By: David Patten
A landscape of mud. Thick, invasive. Like a disease it spreads and clings, fueled by the autumn rains that have pummeled the endless fields of Flanders. Now, with the onset of winter, comes a hardening as the frigid air coats the mud with a shell, until the next thaw once more releases it.
Unforgiving, this landscape. Nothing to redeem the harsh shades of brown and black. Bruised and brooding, the low December sky rolls over the battlefields, resolute in its indifference. Wood frames and sandbags encased in grime as they give shape and symmetry to the network of trenches. Horses, limbs in a tomb of clay, stand forlorn in deep puddles. Just beyond the horizon the charred and jagged edges of Ypres.
No nature’s song here, the birds long exiled by artillery that has gouged the land into submission. Young men, adversaries in a conflict they don’t understand, dwell a hundred yards apart in deep man-made fissures. Tomorrow arrives a counterpoint to challenge the malevolence, the first since hostilities began. Christmas Eve.
Two privates from one of the Welsh regiments were the first to notice. Through the periscope they spotted dozens of small beacons along the top of the German trench. Candles, the tiny flames reaching out into the twilight. Word spread and soon the British trench is abuzz, soldiers queuing to look through the viewfinder with disbelieving eyes. The barrage ceased, a dissonant sound punctures the air. The Germans are singing carols.
The following morning an impromptu and unauthorized gathering, as ragged and weary men from both trenches converge on the sludge and frozen earth of no man’s land. Many remain concealed though, distrustful, yet with an uneasy gratitude for the lull. Men roll cigarettes, make small talk. A German officer breaks open a bottle of Schnapps. Somebody kicks a ball high into the air and a disorganized game ensues. Laughter and handshakes as these men, thrown together as combatants on Belgian soil, cling resolutely to life.
The day after. No more gatherings, the carol singers now quiet. A steady rain has erased the candles. Officers in both trenches bark orders, using their boots to shake men out of reverie. The screech of ordnance as a shell hits no man’s land, sending shrapnel in search of targets. In both trenches young men press hard into the sandbags, their lives once more in the balance.
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