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Ruth Dempsey

Ireland

Christmas in the War

April 19, 2016

I pull the thin jacket closer to my body as the ground shakes. Even the newest recruits have stopped jumping at the noise. These explosions call out like old friends as if we'd miss them during the brief silences.
"God damn this cold its a tactical disadvantage. I bet theres guns pointed at our heads right now," Smith complains to no one in particular.
"We're at war, theres always guns pointed at us," Paddy mutters. 
"Don't speak to me like I'm a fool Patrick. Can you not see whats right in front of your eyes?" Smith spits. 
"What are you on about now Smithy?" I ask, the old mans ramblings are the closest things we have to entertainment most of the time. 
"I can see my breath," Smith starts.
"We're sitting in a half frozen ditch on Christmas eve, of course its gonna be cold, " Paddy snaps as he throws a stray bullet casing at a nearby rat.
"If I can see my breath then so can the enemy."
"C'mere for a second Smith and look over the top there. Now can you see the enemys breath? No?  Of course you bleeding cant cause they're all the way over there. Any questions?"
"I feel like a damn train," Smithy mutters. 
"So he does have a sense of humour," Paddy laughs and roughly pats the older man on the back.
"Its midnight. Merry Christmas everyone," a voice booms through the troops. I hear a few cheers but most people seem miles away, and i guess they are. 
Smithy stares at nothing, his face clouded with memories. Rumours have been whispered into my ear about his wife and son dying suddenly. Some people theorize that Smith killed his family but if they could the sadness in his eyes at this moment theyd regret those thoughts.  This is the look of a man who has lost everything. 
Paddy looks at a faded and dogeared photograph and gently strokes the faces of his family. He couldnt get work in Ireland so he left to join the army in order to provide for his wife and four children. Paddy gently places the photograph back into his breast pocket and takes a moment to compose himself. 
"Nollaig shona duit ya English bastards," Paddy yells. 
"What the hell did he say?" Smithy jumps.
"I was saying merry Christmas to yous in my native language ya old git," Paddy smirks. 
"You're too loud,"
"Oh did yous hear this? Smith says im too loud?  Well if you ask me I say its Christmas and we're not loud enough," Paddy laughs and drapes an arm around my shoulder, "how about we sing some festive songs then?"
Quickly the singing grows and i realize that the German soldiers have also joined in and the atmosphere feels lighter. 
"Wait whats that noise?" I ask, tapping Paddys shoulder. 
"Whats what?  Its singing," Paddy shrugs me off. 
"I could've swore that i heard a brass band."
"Are you going mad?" 
"I'm pretty sure I'm sane. Do you really not hear that?"
"Wait,  your madness must be contagious cause I think I hear it too.  Do the Germans have a bloody brass band?" Paddy stops for a moment, "well what are we doing? We cant let them have all the fun."
Carols can be heard everywhere and before we know it the sun is rising. I hear a commotion a little further down the trenches and people start running to look over the top. I join my fellow soldiers and watch as German soldiers slowly make their way across no mans land. 
"What are those eejits doing? Thats just suicide," Paddy exclaims. 
"I havent heard any explosions or gunfire in a while, maybe its a surrender?" I ask. 
"It must be a trap," Smithy watches the scene carefully, his eyes searching for any possible tricks. 
"I dont see any weapons," I whisper. The battlefield has never been this quiet and it feel wrong for me to be the one to break the silence.
"Maybe they just want to join our caroling," Paddy jokes. 
The German soldiers are shouting something and they are finally close enough to hear their words clearly. 
"Merry Christmas," they call out in English.
"See I told you," Paddy laughs. 
Slowly people start to climb out of the trenches to greet the German soldiers. I shake hands with a young man who couldnt be much older than I8.
"Walter," he says as an introduction.
"Jimmy," I smile back. 
With the language barrier few words are spoken but connections are made. I see Paddy and a German man show each other the precious photographs of their loved ones. Some men start to exchange gifts and Walter shares some chocolate with me. I give him a pack of cigarettes as it is the only thing i have to give.
Some people have taken up the solemn task of retrieving the bodys of the fallen soldiers as someone gets a football and a friendly match begins. Jackets are thrown on the ground as goalposts and i feel like a kid again. I see Smithy struggling to carry a body with bullet wounds in the chest and i run to help him. 
"Don't mind me boy, I've got him. Go back to your game," Smithy coughs and dismisses me. Another German man sees this, nods to me and insists on helping Smithy. 
It is amazing to see these men celebrating together but the harmony doesnt last long. The explosions begin again in the distance and we have to disperse.  We exchange quick farewells and as we are running to the trenches my head is full of questions. How are we going to fight now?  Before they were the faceless enemy. Now they are the kind men who gave us a Christmas in the war. When will the war end? Will Walter die at my hands?
Who will survive to tell the tale of this strange Christmas?

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  • April 19, 2016 - 5:01am (Now Viewing)

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