A Christmas Gift
A short story from my Christmas anthology ‘Red Christmas’.
My Own Edith,
I don’t know how properly to start this letter. The circumstances are different from any under which I ever wrote before. I won’t post it for now but will keep it in my pocket. I write these words on Boxing Day. I never imagined, when this damned war began, that I would still be separated from my sweetheart at Christmas. I miss your voice, your smiling eyes.
We go over the top soon. If the worst happens perhaps someone will post this. If I survive, I will post it to you myself with kisses added. Lieutenant Reith should by rights censor our letters, but I’m told that he hasn’t the heart for it, and I’m hopeful that it will one day reach you intact.
I have your latest letter here; a ray of light in a filthy world. I’m very glad to discover that you appreciate Cornish pasties. So do I, and often eat a hot one when on my way back from town. Can you fancy me climbing the hill, cane in one hand and a hot pasty in the other? Quite a study for one of your snapshots! I look forward to a lifetime finding out more things about you.
Thank you for the socks. They were most welcome. You cannot imagine how awful are the conditions here. The freezing trench is filled with mud, ordure to the knees, worse things that I cannot describe to a lady. One pair of socks kept my feet warm as intended, while the second served well as gloves as I stood watch on Christmas Eve.
I was on the firing step, trying to keep warm, listening to Ames’ gramophone recording of “Roses of Picardy” playing repeatedly. When it ended for the hundredth time, I heard other music in the frosty air. I heard singing from the Hun lines: “Stille Nacht”. Keeping low, I glanced over. There were lighted candles along the lip of the Hun trench, exceedingly pretty in the frosty night. As the carol ended a guttural cry went up.
“English soldier! English soldier! A merry Christmas!”
The Bosche were calling to us. I could not help myself, and answered.
“Glücklich Weihnachten to you too, Fritz!” I shouted, hoping my schoolboy German was correct.
“You sing now, Tommy!” one of them laughed, and sing we did. Through the night we exchanged songs, then came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink, heralding another day of pointless slaughter.
I peered over the wall, my hand gripping my rifle, and my eyes widened. Some ten feet above no-man’s land hovered a strange glowing light, bright in the approaching dawn. It twinkled and shone. No flare this, for it hung motionless, a pure radiance. I reminded me of, well, a star.
You must understand, darling, what living with constant death and dismemberment does to a man. It makes him to fear nothing if he knows that at any moment he may be blown to smithereens. I laid down my rifle and set my foot on the wooden ladder.
“Private Fulton, do not respond!” hissed Lieutenant Reith, “It’s a Bosche trick!”
I ignored Lieutenant Reith and clambered out of the trench. I stumbled over the rutted mud towards the beautiful light. As I reached it, it faded and disappeared and I looked down in disappointment. In a crater at my feet lay perhaps a dozen dead Germans. I then realised one of them was moving, and moaning softly.
“Tommy! Merry Christmas! We come to meet the brave man who greets us! We have wine! Will you share with us?” I looked up to see four Hun walking nervously towards me, arms out, carrying bottles. They were smiling broadly. Were these the savage, brutal barbarians that we had been told about?
“You have a wounded man here!” I beckoned to the approaching Saxons, “Schnell! Schnell!”
The Germans hurried to carry to safety their wounded comrade, one Otto Dix apparently. I do hope he survives. Soldiers from both sides wandered out to join us and we commenced to talk, to laugh. The Germans were not at all evil. They were very decent chaps.
We exchanged cigarettes, chocolate, wine and stories. I showed one man your photograph. He declared you ‘zehr schöne’. He showed me a picture of his three young children, all of them with dark curls and happy smiles. We looked forward to a time when we could embrace our loved ones again.
All Christmas Day we relaxed, conversing and singing together, comrades in an unofficial truce and united in hatred for this bloody war. We wrote our names and addresses on field service postcards, and exchanged them for Bosche ones. We cut buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But our gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans’ eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite they were our friends for ever.
At eight, Lieutenant Reith fired three shots in the air, put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and climbed on the high parapet. The Bosche raised a sheet with ‘Danke’, and the German Captain appeared also. These two bowed, saluted, then dropped into their respective trenches. The Hun fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.
I don’t think I will ever—
It is with real sorrow that I must add to this letter some very bad news about your fiancé, Private Michael Fulton. He played a very gallant part in the attack on the German position made by this regiment on 26th December, 1914. He helped his company commander to a place of safety after the former was wounded, but in doing so was hit by a shell fragment and died immediately. I cannot tell you how sorry I am. Everyone thought so much of him, and admired his fine sturdy character and unfailing cheerfulness.
He it was that led us to maintain the truce described above, and for the gift of peace he gave them on Christmas Day scores of men will be eternally grateful. Let pride then be mingled with your tears. May God comfort and console you.
Lt. John Reith, 8th King’s Own Regt., BEF