Updated: Feb 3
(Based off of a true story)
December 25, 1914
Maren K. Kneeland
Life, objectively, was dreadful.
As mass amounts of men fell apart under the mounds of no man's land, some even forgot the date of that day. The inability to walk from a disease with a name coined from this very circumstance notoriously swept across the muddy ditches. Truly, many lethal diseases were given memorable phrases that made life here all the more enjoyable. Trench foot, trench fever, shell shock; whatever form it took, it killed men further among their anatomy. It killed their pride, manhood, mental state, and the most human gift of all: their will to live.
Waking up could be considered a living hell. The hollers of commanding officers, the whistles of snipers just above the dugout their heads rested in was the closest thing to birds. Bombs went off and shrapnel scattered across the ground. Many soldiers leave this world-outside-of-a-world never forgetting the volume they opened their eyes to.
Except on Christmas day.
It started with the British. Waking up early (to those who even slept) was a deafening and disturbing silence. Some men panicked thinking they were left in the middle of the night. The lack of intensity could be considered unsettling after three long months of muddy hallways and barbed wires. As the men realized the stillness they were enduring was not a dream, they hobbled around with each other to see a big sign posted upon the front: 'Merry Christmas', held up by four burlap sandbags facing the enemy. The sign sent a reminder to everyone the date, and some took that cue more optimistically than others.
Minutes later, another sign was propped up: "Fröhliche Weihnachten." It was on the enemy's side.
As the hours progressed, the depression of the men increased. They were so tired. As they looked on across the fields of bodies and barbed wire, they wondered how different the trenches on the other side were. Did their bunks hurt the same spot on their back? Was the dirt just as cold and muddy? Some souls making a final plea gave up and peaked their heads above the sandbags. At first, it was a quick jolt, just to check they wouldn't be shot. As the humane silence remained, they became more trusting of the enemy. All it took was one person waving to indicate something bigger than humans themselves. One man waving became five, then fifteen, and so forth. One man from the Germans waving became five, then fifteen, and so forth. The lines became blurred as the solemn feeling of a melody drifting had surfaced. The melancholy tune of Oh Holy Night emerged from the broken souls' lips as a beg that no one truly knew the purpose of. Whether it be they wanted to be shot, or they wanted to be heard, not by the whispers of gunshots but by a crying voice much louder than the former in meaning. If Christmas caroling in the trenches was their hubris, they were too mentally gone to accept any other fate. The crying harmony was hard to be heard over the commander's screams to be quiet, but even at some point, they were too tired to give up.
Then, someone made the ultimate calculated risk.
Two British soldiers looked at each other with glassy eyes, nodded, and climbed out of the trenches. Hands on their head they did away with their officer's commands and sprinted. The song Oh Holy Night never ceased to stop being crooned from either side.
The British soldiers stopped in the middle of No Man's Land. Through the fog and mist appeared a mirror of themselves in German uniform. While the outfit may have been different, the eyes, the hands, the quiver of their lips as they made eye contact was uncanny. The four men stood there for a minute in which everything else faded except them. No one would chase them back, these four men could run away together and live on their lives MIA in peace. Everyone would just assume they killed each other. After a long while of staring, German soldier Hoffman shook hands with Lieutenant Adams.
"Dies ist ein so langer Krieg und wir sind alle so müde,"
This has been such a long war, and we're so tired.
In that second, the men's mind fell apart. How could someone so horrible and vile and disgusting and-
They aren't vile. They're me. They are everything I am scared of and proud of.
What a shame that these mirrored men had to meet with their minds in shambles.
The men in whatever broken answer they could muster explained what the next twenty-four hours would look like. A truce would be called until the end of Christmas, at midnight. During this truce, no guns would be fired, no acts of aggression would be tolerated, and no opposite soldier could enter their trenches. The men faced away, ran to their respective trench, and told the news.
After everyone was aware of this arrangement, alcohol was gathered. The Brits took all the goods they had, including one soccer ball. Twenty men each approached the center of No Man's Land and saw the Germans reflecting their actions. They had brought a single plum along with two bottles of German-style beer. The conversations were the same as the first in which all of them realized how similar they were. The feeling of talking to these enemies was the same as meeting an old primary school friend. The soldiers felt like they all came from the same place. The image of the horrible, good-for-nothing, inhuman beings on the other side was shattered with a single handshake.
Throughout the day, the soldiers lied on the field speaking. There were a few people who spoke a little of either language and translated for circles of people. The main topics discussed how tired they were, how they thought the war was going to end, and similar matters. There was no point in a conversation where either side wished them well. No one planned to be encouraging, at least until Adams threw the soccer ball at Hoffman. There was a moment of silence and being stunned until Hoffman came up laughing. From that point, the two opposite battalions formed up into a soccer game. The scores of the game from Christmas day aren't truly remembered, but it is a fact that the match ended in belly laughs and drinking those three bottles of alcohol to the last drop.
The entire time, the men felt as if they were in some sort of haven. The same soil that grenades were launched over is now where enemies were singing drunken songs alike. Despite the lack of verbal communication, everything felt so... human. For the first time after a long time, the anxiety and depression faded into happy tunes. The two troops almost seemed to combine into one barrage of laughs and jokes, like a family reunion. By the end of their time in No Man's Land, they felt like a family.
The time was around six o'clock, three hours after the sun had set. Even though the sun would set early in Germany, the commanding officers took this as the beginning of the end. Leaders on both sides commanded everyone to return to the trenches and get ready for midnight. This exchange was probably the weirdest of the entire truce. The glances at the opposite side were now with the hyper awareness that they were to kill each other in six hours. Some took those six hours to rest until they heard gunshots, and others on the German side sang Oh Holy Night until eleven o'clock. This time there was no response from the British.
Surprisingly, even the commanding officers were too moved to begin yelling orders at midnight. They looked around at their slightly tipsy men and collectively decided to hold off things until the other side decided to shoot. However, the whistle of a bullet never crossed the field until six in the morning the next day. For six whole hours, officers sat with their eyes closed, waiting to hear anything. At three in the morning, the only thing heard from the other side was:
"Hat dir das Bier gefallen?" Did you like the beer?
One British soldier had replied saying it was weak but they were grateful. That was the only thing heard that night.
The Germans were the first to fire. Three whistles came by and hit the "A Merry Christmas" sign. Eventually, the same happened to the German's sign. Lieutenant Adams cringed inwardly as he continued orders. Everything humane that these men had built together was gone. In mere seconds, all the care and attention given to their words was wiped away with explosions. Nobody was looking back. Every bullet fired was ten times louder than before Christmas. Though it was too far to hear, the soldiers would swear they could hear the breaking of their new friends' bones when they shot.
Adams eventually had to pick up a sniper after the previous wielder was shot down. He put his eyes through the scope and saw Hoffman, pointing at him with his sniper. Both of the men were too afraid to look away. There were a split few moments before either fired. The same, mirrored thoughts were running through their heads:
Oh, Holy Night,
How could someone so horrible and vile,
stars are brightly shining,
They are everything I am scared of and proud of,
It is the night,
This has been such a long war, and we're so tired.
of our dear savior's birth.
Both men closed their eyes and fired at each other. Neither missed their target.