The Human Miracle
24th December 1914
‘One minute, lads.’
Captain Aland’s static eyes are fixed upon the watch on his wrist. With his other shaking hand, he holds his silver whistle to his mouth. In just one minute, its shrill tone will signal that it’s time to go. Time to leave the sanctuary of the muddy, waterlogged trench and race into no man’s land; a hopeless and compassionless place where angry machine gun fire ripples through air heavy with smoke, ash and misery. Where grenades bring about unimaginable suffering and death through fire and rage. Where few are found alive.
James looks from his captain to the men around him. Their faces are rigid with the chill and the debilitating anxiety. He can barely feel his own racing heart beat through the piercing cold. Maybe it’s frozen, like everyone else’s. For in a place like this, men’s hearts had long ago hardened and now horror and despair sit and refuse to leave, wrapping themselves cruelly around the men, dragging them into the deepest parts of despondency.
‘Thirty seconds,’ Captain Aland says, eyes still glued to his watch. ‘Good luck, everyone.’
James is glad he can’t see the watch; every sordid tick and every vile tock must send another twisted dagger through the once hopeful heart of his captain. Every sharp breath in is another dark step towards the inevitable push and probable failure. James thinks of his father. Of how proud he would be of his son at this moment.
True bravery, my boy, is doing the very thing that you are most afraid of doing!
And James thinks he will be brave. Courageous enough to fly out into the fray and scream as he hopes to avoid a bullet to the brain or a sudden end in fire, ash and fury. He has seen men with lost limbs and shattered hopes. One man was carted back to the trenches with what looked to be half his face missing. Could this be his own fate?
Better not to know. Better just to prepare…
A soldier James doesn’t recognise comes tumbling around the corner. His red face shows a desire for exhortation and… could that be hope in his eyes?
‘What is it, man!?’ Captain Aland fumes. ‘Can’t you see we’re getting ready to-’
‘The Germans, Sir,’ the soldier interrupts. ‘They’ve stopped firing. They’re coming out of their trenches unarmed.’
James feels as though he has strayed into a dream. The Germans sing Christmas carols. They have erected decorated trees at their trenches. They meet with the Brits and they are companionable. More than this, they are kind. Up until now, it has been easy to ignore the fact that they are fellow human beings; men with families, dreams and ambitions. People who have known heartache, love and loss, happiness and pleasure, success and failure. Because until this moment when both sides have lain down their arms and now shake hands and sing together, James and his fellow soldiers had barely seena German. They had known them only through the sounds of battle and the occasional smoky silhouette many yards away. Now that James can see their eyes, feel the touch of their hands, recognise the same look of temporary relief on their faces that he feels in his own heart and soul, he realises with a profound weight that both sides in this war are not so different.
Word spreads swiftly that a ceasefire has been agreed until zero-hundred hours on Saturday morning, the twenty-sixth of December. And as James leaves his trench and wanders no man's land, greeting men who moments before had been his bitter enemies, he can’t help but feel somewhat lucky. These last three months have been the hardest of his entire life. He has made new friends. Lived, worked and fought side by side with them, only to watch them fall in flurries of gunpowder and smoke. As the battlefield has grown duller and greyer, it has opened its great mouth wider to claim countless men like James, swallowing them whole and spitting out the bones of shock, terror and endless sorrow with a grin on its wicked face. But tonight and tomorrow they will be granted a temporary reprieve. And oh, how James’ heart will not allow him to think of what comes afterwards.
Each side has given the other leave to recover their dead. And in all directions, a mixture of German and British troops help each other to carefully carry their fellow fallen men. A mere few hours before, James would have thought this an impossible scenario, but now it just adds to the growing number of miracles happening all around him.
Could it be that I’ve died? James thinks. That all of this is simply my imagination? A result of my last fleeting hope? That war would be over and enemies could become friends?
But no. James decides that this really must be happening. Because never in his wildest dreams could he ever have imagined it.
‘Hallo. Darf ich mich Ihnen anschließen?’
James is sitting at the top of a muddy hill, looking down at the incredible scene below. The troops are now exchanging simple gifts and drinking beer together. The singing continues, and in fact gets louder as the night darkens. He looks around to find the voice that has spoken. A German soldier around the same age as James.
‘Sorry mate,’ he says. ‘I don’t speak a word of German.’
‘Ich wünschte, ich würde Englisch sprechen. Ich kann dich nicht verstehen.’
James offers his hand to the man. ‘James.’
The soldier takes it firmly and shakes. ‘Oskar.’
James remembers the words of his father before he left for the war:
Go on, son! Show those damn Huns they shouldn’t have started a fight with Great Britain! Send the old good-for-nothings back to Berlin!
His father had talked about the Germans as though they weren’t human. As though they were a sort of unkempt and secret form of creature that lived in the sewers. Something to be cleaned away and forgotten about. But here James sees many men like himself, no doubt with fathers like his own saying similar things about the Brits. And all of a sudden the whole war seems more than a little derisory.
James turns to Oskar. ‘What do you suppose we’re all fighting for?’
‘Ich verstehe nicht,’ Oskar says.
‘I mean, for my own nation, I understand completely. Your side started it all, you know. Your country is in the wrong. There’s no doubt about that.’
A clink of bottle against bottle rings in the air as a German captain toasts with a British soldier. They laugh heartily and the captain pats the British man on the back.
‘But when it comes to you and I, Oskar,’ James continues. ‘What are we fighting each other for? Why is it that common men like us must go to war against one another?’
James sees Oskar look upon his own side’s trenches. Many of the trees have now been lit somehow and joined by small lanterns emitting a warm and enchanting glow that does not belong in a war zone. James imagines what his father would say now if he could see him sit with an enemy “Hun” in peace.
‘Do you have a family, Oskar?’
‘Familie?’ Oskar says, raising his eyebrows. He unzips one of the pockets of his coat and produces a photograph before handing it over to James. The image shows Oskar standing with a man who looks like a younger version of himself. At each side of them is a couple. A mother and father, no doubt. Each black and white face looks happy. Content.
‘Mein... mein Bruder,’ Oskar tells James. ‘Und meine Eltern.’
Something in the way Oskar says “Bruder” makes it plainly obvious to James. That sorrowful, longing tone. It almost sounds like a lament to a prized and loved thing which has long since passed into memory.
‘Your brother…’ James says. ‘Is he…?’
Oskar looks at the ground as he speaks. ‘Tot. Im Kampf getötet.’
A silence falls between the pair. James grips on to the photograph, holding on to it tightly but carefully, recognising how precious a thing it is. It may be the only photograph Oskar has of his brother. He stares at the pair of them, smiling at the camera with their parents. How long ago was this taken? Was life happy then? Could they have predicted the oncoming turmoil? If only James could dive into that photograph, swim through the stitches of time and tell them not to risk any of it.
Don’t go to war! It’s not worth the heartache and pain and death! For the love of all that is good in this world, stay at home!
James hands the photograph back to Oskar, who smiles sadly and nods his head.
James grimly considers the fate of Oskar’s brother. If a gunshot killed him how likely is it that the bullet came from James’ own gun? If a grenade decided his fate, could James’ own arm have thrown it?
‘Well, I say,’ James sighs. ‘This is certainly a moment for the history books, isn’t it? If the likes of you and I are ever remembered.’
Christmas Day 1914 is a day, James thinks, that all of these men will remember for the rest of their lives. Gifts continue to exchange between the opposing forces; tobacco, coffee, drawings of soldiers’ families. Songs continue to fill the cold and still air around them, often the very same song sung concurrently in both English and German. A lively game of football is played. It even snows a little. Just a touch. Not enough to worsen the gruelling conditions of the battle but enough to make it feel as though it really is Christmas Day.
Enough peace is kindly given on both sides to allow the men to bury some of their dead. It’s a sombre occasion of course, but it’s also a dignified one; what fortune had graced the very souls of these men that they were allowed a proper burial during war time. James is mystified by the strange feeling to be handing over the body of a man slain by his own people to those that want to bury him. And they receive the fallen not with fury but with thanks and goodwill. Captain Aland spends much of the day writing letters. James wonders if his own name will ever appear on one of these before being sent to his father.
At midnight they will be hard at it again. The guns will resume firing. The bombs will sound their furious death screams. Men who moments before were friends will once more become bitter enemies by the will of their commanders. Who will fire the first shot? Who will break the temporary bond? What evil hex is it that can turn hands which had once freely given gifts to soldiers on the opposite side into hands that fire bullets which end those very men's lives? How could it be that these men will one day sing songs and play games together only to turn on each other the very next day?
Yes, this Christmas Day is one that will live on in our minds until the end of our lives. Mind you, for some of us, that’s not very long at all.
When the day begins to darken, the men on both sides return to their trenches with heavy hearts and stifled spirits. As James climbs down into his, he takes one last look at the battlefield. The trench opposite, only fifty or so yards away, is the one he and his fellow soldiers will be sent to attack upon the blowing of that damn silver whistle. And the last thing he sees there is Oskar, a dismal look on his face as the ground swallows him.
James wonders if he’ll ever find his bones.