by Rab Donald
Darling Cecilia, All I want for Christmas is you, yet I am stuck in these trenches, knee deep in mud with the search flares creating an eerie glow of colour midst the smoke of battle. Right now, it is quite literally a blue Christmas, in five minutes it could turn red, then green.
Private Rudolph Deck paused, cursing the cold that numbed his fingers. Writing home was just about the only sanctuary a soldier got from the madness of this war. It possibly mattered little that the letters even arrived, it was simply the time given to reflection, the time spent in the memories of normalcy, in a world of love and hope that gave so many comfort, yet also drove some insane.
A drifting mind allowed him to almost involuntary return to his task.
I imagine, I can actually smell the turkey, the potatoes, the chestnuts roasting on an..
"Open Fire!" The Sergeants yelled command stirred all into action.
Despite everything, the men were still disciplined and immediately responded with a volley of gunfire into the gloom, their heads not remaining exposed for long enough to discern if there had indeed been an enemy advance.
On this occasion, a false alarm. Sgt. Noel Baxter signalled his men to resume cover.
After a few minutes, he beckoned to several soldiers to join him inside the rat-hole
a form of fortified bunker once used by the officers, all of whom had long since departed.
"We know that Jerry has occupied the schoolhouse for several days now, but I think we could advance" Baxter announced.
The soldiers looked uneasy. The notion of occupying an actual building as opposed to the squalid trench was clearly appealing, but to cross that void between, to encounter who knows what?
Enthusiasm was lukewarm.
"Bell, you take a group and attack the perimeter, Deck go straight in the front and cover the hallways"
A sudden shell burst rocked even the relative safety of the rat-hole.
"Got that? Bell the perimeter, Deck the halls"
The two appointed leaders exchanged a glance, an uneasy glance.
"Did, do you hear what I hear?" the sergeant bellowed as more shells rained down and machine-gun fire again startled the still evening air.
One soldier had dubbed it the sound of death yet for Deck it was the sound of fear, the anticipation of death, something far more sinister.
War was indeed madness. After that terrible cacophony, silence fell.
Baxter checked his watch.
"10pm, I guess we are shut down for the night" he intoned less severely.
His remark was understood.
Civility amidst the bowels of hell may seem incongruous, yet some unspoken, unwritten agreement had prevailed for some time now that hostile action would cease at a certain hour, and not resume until a certain hour. Perhaps it was the common soldiers only method of defying their generals, the politicians who created this mess
The rat-hole began to fill up with the tired and wounded, tea was brewed and sparse rations nibbled upon, yet shared. It was time spent in limbo. Not the pure escapism of a letter home when thoughts were purely personal, or in the heat of battle, where again personal safety was paramount, but a time of camaraderie.
A time spent when all concerned knew that heroes and cowards are but the same, and only fate
can determine which side of the fence you might fall.
"Hey! Sarge" a voice called out. "With a name like Noel, how come you aint an officer?"
Baxter smiled as a few others laughed.
"Ive met some Quentins, a few Tarquins, but you are the first Noel Ive come across"
"I guess that Im just a bad soldier" Baxter replied without venom.
All the men knew that this was not the case, each of the men respected the sergeant, even more so since he had been left in charge after all the officers had been summoned to a meeting and simply never returned. Assuming that their placement had been abandoned as a lost cause, many had turned mutinous. Yet Baxter had displayed such resolve that after a while, they actually felt more secure with the rough and ready sergeant in command.
Noel Baxter knew that the comment had been an attempt at humour, yet it had backfired, and the assembled company were becoming maudlin.
"Have I ever told you that my grandma got run over by a reindeer?" he asked.
"What the flip?!" a bemused Private Bell responded.
"By Jingle! It is true." Baxter grinned before admitting "OK, it isnt"
The sergeant though had gained the attention of his men.
"This is true" he told the captive audience.
"I was at boarding school as a kid, and of course got home for the holidays"
Baxter looked around to check that all were attentive.
"I was probably about six, maybe seven and I had just walked through the door when I saw mummy kissing Santa Claus" he paused briefly.
"I know you are all thinking, OK, it was just my dad dressed up, but it turned out to be the fucking head gardener and she ran off with him!"
A very awkward silence ensued, only broken when Baxter winked and smiled.
Uproarious laughter followed and the tension was finally dispersed.
Though the convention had developed that hostilities would cease overnight, the trenches remained manned. One reason was that the rat-hole simply was not big enough to accommodate the entire company, another was either put down to Baxters vigilance or perhaps mistrust of the enemy.
The quite startling, shrill brightness of a magnesium flare still was surprising.
It came upon the midnight, clear out of nowhere, lighting the sky as nothing had ever done before.
The light of a thousand moons, perhaps a thousand ghosts, penetrated even the rat-hole.
Baxter was as always the first to react, but his well-drilled soldiers were soon too outside, marvelling at what may as well have been the dawn of Armageddon.
"By Jingle! Bell, shoot!" was the sergeants immediate reaction, though he felt the unease of an order barked in panic.
Private Bell hesitated. Thus far, the horror of the war had at least been predictable.
Red, Green and Blue flares had commonly lit up the darkened skies, the sheer whiteness
overhead was something new, something alarming.
"By Jingle! Bell, rocket launchers, where are the rocket launchers?!" the sergeant was at last displaying the confusion and terror that had been already felt by the rest of them.
Bell seemed mesmerised, and in what was only a few seconds, the still and familiar darkness was restored.
Baxter felt a sense of shame that no others would attribute to him.
"I lost my nerve." he later told Private Deck.
I lost my dinner, and not through the mouth" Deck responded. "Im not sorry that you are human"
"Maybe if it would snow, please God, let it snow" Baxter was back in the rat-hole though leaving extra men outside in the trench.
"Why so, sir?" Deck dearly wanted to restore the sergeants confidence.
"At first light we can train our binoculars on the schoolhouse. We can track the movements of Jerry by their footprints in the snow"
"You still intent on taking the school?" Bell joined in.
Baxter seem pre-occupied, perhaps obsessed.
"We could send out that little drummer boy , Smith? He is barely sixteen, they wont shoot him"
Deck and Bell yet again exchanged a worried glance. Baxter was oblivious to it.
"Meanwhile, I will lead a team over the river and through the woods and surprise them from the rear"
"With permission, sir" Deck spoke with some hesitation "is it really necessary to advance? We actually havent lost a man for a week now, us, the forgotten company ."
Sgt. Baxter allowed his head to drop into his hands, hunched over it was almost as if he was choosing to either become mad, or retain some shred of sanity.
Private Bell looked at Deck forlornly, then almost exactly mimicked the sergeants posture.
Rudolph Deck could not sit still, he began pacing the rat-hole and then rummaging through the desks
that were hitherto the reserve of the long departed generals.
"Oh! What pretty paper they use, to make pretty plans" he said almost maniacally.
"Want to draw us your pretty plan sergeant? Show us how that drummer boy advances alone while you sneak behind with half a dozen idiots who will hear the gunshot as his pretty little head is blown off?!"
"Rudi, that is enough!" Bell said angrily.
"Rudolph! Rudolph the red nose reindeer you mean. The fucking red nosed reindeer! That is me!"
"All my fucking life, Ive had that"
Dawn had broken, yet the unofficial hours of truce had not yet passed.
Since the fright of the Magnesium burst, it had possibly seemed like the longest night anyone could recall. The troops in the trench were at the very least disgruntled. Recourse to the rat-hole had been blocked off after what had been described as an argument between "screaming banshees and wailing harpies"
Inside the "fortified coffin" as Baxter had described it, tensions were still evident.
"Run, Rudolph run!" that is all I ask, "run like there is no tomorrow and tell Jerry that Santa Claus is coming to town, trust me" Baxters words conveyed a confidence that his demeanour betrayed.
"I think it could work" Bell added his voice, "carry a white flag, they wont shoot you"
"Exactly how did I volunteer?" Deck asked, though he was resigned to the task.
"Im too old, Bell is too fat" Baxter said it monotone, though he was smiling.
All three thanked providence that in their hasty departure, the officers had left behind enough whisky to make the plan seem feasible.
It was astonishing what the commonality of people, the shared belief in Christmas could bring.
Santa Claus being mentioned surely was not a hindrance. Far from being a silent night
it was one punctuated by laughter and noises of goodwill.
"What is that?"
"It is silver, Bell silver" the German responded as the two armies or rather the two companies enjoyed a Christmas Eve together.
"Take it, for after this damned stupid war" the German officer said simply before handing his ornate bracelet over to the slightly tipsy private.
"It is like the twelve days of Christmas rolled into one" an excited soldier proclaimed as he discovered a fresh crate of wine.
Baxter had discovered a single malt, and though keen to keep it for himself, with his sense of
inner confidence regained, he knew that it should be properly shared with his German counterpart.
"Your Commandant?" he tentatively approached a very happy, if extremely drunken soldier of the Kaiser.
"Upon, up on, nein up on roof? Nein Up on the housetop?" the man decided.
Baxter, with bottle clutched firmly in hand made his way through the attic and on to the roof itself.
It was difficult to imagine that this slender, too young looking man could be his arch-enemy.
By dint of age alone, Baxter felt a sense of superiority, but then the German looked up and spoke in almost perfect English.
"Could be a white Christmas, that is always pleasant" The German smiled.
"Take care, the tiles are slippy" he added.
Baxter was surprised, perhaps even jealous of this mans cool.
He gingerly edged his way across the slope and sat down right next to his apparent foe.
The German again smiled.
"I see you drink whisky, we drink Schnapps" he observed "Is that why we fight each other?"
After the war, the German Commandant moved to Britain where he opened a theme park
called Winter Wonderland
Noel Baxter was his most successful manager.
Private Bell sadly died in a road accident.
Rudolph Deck was decorated for his bravery, yet refused to fight in WWII.
He died an alcoholic recluse.
1-All I Want For Christmas Is You
3-Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire
4-Deck the Halls
5-Do You Hear What I Hear?
6-The First Noel
7-Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
8-Home For the Holidays
9-I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
10-It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
12-Jingle Bell Rock
13-Let It Snow
14-Little Drummer Boy
15-Over The River And Through The Woods
17-Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer
18-Run Rudolph Run
19-Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
22-The Twelve Days of Christmas
23-Up On the Housetop