On Christmas Day 1914 a spontaneous break in hostilities, the Christmas Truce, occurred between the German and English soldiers fighting on the Western Front.
Lance Corporal Adams was a farmer by design and a soldier only by accident. From within the muddy walls he looked up and wished he were up above the clouds looking down on a field below. Way up, above the black and orange, above the flak and shrapnel bursting high before falling back to shower the lines with the slow-spinning scythes that looked like sycamores but would take the fingers from your hand if you were foolish enough to try and catch one. He wondered what the crenelated trenches looked like from up there; like gaping gasping jaws perhaps, like a grotesque sideways smile. Up there above the clouds in the clear cold spaces was home to what his Commander called the ‘Insubstantial Multitude’, the ghosts of the dead with no place to go. Adams was not a religious man, Lord knows he took no comfort from the shallow promise of heaven, but he’d seen men right next to him suddenly switch off, like a faltering engine and he reasoned that something had to happen with the life that had been within them. Soon there would be a million up there, then unbelievably more. Every once in a while a single soul, freed of its flesh, but with unfinished business would descend through the biblical plumes that shamed heaven and scolded earth to reanimate a body long left for dead. It was chilling to behold, especially in the middle of the night if you happened to be nearby. But their stories of peace and the fact that they were no longer afraid…
Heat, hot and noise.
It would be noisier closer to the ground, of course. And just above the field ear-splitting. Rising from the writhing, the pounding of a thousand metal hearts. Ancient music. Lower down, the jaws in Adams’ imagination would resolve themselves into two raggedy trench lines scraped higgle-piggle with shovels and boards or sometimes fingerclawed in the frozen grey clay. And within these trenches sheltering like hermit crabs were men. Men like Lance Corporal Adams. Frightened men. Brave men, let it be said, can still be frightened.
Tonight a peace of sorts settled in the trenches at eleven, a whole hour before time. He watched the last hell-fire flare strobe the sky and then candles flicker up, casting domestic pools of light. Cautious camp fires next, warming at intervals and with the smoke he heard song. Crackling hoarse song though sweet and reverential all the same. English and German, tribal tongues mixing like incense above a battered altar. He smiled to himself and hunkered down for the night in his stinking uniform. If his Commander were to be believed, the two languages had an Indian mother in common. Of all things.
Dawn brought a thin frost and crisp blue-pink skies. In the trenches, Adams awoke and noticed the way the soil in the walls lay in bands. Strata, the Commander had named them.
“And if you look closely, you’ll see they bear evidence of previous extinctions,” he’d said this with a wry smile. Adams’ answer when he felt he was being patronised was always the same:
“What would I know, Sir. I’m only a farmer.” He reached within his coat and jogged another man – a Private – awake with a smile and a proffered smoke.
“No bombs yet,” he said. To himself he added: ‘And if I don’t think, if we don’t think – you and I – if we were to think instead, the pair of us, on the gift of this shared cigarette then maybe…’ The atavism of an age, the Commander had called it. Adams took his meaning. It bent some men double. How heavy is hope, how thin superstition?
A projectile soaring in the calm. Eyes wide and adrenaline. Adams pushed himself and the Private hard against the trench walls. Incongruously it sounded for all the world like a football. It was! It was a football. Suspiciously, at first, they eyed it, caught others doing the same. The hope. The soaring hope!
“Come on,” said the Private. “It is Christmas.” They looked at each other like children. Weighing hope in the balance.
“All right,” said Adams. Like lung fish, they crawled upwards, coalescing upright finally in No Man’s Land with others in four-four-two formation. Could this be real? To Adams it had the qualities of a dream. The Private stuck two filthy fingers under his tongue and whistled. Germany kicked off. A game – a tragic game – was danced under a pale winter sun. Cheers of a different kind rose above the field. The poets among them shed private tears from the sidelines while comrades and combatants played. Too soon a whistle blew on the only glorious minutes in four damnable years.
Enemies shook hands that day. Along the battle lines, men fell silent. Angels walked the earth.
On boxing day war resumed. The bombs for a time fell short, the bullets long. When the Generals sent warrants for court marshal Lance Corporal Adams and the Private were gone, part now of the Insubstantial Multitude themselves. And separated from time, Adams would ponder his Commander’s words and wonder what stewards are we, that in the intervening hundred years we would nurture these seeds of ninety peaceful minutes to reap a harvest of only seven stunted days.
Dedicated by a respectful stranger to the memory of bomb disposal expert Staff-Sergeant Olaf Schmid, killed while defusing his 65th bomb in Afghanistan on October 31, 2009, aged 30. And with deep awe to his brave, dignified widow Christina. I applaud you.