A heartwarming holiday tale
The following short story was written by Alexander Galt Regional High School student Rouhan Wallis, and was selected as the winner of a holiday short story contest held by the school’s recently established student newspaper, The Piper Post. Editor Bryan Laprise reached out to The Record to ask if the winner of the contest could have their work published. Without hesitation we accepted. The Record would like to congratulate Ruohan Wallis on this beautifully written story based on the Christmas truce during WWI in 1914.
By Ruohan Wallis
Private James Landon hit the dirt, body pressed against the packed walls of the trench. Heart pounding, he hears the sound of bullets whistling above his head.
“What were you thinking? Use your brain before you listen to your heart! For God’s sake!” roared his commanding officer.
It is a bitter, blustering morning on the Western Front, December 24, 1914. Snow had begun falling during the early hours of dawn and James forgetting where he was, had stood before registering his fatal mistake. He couldn’t help it. It had been so long since he saw something so delicate and beautiful.
“Smart move, mate,” said his fellow soldier and friend William Smith before uttering a forced chuckle. James, still trying to control his pounding heart, gave him a weak smirk. Both knew fully well the brush with death that James had faced but neither said anything. They never talked about it. No one ever did. William glanced up towards the falling snow, a wishful look upon his face before emitting a hollow sigh.
“Some Christmas it will be. To think when we enlisted, we thought we would be stuffing ourselves sick with turkey at home by now.” William let out a mirthless laugh, “How wrong we were.”
As James took in his friend’s grim expression, an overwhelming feeling of longing swept through him.
“The tree would be bedecked, the fireplace lit and roaring,” James let out sadly. “And the food…puddings, trifles, pies. My mother would be making her famous Christmas spice cookies, I’d be eating them by the dozen.”
William spat onto the ground, interrupting his babble. “Fat lot of good this daydreaming will do. We’ll sooner be home then if the damn Germans…” he spat again, “…fly. Some Christmas.” As he was speaking, James’ hand had drifted to a lump in his coat pocket. Where, still half in its wrapper, there was a good sizable chunk of chocolate. His mouth watered at the mere thought of it. Silly as it was, he had wanted to save it for this special occasion. Bring a bit of joy for this joyless Christmas. Already he had decided to share a piece with William, imagining the look of delight that would appear on his friend’s face. For now, he had to be careful until then, for it was worth its weight in gold.
As the day went on, the snow gradually began coming down in sheets. By nightfall it was so thick that one could barely see their hand if they had waved it in their face. The temperature plummeted. Groups of soldiers huddled together in hopes of keeping warm. Crouched in such a huddle, his shoulders rubbing against the others while breathing in the stale breath of his fellow soldiers, James was far from comfortable. For a countless time that day, his mind wandered to the snow topped cottages of his little town. From a frost covered window, light and warmth spilled out. Gazing through he watched as his mother placed an enormous turkey on the already heavily laden table. His father walked in and placed a kiss on her cheek. In the next room, stood the Christmas tree shining in all its glory. Underneath it, his siblings ran to and fro causing a racket while his grandfather surveyed the scene, a content smile on his face. His mother called out and in everyone came, taking a place at the table. If only…
A soft murmur broke the moment, the sound of laughter and joy echoing away, bringing James back to his cold, harsh reality. Vexed at the interruption, he lifted his head above the group and peered into the blizzardy darkness, straining to hear this sound and from which direction. There it was again! He saw other heads pop up from their own huddles, swiveling this way and that, trying to locate the source. It seemed to be coming from across ‘no man’s land’ from where the Germans lay. Starting off soft, it had gradually taken strength. James listened, entranced, until it clicked. The Germans were singing! And not just anything, they were singing carols! A feeling of warmth and peace seemed to spread across his body, from his head down to his toes, as he listened to the lyrical melody of voices, rising high and low. Caught in the spur of the moment, James took a deep breath, screwed up his courage and found himself belting the first carol that came to mind. In the beginning, his voice had cracked from lack of practice, but as he continued it became clearer and sharper. The others shot him looks of astonishment or sat gaping or even jeered, but James ignored them, pressing on. For a while, his solitary voice was the only thing to be heard on their side when suddenly, another voice rang into the air joining his, deep and resounding. James found the eyes of William, who gave him a firm nod. With an addition of another voice, one by one the soldiers followed suit, adding their voices to the fray. As the chorus reached its peak, across the battle-scarred land, the melody of the Germans came to a halt. They seemed to be listening to this new development to which they responded louder and more vigorously than before. That’s how they continued, the two sides serenading each other. Their voices mingled in the air creating something otherworldly and beautiful. Back and forth into the night.
Dawn had broken when the Germans first stepped onto ‘no man’s land’. The snow had stopped shortly before and with the sun peeking out of the horizon, it illuminated the snow-covered land. All the while giving a sharp contrast against the figures who were their enemy. A ripple of bewilderment seemed to go down the trench. James had instinctively whipped out his rifle and aimed it at them. All around him, soldiers had done the same but not a shot was fired. They stood there motionless with only the wind blowing through their quiet uncertainty. The Germans were moving closer and closer. James could now make out that some were waving handkerchiefs while others held makeshift flags, the tattered white fabric flapping in the wind.
“No way this is real. No way. I should order them to shoot,” muttered an officer behind James.
James regarded his sworn enemies. He thought of the carols they exchanged, the joy he had felt, and it was Christmas for God’s sake! By his side, William had the same look of contemplation. Their gazes met and they shared a brusque nod. Amid gasps of disbelief, they threw down their rifles, climbed out of the trench and crossed over the barbed wire. Before anyone could change their minds, they took their first step onto ‘no man’s land’.
The officer bellowed out at them, “What in the hell do you think you’re doing! Get back here this instant!”
James’ heart was thumping, but he and William paid him no mind and continued to step forward. Then they heard, “Hey, now what do you think you’re doing! Don’t go following them! Hey, stop! STOP!”
Aroused by James’ and Williams’ example, the others had followed. They poured out from the trenches and came to match their pace beside them. Onwards they walked with the ugly destruction hidden by the bright clean snow, the surrounding quiet, almost peaceful. They met in the middle, British and Germans fanning out, facing each other. There they stood in the deafening silence until one held out a hand.
“Here! Pass me the ball!” a teammate called out.
James maneuvered the ball, kicking up snow before passing it neatly to his teammate. After the ice had broken between the soldiers, a ball had been pulled out. If one could call it a ball, it was more a thing of scraps and ‘no man’s land’ turned into a soccer field. It was the British versus the Germans, but for the most part they played for fun. The soldiers were more interested in showing off their fancy footwork.
Sometime later, James flopped down onto the ground panting, giving someone else a chance to play. In the cloudless sky, the sun was shining brightly above them, and it felt good as James stretched his face towards it. Suddenly a shadow fell over him, as someone sat down next to him. James looked over. A German he noted. He was young, around James’ age of 18 or 19 with shockingly blond hair and brilliant blue eyes.
“Beautiful day, huh?” the German said.
James did a double take. “You speak English?” he returned, impressed.
“Yes, I learn a bit at school before war,” the German responded, he smiled. “My name is Fritz,” he held out his hand. “And you?”
Over the course of the next hour, James found himself in an engaging and lively exchange. In faltering English, he came to know Soldat Fritz Huber, the eldest in the family with three “wild but sweet” sisters. Fritz was from Munich, “the most beautiful city” and dreamed of becoming an engineer. “I like building things”. Gradually the conversation moved to Christmas and their traditions. “I miss my family. Christmas isn’t Christmas without them.” James had admitted. Fritz nodded in agreement, “Yes, I wish I am home with them, my mama make big zimtsterne, they like your Christmas cookies. They shaped like stars. They are the best.”
James’ eyes lit up. “Mine does too! I miss them,” he added sadly.
They sat there in wishful silence, their minds far away. Fritz opened his mouth, about to say something when one of his German comrades shouted out at him, gesturing for Fritz to join the game. Fritz seemed to hesitate, glancing over at James.
“Go,” James said.
Fritz stood, shrugging his coat off. “Watch my coat for me, yea?” he said jokingly before he grinned and ran to join the others.
As James watched him go, a feeling of disappointment spread through him. Strangely, even though they’d just met, he felt as if he knew Fritz for his entire life. He had this same sensation of closeness that he shared with William. Was it wrong? He was supposed to be his enemy. He sighed, his mind spinning, before mindlessly watching the game. Suddenly a thought struck him—the chocolate! With all that had happened, it had flown clear out of his mind. He now took it out, the gold wrapper glinting in the sun. Eagerly, he tore open part of it, prepared to break off a piece but he couldn’t do it, something had come over him. He thought of Christmas and its meaning. Giving. He glanced at Fritz’s coat, then at the chocolate, then at Fritz on the ‘field,’ then back at the chocolate. It’s silky brown that was tantalizing,and promising to be creamy and rich. Nonetheless, James slowly folded the wrapper back on and without a second thought slipped it into Fritz’s coat pocket.
The sun was setting on the Western Front and Christmas was coming to a close. Shouts of “Merry Christmas” in English and German resonated in the air before the soldiers trudged back to their respective trenches. James and Fritz stood, facing each other, the setting sun illuminating their faces. Gripping each other’s hand, they nodded curtly upon which they turned heading off in opposite directions. Their backs receding, the distance between British and German growing ever further.
Back in enclosed walls of the trench, James leaned against one of its firm walls. He rubbed his weary face, slowly coming back to his stark reality. What a day it had been. A gust of icy wind blew in, prompting him to pull his coat more tightly across him. As he did, his hand brushed over a strange bulge in his pocket. Puzzled, James reached into its depths pulling out a lumpy bundle. Carefully he unfolded the handkerchief which hid its mysterious contents, and gasped, almost dropping the bundle. Inside, nestled against the stained handkerchief lay five perfect star-shaped cookies.