself reduced to the ranks.”
“Before you do that, consider this.” Herman held up a cigar box, emblazoned with the printed portrait of the Kaiser and the label ‘50 Cigars, best quality’. “Just three,” Herman said. “One for each of us exalted NCOs.”
“Hand it over,” Georg said. “My Christmas begins now.”
It did not, of course. 2nd Zug, of which 7th Korporalschaft was a part, had the first afternoon watch from noon until two, and Walter ruled that the men did not need the novelty of new pipes. They were all too easily distracted from the tedium of standing on the firestep, peering out over no man’s land, as it was.
While the men stood to, Walter went to talk to the kompanie commander, and when he returned he broke the news to Georg. “I need you to take First Gruppe on a special mission. I’ve talked to Leutnant Weber and cleared you of other duties for the rest of the day.”
Georg expressed his gratitude for this favor in a few bitter syllables.
“Some might call that disrespecting a superior.”
Drawing himself up to attention, in a way that could only be sarcastic between the two friends, Georg asked, “What is my objective in this mission, sir?”
“Beer. Wine. Liquor if you can find it. Leutnant Weber says you can take the supply cart and he’ll give you a letter of requisition to show to any civilians who give you trouble. You’re to be back by sunset with enough alcohol to give the whole company as much Christmas cheer as they can desire.”
This proved a mission that Georg was able to enter into with full enthusiasm. After visiting all the surrounding houses that had not yet been fully plundered, he and First Gruppe returned with the cart well-laden. There was wine of various descriptions and several bottles of brandy, but also a good deal of beer. The beers of northern France were not always to the soldiers’ taste. Some were the sour beers, made with wild yeasts. Others were cloudy white ales or spiced dark ales -- neither of which would have passed muster among the lagers of a Berlin beer hall. However, they were pleasingly strong, and for those men who found the hangovers produced by wine too vicious, any form of beer was preferable. After inspecting the haul, Walter selected a few expensive looking bottles of wine and brandy and took them over to the dugout shared by Leutnant Weber and Leutnant Maurer.
“Don’t let them start until after evening stand-to,” Weber said. “And those on watch have to be sober enough to stay awake and deal with any enemy activity.”
“You don’t think they’d be so uncivilized as to attack on Christmas?” asked Maurer, who was sampling a swig of the brandy.
Weber shrugged. “It’s war. Is there a civilized way to kill each other?”
“But these are English. It’s not as if we were still down on the Aisne facing the goddamn French.”
“Even so. Those on watch are to be prepared.”
Walter assured him that the men on watch would be alert and returned to his section of the line.
In addition to the alcohol, which had been stowed in the NCOs’ dugout for safe keeping, Georg and his men had cut a ten-foot fir tree, and the men were now busy fastening candles to it with wire.
Walter’s mother had always insisted upon a Christmas tree, though since they had moved to the Berlin flat in search of work, the tree had often been been no more than a two or three foot sprig bought from a street seller, with at most a half dozen candles attached to its spindly branches with tin clips from the set they had used to decorate the larger trees back in Schneidemuhl when Walter was a boy.
This tree, however, was full and thick and smelled of pine. The candles collected by the men were of various colors and sizes, many half used, but there were dozens. It would be a spectacular sight.
“It’s too tall for the dugout. Where do you plan to put it?” Walter asked.
Georg pointed up to the trench parapet, facing the enemy.
“You’re mad. It’ll be visible for a mile.”
“Yes it will. Especially after we’ve lit the candles.”
“They’ll shoot at it.”
“That would violate the spirit of the season.” Georg sounded shocked. Did he genuinely think that the British would respect the holiday, or was the whole exercise one of his elaborate, deadpan jokes?
“It’s a war, Georg. There’s no peace on earth or goodwill to men.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” said his friend, leaning close, and as he did so Walter could smell that although the alcohol had been safely stowed Georg had generously sampled something before coming back with the supplies. “It doesn’t matter if they shoot it. It’s a tree. It’s already dead,” he said, and doubled over laughing at his own wit.
“You won’t be laughing if you’re the one who gets shot while trying to get it in place and light the candles.”
In the end, however, no shots were fired. As the men stood to on the fire step, watching the sun sink behind the British trenches and thinking of the bottles of Christmas spirit which awaited them, someone had begun to sing. Others joined in up and down the German line, and soon "Stille Nacht! heilige Nacht!" was echoing across the no man’s land.
The song ended in muddled silence. Some began one song, some another, others simply fell silent. Then, from the enemy trenches a few hundred yards away, they heard other voices raised in song. The tune was the same as Stille Nacht but the words were foreign.
When the British trench finished the carol and fell silent, the German line answered back again. In what all had apparently agreed was a contest of fervor, they bellowed out the verses, proving that they could sing the German original louder than the men opposing them could sing the English version. This contest to see who could sing Silent Night most loudly continued for several rounds, and then the British decided to turn the rivalry more specifically national with a rousing chorus of God Save The King. The German lines responded with Die Wacht am Rhein.
Dark had fallen by this point, and as the round of patriotic songs ended, there was a cheer from each line, and then silent night really did fall for a time as officers released men from the evening alert and those not on watch got down from the fire step.
Though fully dark, it was only six o’clock. There had been no time for dinner to be distributed before the evening alert, so now the mess patrols carried big pots of stew forward and men either ate in the dark or retreated into the dugouts where they could have lights. Walter allowed a first round of the alcohol to be distributed, along with some of the Christmas delicacies from the aid hampers.
It was after dinner had warmed the men and drinks had cheered them that Georg and several of the men returned to the Christmas tree. Using one of the ladders -- up which in unhappier times men had swarmed to attack the enemy line or crept at night into the no man’s land between the trenches to man a listening post or conduct a raiding patrol against the British -- they hauled the tree up to ground level and planted its trunk in the mound of earth which formed the parapet, a low protective wall on the side of the trench facing the enemy lines.
This at least could be done in relative secrecy. The half moon was partially obscured by clouds, and in the dark Georg and the three men who helped him were only dim shadows moving in the blackness. It was when Georg snapped his lighter and began to light the candles that Walter, who had climbed up with them but was standing well back from the tree and the light it now cast, felt his blood pumping in his ears as if in combat. At this distance, a bullet fired by a British sniper would hit a man before the sound of the shot reached them. The first sign of trouble would be when one of the men tumbled down into the trench below, his head exploding into bloody ruin.
But no shot came.
As if daring the British opposite to notice their activity, Georg began to sing "Am Weihnachtsbaume die Lichter brennen": On the Christmas Tree the Lights are Burning. Down in the German trench, men who had also begun to drink, and who were far away from the homes and families with which they had lit Christmas trees in the past, joined in the song, and soon the words were echoing across the frosty, shell cratered landscape.
Georg finished lighting the candles on the tree. The air was almost completely still, and although some of the flames danced, none yet went out. It was a blaze of light, dozens of candles wired into place all over the tree, up as high as Goerg could reach. The sight was visible not just up and down the German trench, but for half a mile in either direction up and down the British trenches. Yet no one took the opportunity to shoot at the three men silhouetted against its light. Instead, as the German line finished singing, voices rose from the British lines again, singing their foreign English words to the tune of "O Tannenbaum".
With the tree in place and lit, Walter and Georg and the other men climbed back down into the trench. Walter lit a cigar. It was the first from the Kaiser’s gift box, but he had till now kept it tucked in his greatcoat pocket lest the burning coal present a tempting target for some British sniper wanting to take a head shot.
Then he went to find Alfred, and invited him to come down into the NCO’s dugout for the evening.
Alfred came down the wooden steps of the dugout with the deliberate movements of someone who had already had a good deal to drink. Then he pulled a bottle of wine from the remains of Georg’s spoils and settled himself by the oil heater to work the cork out.
Walter offered him a cigar. “Merry Christmas.”
His friend waved it away. “I don’t take cigars while I’m drinking. Seems to make the hangover worse.” The last of the cork came free, and Alfred took a drink directly from the bottle, then held it out to Walter, who shook his head.
“I have to go on watch in a couple hours. I’ve had enough for now.”
Alfred nodded and tilted his head back as he took another long drink. “I haven’t yet.”
When they had all rolled over the Rhine together in the cattle cars that had taken them to the Belgian border, Alfred’s face had still been round and smooth, radiating a farm boy innocence which underscored that he was the youngest of the group of reservists, just out of his two years conscription service when the war had called him and his older brother back to uniform. There were new angles in that face now, and dark hollows under his eyes, signs not only of the long days and occasional short rations they all experienced, but also of the increasingly long and heavy bouts of drinking he had turned to since Franz’s death in one of kompanie’s first engagements.
“Don’t hit it too hard yourself. You’ll be on watch after midnight.”
Alfred shrugged. “That gives me a few hours to destroy myself.”
“And how will you stand watch then? This is foolish, Alfred. Why do you do it to yourself? I invited you down here so we could talk and you could have something to do other than drinking everything in sight.”
“It’s Christmas. You could tell Herman to let me off watch.”
“I could not. You don’t get to drink yourself into a stupor and skip watch just because we’re friends.”
After eyeing the bottle for a moment, as if to find answers in its green glass, Alfred shrugged. “Well, perhaps he’ll have me arrested for deserting my post. But it’s Christmas and I intend to drink.”
His instinct was to shout at his friend, tell him that it wasn’t his job to keep him out of trouble, tell him that other men had lost brothers in the war. But of course, Alfred’s behavior was formed by experience. Time and again Walter had kept his friend from suffering the full weight of discipline for his drinking. Now that help was expected. Would telling Herman to crack down hard on Alfred at last break the pattern, or would punishment just add to the cycle of destruction into which he had sunk since his brother’s death?
“Have you heard anything from home?” Walter asked. It was a risk. Sometimes the topic of home brought a sudden return of good behavior, other times it made things worse.
Alfred pulled a picture from his tunic pocket and threw it onto the table. Walter took up the small black and white image and looked at it. A young woman in a broad straw hat and a light summer dress looked back at him with the calm, still smile of the photographer’s studio.
“Is that Franz’s wife?”
“She sent you a picture?”
He shook his head, hesitated, took another drink from his bottle. “That’s the picture Franz carried with him. I took it from his coat pocket when he was killed. I thought I should send it back to her. I didn’t. I kept it.”
Why? Had he been jealous of his brother’s wife? Was guilt the reason he had been so wracked since his brother’s death? Or was there some way in which he felt that by taking care of the picture he was taking care of his brother’s family?
“Did you know that she is going to have a baby?” Alfred asked, his voice unsteady.
Walter nodded. “He told me.”
“In another two months. Franz’s little son or daughter.” He took another drink. “I write to her. She says when the baby is born she’ll send me a picture. Do you think I’ll live that long? Do you think I’ll ever be able to go home and see Franz’s child?”
Voicing the questions violated the unspoken laws they all obeyed with rigid superstition. Who could answer such questions? Asking them only reminded others of the uncertainty which came with each day. Alfred must be far gone in drink or hopelessness.
“Will I ever see him?” Alfred persisted.
“How can I know? How can any of us know?”
“I want to see him.”
“You’ll see him then.”
For a while this caused Alfred to subside. He looked almost to have fallen asleep, but then he shook himself and turned bloodshot eyes on Walter. “I want to get out. I want another job. Can’t you get them to give me another job? I can dig trenches or drive a cart or take care of horses. Just get me out of here.”
“You know I can’t do that. I don’t make those decisions.”
“You know the officers. Talk to them. Please. Get me out.”
The look which accompanied this question was painful to see, and at last Walter muttered a few words about talking to the leutnants if he had the chance and then made his escape up the dugout stairs and into the cold night air of the trench.
The night watches passed quietly. When Walter finished his own, and went back to the NCO’s dugout, he found Alfred asleep with his head on the table, and despite the other man’s sluggishness and pleading dragged him up the stairs and leaned him up against the trench wall so that he could in some sense stand watch with the other men of Second Gruppe.
Morning stand-to passed quietly, with none of the usual round of firing from the British to greet the dawn. The sun came up to glint on a thick frost which had formed during the night, making the brown, frozen mud of the no man’s land almost pretty as it sparkled in the morning light.
It was while the kompanie was eating breakfast that there was a shout in somewhat accented German from the British line.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I want to talk to an officer.”
Walter climbed onto the firestep and saw a British officer standing on the enemy parapet, three hundred yards away, and waving a large piece of white cloth tied to a broken tree branch.
“What is it, sergeant?” Leutnant Weber was standing down in the trench below him.
Walter described what he’d seen.
“Tell him to approach. Leutnant Maurer, get sharpshooters on the firestep a hundred meters on each side of this point. Tell them to look for movement in the British trench. Machine gunners! At your posts.”
As Weber was giving out these instructions Walter climbed a few steps up one of the scaling ladders, so that the British officer would be able to see him, and called back, “Our commander says you may approach the trench.”
The officer walked across the no man’s land, sometimes having to turn to left or right to make his way around a shell crater, all the while continuing to hold his white flag high. Was it a signal, or was this a way to make it clear that he was not reaching for the leather pistol holster that hung on his belt?
At last he stopped just beyond the German barbed wire, twenty yards from the trench.
There were three parallel fences of the wire, each one strung between stakes driven into the ground by night patrols who had worked with wooden mallets wrapped in burlap sacks to muffle the noise and avoid drawing the fire of snipers. Each fence had gaps in it, allowing men to walk through, but the gaps were offset, requiring someone making the passage to zig zag back and forth several yards in order to get through. It was impossible for a large group to get through at any speed, and even small raiding parties would have trouble in the dark if they did not know precisely where the gaps were.
“I’d like to discuss a brief truce, in honor of Christmas, so that we can bury the dead in the no man’s land,” the British officer said, still speaking in German. “Is there an officer who can speak with me?”
Walter turned to look at Leutnant Weber.
“Let me have the ladder, sergeant,” said Weber, and Walter got down and made room for him. “Once I’m up, get to where you can see clearly and keep an eye. If things turn bad, don’t hesitate to shoot him.”
Walter climbed onto the firestep and rested his rifle on the parapet, lining up his sights on the British officer. His view was obscured for a moment as Weber’s boots passed in front of him, walking over to the gap in the first line of barbed wire. The leutnant followed the zig zagging path through the barrier, and then he and the British officer were shaking hands. They exchanged greetings in German, and then Weber spoke to the other officer in English.
Not being able to understand the words made the conversation seem longer. Walter kept the post of his rifle sight centered on the British officer’s head. At this distance, surely it would be hard to miss. Weber, perhaps conscious of his soldiers up and down the line targeting the man he was speaking to, had approached the British officer from the side, so that they stood parallel to the trenches. Men on either side could get a clean shot at either one.
There seemed to be no need for such measures, however. The two men shook hands again and then each turned and walked back to his own trench. As Weber climbed back down the ladder into the trench, he looked completely calm, even relaxed.
“Sir?” Walter asked.
“Tell your men. There’s to be a three hour truce starting at ten-thirty. The men are free to go up into the no man’s land during that time, but no one is to go further than the British wire, nor to leave our company’s sector of the line. Is that all clear?”
Weber looked at his wrist watch. “That gives us twelve minutes. Make sure all the men know. I don’t want any unpleasantness.”
When the time arrived, the first British to appear were a succession of soldiers with red cross arm bands, who carried stretchers up into the no man’s land and began to collect the half dozen British corpses from the attack six days before. However, even as these men were still engaged in the grim challenge of trying to pry a corpse frozen into mud away from the ground, other men in khaki began to climb up from their trench and mill about the no man’s land.
Each man spent at least six hours out of every twenty four standing on the fire step and staring out into that three hundred yard wide swath of land. It was flat and featureless except for the markings of war itself: shell holes, barbed wire, observation posts dug into the ground and then covered over with timbers or corrugated metal. But although they spent so much time looking at the no man’s land, they seldom had the chance to enter it, and when they did so it was only with the heart pounding fear of an attack or patrol. Now there were men simply wandering through it, looking at the little features of the landscape which till now they had only stared at from the fire step. The idea of doing likewise took on sudden force, and soon German soldiers too were climbing up the ladders, tracing the twisting path through their lines of barbed wire, and fanning out to satisfy their curiosity.
For a while Walter stayed on the firestep. He had been in the no man’s land more than most, since the regiment had been moved north to this stretch of the front back in October, and it seemed as if his duty as an NCO was to watch over the scene rather than allow himself to be drawn out into it.
At first the men in gray and the men khaki moved about separately, enjoying the novelty of walking above ground and unafraid, but men from both sides had brought bottles and cigars or cigarettes with them. Soon Walter saw some groups beginning to mix, to exchange tobacco and pass drinks back and forth. A group of British soldiers had piled up all the scrap wood they could find and started a bonfire, and men stood around it. Once again they sang Christmas songs, English and German words alternating, sometimes to the same tunes. It was impossible to hang back from all this, and so Walter climbed one of the ladders and went out into the muddle of opposing armies turned acquaintances.
As he reached the fire, one of the British NCOs was passing around a collection of French postcards. Full curved girls in corsets and little else pouted or simpered for the camera. The comments were in English and German, but the laughing and pointing at the images while they passed around a bottle of brandy was of a universality that transcended language. Back near the British wire several men were kicking a soccer ball back and forth.
A British soldier approached Walter and offered a cigarette. “Where are you from?” he asked in heavily accented German. “What city? I lived in Hamburg for a few months.”
Walter waved the cigarette away. “Berlin.”
“Nice city, yes? Very modern?”
Walter shrugged. “Modern enough.”
“Maybe when the war is over, I will come to Berlin.”
But it wasn’t over. When when it was, even if they were both alive, one of them would have been defeated. That was what felt so false in all this. Yes, they were all men far from home on Christmas. Their families sang some of the same songs around the Christmas tree, though with different words. But they were enemies until one of them was defeated. This man, so eager to be friendly, so eager to speak in German and about Germany, might one day try to kill him. Or Walter might find himself in a situation where he had to kill this smiling British soldier. If he talked to him now, exchanged stories about the man’s visit to Hamburg, would he be able to act without hesitation in such a moment?
Walter offered him a cigar, and with that offering the man seemed to accept that they had formed a connection, and moved on to impress others with his ability to speak German and his friendliness.
For his part, Walter found a group of Germans and a bottle and settled in to keep an eye that things did not get out of hand.
The truce over-ran its three hour limit, as men enjoyed the freedom of wandering above ground without fear of being shot at. It was not until sunset was approaching that Walter heard the repeated shrill of a whistle and saw a British officer running towards the largest group, gathered around the bonfire.
“Who is in command?” he asked.
Walter looked around, saw Weber, and led the British officer to him.
“My regimental artillery does not have any Christmas spirit,” the British officer told Leutnant Weber. “They’ve received reports that German forces are in the open and I’ve received orders to clear my men so that they can open fire. Honor required that I warn you.”
Weber nodded. “Thank you.” He turned to Walter. “Sergeant, order the men back to the trenches. Find the zug commanders and pass the word to them. I need to tell the other kompanies that may be affected.”
He turned and set off for the German trench at a run, while the British officer began shouting for his own men to return to their lines.
Walter pulled out his own whistle and blew it loudly, then began ordering every man he could see back to the trenches.
Like rabbits browsing in the open, the trench dwellers were easily startled. Word spread far faster than Walter could carry it and men were running, those in khaki towards the British line and those in gray towards the German. Walter hurried back and forth, looking for any stragglers, shouting at any man not already moving. That was how he came across Leutnant Maurer.
The officer had taken a bottle of brandy and settled himself, with his back propped against the sand-bagged side of a listening post. There he had evidently fallen asleep. Walter, looking for any men who had not heard the warning, had seen the motionless figure and for a moment moved on, thinking it was a body. But there were no German bodies here. He shook his commander by the shoulder, but Maurer only moaned quietly in his sleep.
It had been perhaps five minutes since the British officer had brought his warning, but already the no man’s land was as nearly as empty and desolate as before. Walter looked around for someone to help, but there was no one. Squatting down, he pulled the officer’s arms around his neck and stood up with Maurer draped over his back.
“My God, put me down,” the leutnant groaned, but instead Walter began to move as quickly as he could with the smaller man across his back.
Walking this way was slow and Walter soon felt out of breath. The leutnant woke up enough to begin to struggle. Then they both heard the scream of a shell overhead and hit somewhere behind the first trench line with the characteristic concussive thump thump of high explosive, as the shell buried itself into the ground for a fraction of a second while the fuse burned down, then blew the ground above it into all directions.
Walter dropped to the ground at the sound of the shell, and as he hit the ground Leutnant Maurer began to weep.
“God, oh God, oh God. I’m going to be sick.”
Walter turned the officer’s head away from him and Maurer retched onto the ground. Several more shells went overhead, while others fell short and blasted new craters into the no man’s land. None, however, were falling very near to them.
“Can you run?” Walter asked.
“No,” moaned the leutnant.
“All right, put your arms around my shoulders. We’re going to try to run for it.”
Walter got to his feet, staggering under the weight of carrying Maurer on his back, and ran the remaining few dozen yards to the wire. There he had to slow down, find the gap, and the make the zig zag trip through the taps. One of the barbs snagged Maurer’s trousers as they turned, and he moaned and kicked.
Finally they were at the parapet, and several soldiers waited on the fire step to help. Walter pushed Maurer into the arms of the men standing below, and they lowered the leutnant to the bottom of the trench. Then Walter slithered down one of the ladders. Dimly, from the British line, he could hear cheering, as the men who had briefly mixed with them celebrated the Germans’ escape from the shells more distant commanders had sent to break up the fraternizing between the lines.
Once he had caught his breath, Walter pulled Maurer’s arm over his shoulders and half led, half carried him to the company headquarters bunker where Weber and Maurer slept.
Maurer had reached the self-justifying stage.
“I just needed a break,” he explained in sorrowful tones. “I didn’t mean to have so much. I just needed a drink or two. And then it was so cold, and everyone else was drinking, and I had one more and then… How could a fellow know? You’ve no idea how hard it is. Weber’s a crack officer. You’d never guess he was a reservist. He knows everything. Nothing scares him. How is a man to keep up with that? God, I wasn’t meant for this. I took the reserve officer course because it let me serve one year instead of two. I just try to get along. Nothing wrong with a drink once in a while. A man needs a way to relax. Well, maybe I have a weakness. And then he takes advantage of it. He’s so goddamn perfect. But there are things you boots never see. At night, when the lights are out, he’ll pull close next to you in the bed. Pulls close like a girl. He’s a sodomite, I tell you. How was I to know? So goddamn drunk I didn’t know.”
The leutnant had talked himself out and fallen asleep again by the time that Walter reached the headquarters bunker and carried the officer down the stairs. There he found Leutnant Weber calling in directions to their own field artillery.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Weber said, once he had finished with the telephone. “I was worried when Maurer didn’t arrive.” He helped Walter wrestle the unconscious leutnant into one of the beds built against the wall and topped with real mattresses taken from nearby houses.
Walter remembered Maurer’s drunken ramble as he watched the company commander tuck the other officer in under a wool army blanket. Was that true? But then, if there was an officer who seemed weak, effeminate, it was Maurer, not Weber. Who could trust the word of a drunken man? Maurer must be lying, or trying to shift the blame for something he had done.
“Is that all, sir?”
Walter turned to go.
“No. There is one thing, sergeant. A Christmas gift, of sorts. Perhaps a thank you as well.” Weber went over to the little shelf that stood next to his own cot and took down a volume bound in dark blue cloth. “I don’t think you’ve had the advantage of a great deal of education, have you, Heuber?”
“No, sir. I left school for work at sixteen.”
“Well, in some ways our schools are teachers of corruption as much as true wisdom. I think you have the right spirit to find this useful. A soldier spirit.”
Unsure how to respond to such an observation, Walter remained silent. Weber handed him the book and rested his other hand on Walter’s shoulder.
“Yes, give it a try. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t feel any obligation. But I think you will like it. I’ve found it a great source of wisdom over the last six months. You’ll see a good deal of my underlining in there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And your course in Berlin? Was that helpful? And you have family there as well, do you not?”
“Yes, sir. It was a very good course. I appreciate the chance you gave me.”
“Good. I’m glad. We need steady, well trained non-commissioned officers more than anything. Perhaps even more than good officers.” At this latter he cast a glance toward’s Maurer’s sleeping form and gave Walter’s shoulder a squeeze. “Thank you again for your quick thinking this afternoon, sergeant. And Merry Christmas.”
After a few more civilities Walter left and returned to the NCO dugout.
He opened the book which Weber had given him. Thus Spake Zarathustra. It seemed something like a Bible, full of stories and wise sayings. He opened it to the section titled “War and Warriors”. There he found two passages that Leutnant Weber had underlined.
I see many soldiers; could I but see many warriors!
The difficulty was when soldiers were not warriors. That was poor Alfred’s trouble. Perhaps tomorrow, when Maurer was sober, he could ask the leutnant to assign Alfred to a sappers detail. That would be a better place for a soldier who was not a warrior, and perhaps Maurer was one who could be made to understand that.
And on the next page
Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause. War and courage have done more great things than charity. Not your sympathy, but your bravery hath hitherto saved the victims.
Perhaps this was the answer. Why, after all, on Christmas day, were they still fighting? They had gone to war to protect Germany. In France, in Russia, from what the newspapers said everywhere German troops fought they were on foreign soil. Hadn’t they won already? Was the homeland not protected? But perhaps if the cause has difficult to understand, it was the war that would make it right, the war as fought by warriors like Leutnant Weber. And perhaps him too.
Read the next installment.