The broken poppy, p.11
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       The Broken Poppy, p.11

           Alice Catherine Carter
 
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CHAPTER SEVEN

  Belgium, 1914.

  25th December 1914.

  Day....

  As you may have noticed I did not write what day of my war it was, simply because I have lost count of the days. I only know the date because it is Christmas Day, which is always December 25th. Yesterday Sergeant P. Turner announced to our platoon that there would be a truce for Christmas day and Christmas night. Peace. When I heard the news, I and everyone else around me let out a breath of relief. No battles would be fought, so perhaps just maybe the Germans were not creations of the devil but they were human, like us - although I suppose they think we are just as bad. Which I guess we are - both sides are acting like a devil towards one another, a bully with weapons and money, acting on some absurd command from people at the top. It is the grim truth of the matter; otherwise we would not be at war. We have had small breaks of peace before; to bury the dead and to collect the bodies and yesterday we even had a joint burial with the Germans. It was strange but almost nice and respectful to the fallen on both sides. The winter has been cold and is only getting colder. Snow has fallen every so often, but thankfully it has been relatively light, although I cannot say the same for the rain.

  At the beginning of the week when Rob and I were on sentry duty, looking through the binoculars, we had seen the Germans decorating their trenches and putting up Christmas trees, across their stretch of no man’s land. On Tuesday, we began to follow suit. Men have even been shouting Christmas greetings to each side. Rob being Rob, started it off on our side. Out of the blue and quite at random he began singing, well almost shouting his greeting.

  “Happy Christmas, happy Christmas. You might live to see another one, but then again maybe not!” Rob sang.

  Needless to say I along with Johnnie and Tim gave him a strange look, which he of course ignored with a laugh. Unexpectedly though people on both sides began to follow his lead and it almost became natural. Before the truce had been announced to us however, some fearless soldiers on both sides believed that due to the lack of complete hostility, they would be able to walk across no man’s land and live to tell the tale. Well of course they did not. Most of this occurred at the beginning of the week however when the truce had not officially been announced. About midday today, even though the tension between us was reduced greatly and there was a truce, it was still unofficial, we were not putting our trust in the Germans word completely. So I was still given my turn of Sentry duty along with Rob. Nothing was occurring, no bullets were being fired and no shells were launched. No advancement was being made, until the turn of the morning. Rob spotted them before me, well he does have eyes like an eagle so it didn’t surprise me.

  “Here they come” Rob said.

  I responded to his acknowledgement by taking my binoculars and seeing for myself. Rob was right and sure enough there may have been about twenty Germans advancing across no man’s land. This lack of enemy numbers already struck me as odd and every hunting instinct in my human body was telling me that this was not meant for attack. I trusted my instincts and followed their message.

  “Rob wait. I don’t think they’re coming for a battle” I said.

  “But they’re Germans?” Rob responded confused.

  “Just wait” I said as I left my post.

  “Thomas, where on earth are you going? You’re not meant to leave the post, under any circumstance remember!” Rob shouted after me.

  “I’m getting Sergeant P. Turner” I replied still walking forwards.

  “Why?!” Rob pressed.

  I ignored him and quickly located Sergeant P. Turner who was having a cup of tea with Roger. Needless to say as soon as they saw me a mixture of emotions flashed across their faces.

  “Thomas? What are you doing here? Aren’t you on sentry duty with Rob?” Roger asked.

  “I am but-” I said, as I was cut off by Sergeant P. Turner.

  Sergeant P. Turner took the time to put his cup of tea on the table and then cleared his throat.

  “Yes he is meant to be on sentry duty. Private what the hell are you doing?” Sergeant P. Turner pressed.

  “Well I think you should. Never mind, just come and you’ll see for yourself” I replied.

  I led the way to my post and they followed, Rob was still on duty but by the time we arrived back however he was not alone. A group of men, including Paul, Timothy and Johnnie were surrounding the post and each were fighting over the binoculars to get a better look. I knew what they had seen and why they were so curious.

  “What the bloody hell is going on! Is this war or a holiday resort?” Sergeant P. Turner shouted.

  The men turned when they heard his raised voice and slowly parted the way so Sergeant P. Turner, Roger and I could get back to the post. As soon as we were there one of the men handed Sergeant P. Turner the binoculars. I remembered what I had seen when I looked through the binoculars. The Germans were not carrying guns but instead about three men were waving a white tissue as a sign of peace and the rest were strangely holding what appeared to be different items, almost like Christmas gifts. The Germans were now no less than thirty feet from our trench and they stopped walking forwards. Confirming my instincts Sergeant P. Turner ordered Rob, Paul, Roger, Timothy, Johnnie, myself and five other men who were standing nearby to come with him, but leave their guns behind. Like the Germans, Rob gave Sergeant P. Turner his white handkerchief and the Sergeant waved it so they could see. We stopped walking when we were about ten feet away and we could look the enemy straight in the eye. The man in front of me was a short man, with light brown hair, olive skin and green eyes. He was wounded and he had a bandage on his left elbow. Sergeant P. Turner stepped forwards into the center and approached the tall man opposite him.

  “What is this?” Sergeant P. Turner said, ordering an explanation.

  The tall man stepped forwards and responded to his question.

  “Ein Geschenk” the German man responded nodding his head.

  Confusion flowed across the men’s face until I blurted out the translation.

  “A present” I said out loud by mistake.

  Without realising I had spoken the translation out loud, a line of heads turned their gaze in my direction.

  “Since when do you speak German?” Rob asked.

  I had in fact learnt German when I was in prison for four years. We had a cell mate who like us, had been caught for thievery. His mother was German and over the years he taught me the language, I actually picked it up fairly quickly and I could now almost speak it fluently.

  Not wanting to go into too much detail I simply replied “four years”. Which was of course my code for ‘prison’ and only Rob understood what I meant.

  “Well I take it you can speak German then Thomas. Please ask them what they are planning to do” Sergeant P. Turner ordered.

  “Sergeant P. Turner hier, will wissen, was Sie woollen” I asked.

  The British men were not the only ones taken slightly aback by the fact that a British man and a soldier at that, could speak the German language. The tall man facing Sergeant P. Turner was the one to speak.

  “Das sind Geschenke, dachten wir, Sie vielleicht einige Notwendigkeiten benötigen. Wir überrascht, dass du in Zahlen. Tut mir leid dass” the man said.

  After I had translated his words in my head I couldn’t help but laugh. It seemed the British are not the only people who possessed comical whit. Sergeant P. Turner nudged my elbow and he wanted the translation.

  “This man” I said cutting myself off, but before I asked my question the German man replied with his answer.

  “Ich bin Friedrich” Friedrich said.

  “Friedrich said these are gifts, we thought you might need some necessities. We surprised you in numbers. Sorry about that” I translated, which responded in a laugh from some of the men.

  “Well um thank you? But we don’t have any gifts to give you. Well unless you need a pair of wire cutters?” Sergeant P. Tu
rner replied.

  Immediately I acted as the translator.

  “Nun danke? Aber wir haben noch keine Geschenke an dich überraschen. Nun, wenn Sie ein Paar Drahtschneider brauchen?” I said.

  The Germans laughed and Friedrich replied “egal, wie etwa ein Fußballspiel statt? Wir hier Englisch sollen gut sein, dass?”

  It was my turn to reply in a laugh then.

  “Well what about a game of football then? We hear you English are supposed to be good at that” I translated.

  A few of the English mumbled in agreement.

  “Well unless you’re Thomas of course” Rob blurted out and I couldn’t help but jokingly glare at him.

  It is true, football or anything athletic to that extent is not my strong point, which is one of the reasons I’m so surprised I have lasted this long and been able to dodge so many near fatal bullets. I guess my only athletic accolade is that I am a pretty decent swimmer and I can run fast, when I need to. Still, miracles never cease to amaze me. It seemed after some glances that everyone was willing to play a ‘friendly’ game of football. Quite an unlikely situation and it was completely bizarre, but then again it was a way of showing the best qualities of humanity amongst the worst. It was ironic.

  Seeing as I was the only person who could speak both languages I became the referee, as well as the translator which is probably just as well. The Germans handed us their gifts and we took them gratefully and put them to one side. We used four of them to set out goal posts for both teams but one problem occurred to me. Where were we going to find a football in no man’s land? I explained the situation to both teams.

  “Just one problem. Has anyone got a football?” I asked.

  When none of the English men answered I tried asking the Germans.

  “Hat jemand einen Fußball?” I said.

  Again there was no immediate response from the Germans and the decision was eventually made for three soldiers on each side to wonder back to their trench, try to locate a football and then come back in ten minutes time. However, Rob had a slightly less complicated idea and he turned towards the British trench where he met the eyes of a few hundred curious men.

  “Does anyone have a football?!” Rob shouted at the top of his lungs.

  Sure enough his question was followed by the sound of shuffling feet and murmurs which was being carried through the air. No more than two minutes had passed when a football that was almost falling apart, was thrown over the trenches and it rolled its way towards Rob. He picked the football up and handed it to me.

  “There you go Thomas. Problem solved” Rob said.

  I acknowledged to the Germans that we had found a football to use and seeing as the ‘goal posts’ had already been set up there had to be a disagreement about something. The simple solution of course would be depending on what side of no man’s land your trench was, that would be your goal, but the Germans were complaining that they would have the sun in their face. After about five minutes of trying to communicate to both teams in both languages I was becoming restless.

  “Come on now. We don’t want a war” Rob said which resulted in a laugh from our side.

  The Germans wanted to know what had been said and one of them tapped me on my arm and so I translated it for them. I pointed to Rob who smiled and waved when he heard his name.

  “Mein Bruder, Rob sagte ‘komm jetzt. Wir wollen nicht einen Krieg’” I translated which made the Germans laugh too.

  Both sides then listened to my instruction and the Germans accepted. The next task was to flip a coin and decide who went first. I did not have a coin on me but one of the German men did and he handed it to me.

  “Danke” I said.

  “Kopf oder Zahl?” I asked the Germans.

  “Kopf” they replied in unison.

  They had chosen heads and I then asked the British team what they wanted.

  “Heads” Sergeant P. Turner affirmed.

  Typical absolutely typical. Why could no one ever choose tails? The funny thing about it was neither team, apart from myself had realised that they had both said the same thing.

  “We could be here for a long time. Too bad it’s only one day of civilization” I mumbled quietly so no one else would hear.

  Eventually I came to the decision that it was easier to lie to everyone, seeing as they would never know the difference anyway. I let the Germans take the football first, simply because they did have a disadvantage with the sun, it was only fair. Before the match, all of the men on both teams shook hands. It was strange and in that very moment I felt as if I was watching one of the many football matches I saw in my childhood, played on the village green back in Little Hadford. It did not feel like I was facing the enemy and who as soon as tomorrow would be able to kill me and the people I cared about.

  The match continued for the next ninety minutes and whenever each side scored a goal, a cheer erupted from the supporting trench. Where it seemed most of the men were watching and most likely wanting to join in. Rob, Tim, Johnnie, Roger and Paul all scored a goal and after the ninety minutes it eventually ended in a draw with both teams scoring five goals. After concluding the match everyone shook hands once again.

  “Who’s up for a game of cricket?” Rob asked sarcastically.

  “Wer ist für ein Spiel der Cricket?” I translated immediately and everyone laughed.

  No one really knew what to do next and the majority of men wandered back to their trenches. For the remaining men it was slightly awkward again due to the language barrier but after about two minutes or so, Rob and Sergeant P. Turner developed a sort of sign language. I looked over at Rob and I saw him offering to cut one of the German’s hair and the German man accepted his offer. The German was a brave man and I can tell you that from memories of my childhood, Rob is not the best barber in the world. I wandered over to the short man with the light brown hair, olive skin and green eyes and I initiated a conversation with him in German. I simply started asking him questions about his life in the trenches and how they were coping.

  “Ich bin Thomas, was ist Ihr Name?” I asked.

  A good way to start a conversation is always by asking someone’s name.

  “Ich bin Edel” Edel replied.

  “Wie geht der Krieg für Sie gewesen?” I said asking him how the war has treated him.

  “Nicht schlecht, auch abgesehen von den Mäusen, die Läuse und Mutter Natur natürlich” Edel said. Explaining to me that it was not too bad, well apart from the mice, the lice and Mother Nature of course. I could not agree more.

  The conversation began to subside in the next two minutes or so and I took my cue to end the conversation I had begun, by wishing him luck.

  “Glück Edel” good luck I said.

  “Auch Sie Thomas” Edel said returning the compliment.

  We shook hands and both wandered on our way. For the rest of the day and evening everyone spent their time enjoying the silence of battle and catching up on much needed rest. It was still not the happiest December 25th I have ever had. There was no Christmas roast and Christmas crackers were hard to come by, so we had to be satisfied with bread and tea.

  Anyone who had a happy home was slightly homesick and as nightfall drew closer we realised that what had happened on no man’s land just a few hours ago, might had well have been an illusion. It was an illusion of humanity. War and bloodshed would still commence in about ten hours’ time and you could feel the fear building again. With many men knowing that this could be their last Christmas and the last day they will ever have. The feeling of homesickness welcomed any happy childhood Christmases back into our minds. If anything it did not help matters, but people still wanted to tell their stories and people still wanted to listen. They wanted to escape, not necessarily to another world, which is the aim of most stories, but back to a world that was.

  After stories had been shared in the cold winter air, silence followed and everyone was suddenly struck with
immense home sickness. Well apart from Rob and I who were struck with feelings of the past and grief. We sat there for the next ten minutes listening to Joseph Williams [who always plays the accordion] play the hymn called ‘Lord of the dance’. It was one of my favourite hymns and I have known it off by heart since I was a young child. I was clearly not the only one who loved the hymn because Tim started singing along. I didn’t even know he could sing and he could, he really could. The melody of the tune was extremely uplifting, with the word dance repeated over and over again, you couldn’t help but tap your feet on the trench stone ground, in tandem with the music. When Timothy reached the second verse, Rob began to sing too and a few men began to hum. By the third verse every man within hearing distance was listening. Aware that Rob and Tim were singing along, Joseph continued to play and with spirit. The song was clearly lifting the spirits of everyone and by the third verse almost everyone was singing, including myself. By the fifth verse everyone had got into the spirit of the song. Two privates [I don’t know their names] had clearly been trained in the art of Irish dancing before the war and they were extremely talented. You could not tell if they knew each other but they were amazing and in complete unison with whatever steps they were orchestrating. By the seventh verse everyone started dancing and if anyone could see us, especially headquarters, people would have thought we were completely insane. Lords, Corporals, Lieutenants were singing, dancing and laughing with ordinary men and this in ordinary society was almost unheard of.

  When the song finished everyone groaned but at least everyone had been uplifted. Rob and Tim decided to continue singing Christmas songs. Everyone joined in again, including Joseph who accompanied them on the accordion. The second song we sang was ‘Silent Night’.

  ‘Silent night, Holy night

  All is calm, all is bright

  Round yon virgin , mother and child

  Holy infant so, tender and mild

  Sleep in heavenly peace,

  Sleep in heavenly peace.

 
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