Christmas in the trenches and a year that’s nearly done


A seasonal commentary by Derek Bateman

The guns fell silent and white flakes drifted gently down from a lowering sky. On one side, concealed within the deep scar of a trench, crouched the defenders –the Patriots – still reliving the last furious encounter with the enemy. On the other side of the desolate field, cratered with the remains of constant bombardment, the British Bombardiers Company (BBC) wondered whether yet another broadcast plea to the rebels was worth trying.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

Then, quite suddenly, a head appeared at the lip of the little gully. Eyes peered through the billowing snow towards the Patriots. A ragged garment – was it a dirty cotton vest – broke surface tied to a splinter of wooden pit prop. Slowly, arms extended on either side, the green-clad figure emerged fully on the empty plain. The tattered flag hung limply from his hand. A whistle sounded and, clearly echoing in the stillness, a voice bellowed: ‘Enemy in sight.’ The ratcheting sound of weapons being cocked could be heard. Followed by more silence.

Instead of the exploding bedlam of frightened men firing erratically, the still silence persisted. On either side exhausted fighters lay in the cold mud, each praying to himself that it would continue. One whispered: ‘What’s written on the flag?’ Holding the binoculars steady his mate read slowly: ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation.’

Down the line a Patriot climbed unsteadily out of the freezing earth tomb and moved stiffly towards the other man. Behind him, eyes widened at the sight of an unarmed man risking everything in a deadly arena where the slightest movement always triggered a fusillade. They approached each other carefully, eyes never leaving the other, until they were close enough to touch.

Each saw, not a combatant nor an enemy, but a mirror image of himself. As they stood, uncomprehending, irregular lines of uniformed men were converging slowly all along the trench lines. At first language was difficult but soon the sound of animated conversation and laughter resounded in the snowy air.

Cigarettes were exchanged, chocolate shared. A football bumped through shell craters.

Minutes later, without signal, the lines began drifting apart, reversing at first then turning their backs. One by one the figures disappeared back into the ground, to await the order to fire. The void of no man’s land was restored as if nothing had ever happened. The silence descended again with the snow, unbroken by birdsong.

Merry Christmas, one and all…