“What are those cabbage-eating bastards saying now?” said Sergeant Trevor MacAllister, 1st Coldstream Guards.
The prisoner, his hands bound and his English passable, said, “His words are ‘Comrades. Come meet us.’”
The German voice carried across a no-man’s land that might have once been called a landscape. Trees were blasted and splintered, upended, trunks buried in the slurried muck, roots torn free of the soil and clawing at a grey morning sky. Chevaux de frise were scattered across the battlefield like tumbled crucifixes strung with barbed wire.
The men of the Coldstream clutched at their Enfields and peered over the sandbagged edge of the trench.
“Engländer. Nicht schießen. Es ist Weihnachten!”
Corporal Archibald Williams nudged the prisoner with his boot. “And that, boche?”
The German, a private, straightened his pickelhaube, that spike-topped helmet favored by his unit. “He says, ‘British. Do not shoot. It is Christmas.’”
Some hours earlier, night had cloaked this frozen battlefield at the western flank of the British line. Trevor and his mates huddled around small wood fires, some dozing with heads pillowed on the man next to him, some on watch, all trying to stay warm.
From the German lines 30 meters to the north, the Coldstream heard voices. Trevor whispered the alarm and men hauled themselves from the muck, coming up on line as if armed golems, born of mud.
They sighted their Enfields, waiting for a charge they knew must be coming. The distant voices changed in pitch. The Boche, were they singing? The Coldstream lowered their rifles and strained to hear the words.
“O heilige Nacht…”
“… the stars are brightly shining,” the prisoner began to sing along.
“You speak English?” Corporal Williams said.
“Ja. When I was boy, before all this, my father was a stonecutter at the quarries in Dorsett. I still have a girlfriend there. Her name is Beatrix. I am Heinz.”
“Grand. Just grand,” Corporal Williams said, turning back to the line as the singing continued.
“Fallen auf die Knie…”
“O hear, the angel’s voices…” One by one, the men of Coldstream began to sing along. “O night, diviiine. O-oh night, when Christ was born.”
Now in the cold light of day, the German voice called again, “Kamaraden! Wir haben ein geschenk!”
“Heinz?” Trevor looked to the German.
“They say they have a gift.”
Trevor looked north and saw two figures climbing from the German trench, both with hands in the air. Both unarmed. One wore a steel pot helmet and the insignia of the 16th Bavarian Infantry. The second wore a bloodied bandage covering a neck wound. Trevor recognized him as Lieutenant Byron Mills-Haven, their platoon leader whom they thought lost in action three days prior.
Trevor considered the situation. He stepped down from the wall and faced their captive. He drew his bayonet from its scabbard and said, “On your feet, Heinz.”
Stiff-legged, Heinz struggled to his feet. Trevor stepped forward, raised his bayonet, and cut the hemp cords from the German’s wrists. He sheathed the blade, stepped back, and motioned to the trench ladder.
“After you, mate. Slowly.”
They came to stand above ground, Heinz rubbing the circulation back into his wrists. From north and south, the two pairs threaded their way cautiously through the barbed wire: German-British, British-German, separated by mud and ideology and joined by something deeper that seemed to have awoken in the moment.
“Sir,” Trevor greeted his commander. “Bloody glad to see you in one piece.”
“Glad to have all pieces in my possession, sergeant,” Mills-Haven replied.
He gestured to the German soldier at his side. “I’d introduce you to my host, Corporal Steuben.” Nods were exchanged all around.
Trevor looked to his own German captive. “Well, Heinz, it appears you’re to be repatriated. Your mates must think highly of you to trade a British lieutenant for a simple private as yourself.”
“We are as brothers,” Heinz said as he traded positions with the British lieutenant.
The four of them stood as they considered what should come next.
Trevor reached into the pocket of his wool trench coat and extracted a box of Dunhills. He tapped out two and offered them to
Steuben produced a wooden match. He flicked it to life with his thumbnail and offered the light to Trevor. Trevor took it.