All Is Calm
© Copyright December, 2014
By Eric Aune
By Eric Aune
It was very early in the morning. The sun wasn't even up yet. There was snow everywhere and those on watch were bundled up in their greatcoats, with woolen scarves wrapped tightly around their necks, their Enfield rifles at their side. They were trying to be as warm as they could in the cold, dark December morning. There was a silence all around them. It was a silence that none had experienced in the months since this whole thing began. Normally there was always some noise going on around them. The sound of a rifle being fired, or the chattering of a machine gun or the screaming of an artillery round going overhead and the crump when it hit the ground and exploded. The yelling of orders, the blowing of whistles and the cries of the wounded.
The only sound around were the low voices of the men talking among themselves. Malcolm Jeffries sat against the trench wall, his Enfield was leaned against the wall next to him. There was a disturbance in the trench and he and everyone else looked up. A sergeant was moving among the men in the trench, he was carrying a canvas bag and he was stopping next to each of the men. When he stopped he reached into his bag and pulled out a letter and at times a small package. He also handed each man a gold colored tin box. Each man's dirty face lit up and they gratefully took what was given them, shaking the sergeant's hand in thanks each time.
Malcolm smiled at the looks of happiness on the faces of the men that he could see. It transformed those faces from the grim, weary faces, to how they would have looked had it not been for this horrible war. Young men with smooth unlined, happy faces. Young men who should be working peacefully in a trade or perhaps in a place of learning, like Cambridge or Oxford, or working with their fathers on a farm. Maybe they would be larking about with their mates or even their favorite girl. On this day of all days, they should be sitting around a fireplace, with their families all around them as they celebrate the coming of Christmas and opening their gifts.
The sergeant made his way along the trench and he stopped next to Malcolm. In his hands was a small brown paper wrapped parcel that he was holding out to Malcolm and one of the gold colored tin. He grinned up at the sergeant, shook his hand and accepted the two items. He watched the sergeant move off. He had noticed that even the older sergeant's face was transformed and he looked younger than his years as he walked along the trench handing out Christmas parcels and letters to the men. Malcolm watched the sergeant until he was out of sight at a turn in the trench line.
He looked down at the parcels and saw his name, regiment and company scrawled across the brown paper wrapped one. The other was a gold colored tin, on it was a picture of Princess Mary. Malcolm looked up and down the trench line and saw the other men opening their tins and there were a lot of smiles in that trench today. When he opened his, he found that it was filled with sweets. She had sent these out to all the men in the BEF. Malcolm reached in with his dirt encrusted fingers and took one out to taste. It was almost heavenly. He closed the tin while he sucked on the sweet. He untied the string on his other parcel, and carefully unfolded the thick brown paper that covered it and stuffed it into the pocket of his greatcoat. A box was revealed under the paper. He smiled as he opened it up. There was a folded letter on top of a couple of large bars of chocolate. He closed the box and stuffed that in his pocket as well and he opened the letter. He was near a dugout and there was a little bit of light coming from it, so he was able to read the words on the letter.
As he read the letter, a smile came to his face. From time to time, the contents caused him to chuckle to himself. By the end of the letter, his eyes were a little misty and he put his hand to his mouth and then placed it on the signature in the letter. He wiped his eyes and took the box back out of his pocket. Opening it, he took the two bars of chocolate out and underneath them, just like the letter said was a picture. It was of two light haired teenage boys standing with their arms over each other's shoulders as they smiled at the camera. One of them was Malcolm, although his face wasn't as lined as it was now. Both of them were wearing straw boaters, short dark jackets with white lapel facings. Under the jackets were white shirts with vertical stripes and a short tie and white slacks. The picture was black and white, but Malcolm could fill in the colors in his mind. The jacket was a navy blue as were the stripes in the shirt and the tie.
He remembered when the picture had been taken. He and Colin were fifteen at the time. I seemed so long ago, even though it was less than two years ago. They had been so happy at the time. They were the very best of mates and did everything together. Good or bad it didn't matter. Whatever it was, they were together doing it. When one was happy, the other was happy. When one was sad or upset, the other was at their side to buck them up. When Colin was sick with pneumonia, Malcolm had to be practically threatened to leave his side, because he knew if it was him in the sick bed, Colin would do the same. They had hoped to continue being together into University as well, both hoping to get into Cambridge and read law.
They were sixteen, when that crazy man in Serbia shot the Austrian Archduke. Before they knew it, countries all over Europe were declaring war on each other and the war began. At school, there were many talking about getting in the war and sending the Hun back where he belonged. While home on holiday from school, there were officers from the British army in town near their home, drawing crowds and exhorting the men to join the British Army and beat back the Hun. There were army musicians with the officers along with some sergeants and they played great, well known martial tunes, always ending with God Save The King, in honor of King George V.
The two boys enjoyed the music and the speeches and the celebratory atmosphere that came with the army visitors. They shouted in support of the army and the king, just as loudly as anyone else, as they got caught up in the excitement. Afterwards they would talk about it as they went back to their homes. They both came from upper middle class families in Cambridge. Malcolm's father was a barrister and Colin's was a banker. It was only a few more days before it was time to head back to school when they made the decision to join. So that no one would stop them, they took the train to Stevenage, early the next morning. They chose that town, because they had heard from the soldiers, that were there to enlist the men, that their next stop would be Stevenage. When they got to the town, they walked around until they saw the army setting up and once again they listened to the music and the speeches and at the end when men queued up to sign, they joined the other men and teenage boys who were in line. As they looked at those in the queue, they saw other boys who looked to be about the same age as they were and some that were obviously younger.
The two boys watched as the line moved forward into a nearby building where the enlistees were being examined. They saw most of the obviously younger boys being taken out of line and sent on their way with just a little bit of making fun, many times with the admonishment to come back in a few years when they'd grown some. Most of the boys, although disappointed took it in stride and stepped away. Others were belligerent and were hauled away by the sergeant. There was one boy who thought he was tough. An old sergeant walked up, grabbed the boy by the scruff of his jacket and hauled the lad around the side of the building. Moments later there were some yells coming from around the corner and the lad was seen running off rubbing his bum. The sergeant came back around the corner with a grin on his face. Those still in the queue laughed.
As the two boys neared the open door, a sergeant paused nearby and looked the two lads up and down. They had done what they could to try to look older. They had purchased some working lads clothes, instead of the finer clothes that they normally wore, so as to fit in more with the regular men. Both of the boys were of average height to the men in line, it was their faces that looked young, they figured that they would pass that off as just looking young not being young. They knew the minimum age was eighteen to enlist, with nineteen being the minimum age for overseas duty. They planned to say they were just barely nineteen and had listened to others of the lower classes with them, and they affected the speech of the lower classes along with talking in a deeper tone, all to give the impression that they were older than they looked.
When it came time for them to enter the building, they stood as tall as they could and went inside. They first stopped in front of a desk where a corporal was sitting there. Each person was asked his name, date of birth and where he lived, next of kin. Both boys gave him made up last names and where they lived, but kept their real first names. They said that they had no next of kin and were orphans. The corporal took down the info, and had them sign in the ledger in front of him. He then pointed his pencil in the direction they were to go to next, without ever looking at them. A doctor checked to see that they were fit for service and since both played sport at school, they were in good shape. They were passed along to each station until they got to the last station where they were interviewed by one of a line of sergeants sitting at desks. They stood before him, as he talked to them and their youthful looks were questioned, but they stuck to their story. When asked if they had proof of their age, they told him they didn't have any kin, so they didn't have papers saying they were of age, only that they had been told they were born in 1895. When the sergeant was done interviewing them, he looked at the boys carefully for a few moments before nodding and sending them to join others who had been passed. The two boys grinned at each other as they joined the other men. They were starting out on a great adventure.
Once they finished with everyone in the queue, the officer in charge stood in front of the group of men and had them all stand and give their verbal attestation to join the British Army. When they had finished the verbal attestation, they queued up and were given a written attestation to sign. When that was done they were lined up outside and marched off to the train station to the cheers of the people of the town. The two boys were happy to have been able to fool the recruiters and now they were on their way to serve King and Country.
They spent the next several weeks learning to be a soldier and they found it was much harder than they thought it would be, but they were determined to tough it out. When they finished, they were sent to a divisional depot, where they spent only a few days, before they were shipped over to Belgium. They joined their company in the rear areas, until it was time to move up to the line. When they got there, that was when they really found out what war was like. The next several weeks were very frightening to the boys. They found out that there is little glamor in war. It was much different than the pictures painted by the recruiting officer. Many times, they were wet and cold as the weather turned nasty.
They had arrived at the front in early November during the Battle of Ypres. The Hun was attacking heavily and the British Army was doing its best to stem the tide of the attack. They finally were able to drive the Hun back and hold the line. The worst thing that happened to the two boys was near the end of the battle, when they were holding off a fierce German attack, Colin was struck in the lower leg by a bullet. They were falling back from an unsuccessful attack and when he fell Malcolm picked up Colin's rifle and helped his friend to his feet, so that he could stagger back to their own trench works. Once back to the safety of the trench, they stood their ground and drove the Hun back. Colin leaned against the trench trying to keep as much weight off his leg, as best he could, while helping to fight off the Hun.
Once the fight was over, and it looked like they had licked the Huns, Malcolm helped get his friend to the medical orderlies who took him to the dressing station. They got him on a stretcher and carried him to the nearest dressing station. Malcolm wanted to go with them, but if he left the line it would be desertion. He held Colin's hand until he left. Neither wanted to let go, and they each could see the feelings that the other was projecting. They knew what it meant. They also knew it was something that they must keep hidden.
"Bye Mal. You watch your arse until I get back. I don't want to see you with me in hospital, unless you're just visiting." Malcolm grinned, "I promise Col. I'll come visit you if I get a chance, not much chance with the Hun acting up right now. Maybe they'll realize they won't get through us and give up the fight. I'll find you Col. You get better, I need my best mate with me." Colin grinned as the orderlies picked up the stretcher. "I will Mate." Malcolm watched as they carried him away. Colin raised his arm and waved goodbye. Malcolm waved until the orderlies were out of sight, before turning around and heading back to his place in the line.
The fighting continued for another couple of weeks and as the snow started to fall, the fighting tapered off. By November 22nd, the Battle of Ypres was over. There was a break in the main fighting due to the winter weather. There were limited attacks here and there along the line, but no major offensives. Malcolm got a chance to move back from the line when his company was rotated behind the lines for a few days. He got permission to visit the hospital. It took some time, but he finally located Colin.
When he entered the hospital, he saw it was filled with wounded soldiers. He was able to locate which ward Colin was in and both of their faces lit up when the spied the other. "Mal, you made it?" Malcolm sat on a stool next to the bed and held onto Colin's hand. "Aye Mate, I did and right glad I am to see you." He looked Colin over and nodded. "Well you look fit Col. When are you coming back to the line?" Colin shook his head, "I won't be returning." Malcolm eyes opened wide in shock and then disappointment set in. "They said I'm not fit for duty any more. The bullet took out a chunk of the bone in my leg and now one is a little shorter than the other. I'll always walk with a limp. I can't be a soldier with a limp like that. They're sending me home to finish my convalescence and then I'll be going home. The war is over for me."
Malcolm ducked his head. How was he going to make it, now that his best mate was no longer going to be by his side? Tears were in his eyes when he felt Colin pulling on his hand. He looked up and saw that Colin's eyes were in the same state. "Sorry Mal. Nothing I can do about it. My leg's permanently damaged. When I heard that I wouldn't be back with you, I thought of something though." He looked around and pulled Malcolm closer. "We're both still underage. You're not even supposed to be overseas until you're eighteen and we're barely seventeen. By the way, Happy Birthday." Malcolm smiled his thanks and squeezed Colin's hand, still held in his. He wasn't sure he could speak yet, still worried that he would be left behind without his best mate. "Anyway as I was saying. I've been thinking and I have a plan to get you out of here as soon as possible, if you're up for it." Malcolm nodded. "Okay, when I get back home, I'll make sure your parents know where you are. I'm guessing they're first going to be surprised, then very angry with both of us. I expect only my damaged leg is going to keep me from getting a good strapping as it is, at least until its healed up, then my Da will probably lay into me well and good. What I was thinking is, that if your parents know where you are and they request it, you can be released from the army, because of your age. What do you think?"
Malcolm thought about it. With Colin by his side, he thought he could weather anything, but with him gone, he wasn't sure he could face it all as easily. He knew he'd do his duty, he'd already proved to himself that he could. He and Colin had never shirked their duty as part of the company and did what was ordered. He even thought that their sergeant knew that both of them were underage, but they did their duty and stood by their mates. He wondered if it happened, and he was sent home, would the other men think him cowardly. After the Ypres battle and seeing all the wounded in the other wards here at the hospital, he was at the point that what they had done to get here had been foolhardy and if he could go home, especially if he and Colin could be together again, he'd willingly take the white feather.
"Without you by my side Col, I don't think I can do this. So if you can help this happen, I'm for it." The two friends squeezed hands. They talked a little more. Colin told him, that he was supposed to be shipped out in the next couple of days. Finally it came time for the two to part. They gazed in each other's eyes for the longest time, silently communicating what they felt. They both wanted to hold the other, but they knew that wouldn't be accepted so they gave each other one final smile and released their joined hands. At the door of the ward, Malcolm turned and waved to his mate and then quickly turned and ducked his head so that no one could see the tears in his eyes.
Malcolm made his way back to the company and rejoined the other men. Several of them knew where he been and they asked after Colin. He told them that Colin was going home and being mustered out because of his wound. Every man clapped him on the back and told him to give their good wishes to the lad, when he next wrote to him. Malcolm felt good that the others missed Colin and thought well of him. He hoped they would feel the same if he was able to leave. Until then, he had to survive.
A week later, they were rotated back into the line. The winter weather kept the fighting down to a minimum and it seemed that there was almost a calming period in the trenches. And now here it was, early on Christmas Day, the men receiving letters and parcels from home. There was no sound of war. The only sounds were of the men around him in the trenches eagerly sharing news from home. Another sound invaded their consciousness and slowly the men in the trench fell silent as they listened to the sound.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
A few moments later, the German tenor voice began again. This time all around him the men joined in.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm all is bright
'Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
As dawn broke through the sky, the song rose into the air above them mingling in the still air. Malcolm sang along with the other men and looked up. A moment later he had no idea why he did it, but leaving his rifle behind he went to one of the ladders that led out of the trench and into no man's land. He began to climb up the rungs with his hands held up to show that they were empty. The men below yelled for him to come down, but he ignored them and continued climbing as he neared the top of the trench, he looked across no man's land and standing at the top of the German trench a blond haired German soldier stood there, holding his hat in his hand, his face toward the rising sun, letting his voice carry across no man's land. He noticed the movement at the British trench and his voice faltered for only a moment before he saw the British soldier rising out of the trench, his hands raised and joining him in song. A huge smile broke out on his face and when he finished, he turned and slowly began to walk across no man's land toward the British soldier.
As Malcolm neared the German soldier, he saw that the soldier looked to be about the same age as him and he smiled. The two came together in the middle and their hands came together in a friendly shake, just like two old friends meeting in the street.
"My name is Malcolm." The German smiled, "Mein namen…" The German stopped himself and started again, "My name is Gunther." Malcolm was shocked that the German spoke English so well. Behind them, they saw more and more of the men from either side climbing out of the trenches and coming together in camaraderie. There were a fair number of the Germans who spoke English and they translated for those who didn't. There were even a few British that spoke German. It looked like a great gathering of friends in the middle of this land of death. Groups congregated all over the area, treating each other as old friends. They traded with each other, there were pots of wine, and cigarettes being shared on both sides. Many of them shared goods that they had received from home, with these new friends, who just a short time ago were supposed to be their enemy. Pictures were taken and shared with each other.
A short time later a Scottish soldier produced a football and an impromptu game began. Malcolm and Gunther both took part, usually lined up against each other. Everyone was laughing and cheering as they watched or took part. Malcolm stepped out of the game to let another play and sat down on a mound of dirt nearby and watched. As he did he pulled the photo of him and Colin out of his pocket and gazed down on it with affection. He knew Colin would have enjoyed this. A noticed a shadow and looked up to see Gunther standing near him with his great coat and kit in his hand.
"May I sit?" Malcolm nodded and Gunther sat next to him. He glanced over and saw the picture. "Who is zhat?" Malcolm handed the picture to Gunther. "That's my best mate Colin. He would have loved this." Gunther glanced at Malcolm, "He ist not here?" Malcolm shook his head and smiled. "No, he's at home. He got hit in the leg last month and it was bad enough to get him sent home." Gunther smiled, "Zat is goot. I am glad he ist not here." He handed the picture back to Malcolm. "Gunther, how come you speak English so well?"
"My Vater. He ist in banking. Ve lived in London for a zree years and I vent to school zhere, zo I learnt English." Gunther dug into his greatcoat and pulled out a picture that he handed to Malcolm. Malcolm took it and Gunther leaned in closer as Malcolm studied the picture. It showed Gunther and another blond haired boy both in lederhosen and alpine hats with walking staffs. They were on a hillside, behind them were other mountains and there were a few clouds in the sky. Malcolm smiled at the picture and looked at Gunther, "Zat is Friedrich, mein freunde, uh, I mean my fr…best mate as you zay. Ve vere togezzer until he vas hurt as vell. He lost his leg and he is home now too, like your Colin." Malcolm brought his hand up to Gunther's shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze. "He is well, other than losing his leg." Gunther nodded and wiped his eyes a little. Malcolm felt a little dampness in his eyes as well. "How old were you in this picture?
"Ve vere fifteen. Zhis is near our home in Bavaria. Ve loved to hike in zhe hills and mountains around our homes. Vhen I last heard from him, he zaid ve vould do zhat again zomeday, zomehow. I cannot vait for zat to happen. I can't vait for zhis verdammt var to be over." Malcolm nodded his agreement and handed the picture back to Gunther. Gunther looked at it silently for a minute, his face suffused with warmth, before he tucked it back into his greatcoat.
"Gunther, how old are you?" Gunther glanced at him, "Seventeen." Malcolm smiled, "Me too, so's Colin." They smiled at each other and for the next hour they talked about home and their friends and family and things they like to do when they were home. They had also talked about when Gunther had lived in London. They didn't talk at all about the war. It was like two friends from home, catching up on each other. They were interrupted from the talk by a yell from the football game. "Gunther, comen sie." The two boys looked up and saw one of the Germans waving for Gunther to come and join them in the game. Gunther didn't get up right away and the smiling man waved again. He glanced over at Malcolm, "Go ahead mate. I'll watch your kit." Gunther smiled and jumped up from the dirt pile and trotted over to join the game.
Malcolm watched the game, cheering for his new friend Gunther and cheering for his own side as well. In the far distance they heard an artillery shell fly through the air and the distant crump as it hit the ground somewhere over the horizon. Everyone stopped and looked in the direction of the explosion. They then turned to look at each other and you could see the disappointment and sadness on many faces. For the next several minutes the men came together to exchange one last round of handshakes and even hugs, before they slowly made their way back to their own lines.
Malcolm walked over to Gunther with Gunther's kit in his hand. The two smiled and came together in a hug. When they stepped back , Gunther shrugged into his coat and hung his leather harness over one shoulder. They shook hands one more time. "Go with God, Gunther." Gunther smiled, "You as vell, mein freunde Malcolm." The two walked backward looking at each other and when they reached their trench, they waved one more time and descended into their trenches. Although there was a bit of a somber mood in the trench, there were also a bit good feelings among the men.
When Gunther reached the bottom of his trench, he adjusted his greatcoat and put his harness back on. As he closed the buckle, he felt an extra bulge in his greatcoat, that hadn't been there before. He put his hand in the pocket and pulled out a thin brown paper wrapped item. He unfolded the paper and saw a chocolate bar. He noticed that there was writing on the inside of the paper.
Please accept this chocolate bar as my Christmas gift to you. Colin sent two of them to me and I want you to have one. I pray that you will come through this war and go home to your Fritzy, as I hope to return to my Colin someday. Good luck my friend. I wish you all the best. If you do survive, bring Fritzy with you someday and visit Colin and me in Cambridge. I know he will like you. We would love to host you both. So keep your arse down, you crazy Hun. I don't want it shot off and I'm sure Fritzy would prefer it still attached to you as well. God Bless!
Your Friend, Malcolm Jeffries
Gunther smiled at the letter and had to wipe his eyes. He looked toward the other trench and whispered, "Goot luck to you Malcolm." He opened the chocolate bar and broke off a piece, before wrapping it up in its wrapper and the brown paper.
Over in the British trench, Malcolm went over to where he had left his Enfield. "Private Malcolm Jeffries!" Malcolm turned around with a smile and saw the Sergeant Major standing before him. That was when he realized the name that he had answered to. He'd been Malcolm Johnson for the last five months and with everything that had been happening and thinking of Colin, he automatically answered to his real name. His face fell and Sergeant Major Branscombe had a satisfied look on his face. Branscombe was an old time sergeant, he'd seen many boys and young men killed and had served with the South African Constabulary which was filled with such young men and boys, when they were besieged by the Boers at Mafeking during the Boer Wars, when he was a corporal. He'd known other boys who had lied about their age to join the fight and many times they were still just boys when they died. He looked down at the lad standing before him.
"Private Jeffries. I have orders for you. Merry Christmas lad. You're going home." Branscombe looked at the men nearby and raised his voice so that all of them could hear him. "Lad, young Jeffries here or as you know him, Johnson, is underage. He is only sixteen…"
"Um, seventeen, Sergeant Major." Branscombe looked down at Malcolm and cocked an eye. "Only just sir." Branscombe nodded and continued, "He is seventeen, only just…." The men around them laughed and Malcolm colored a little. "Young Jeffries and his mate Colin Parsons or as you knew him, Pierce, were both underage when they joined the regiment. I never heard a negative word about their conduct. They did their duty and young Parsons was wounded serving King and Country. Because he is underage, and is at least a year from even being allowed to join and two years from being allowed to serve overseas, he is being mustered out and returned home at the request of his parents, as is their right." The men around them shouted their good wishes to Malcolm. Now he knew that they would not think ill of him for leaving. Branscombe held out his hand and shook Malcolms. Malcolm stood tall and saluted the sergeant major. Branscombe returned the salute and clapped the boy on the back.
When word reached everyone nearby, Malcolm soon found himself inundated with letters from many of the men as he gathered his kit. He took all of them, packed them away in his kit bag and promised he would make sure that they were delivered to their loved ones, even if he had to deliver them himself. Branscombe stood nearby and watched. When Malcolm had said his goodbyes and taken leave of his mates, Branscombe handed his Malcolm Enfield off to one of the nearby sergeants and escorted him from the trenches to the rear area. There was a medical wagon waiting there with some sick men who were being brought back to the hospital to recuperate. Malcolm jumped up next to the medical orderly who was driving the wagon. Malcolm reached down to shake Branscombe's hand. "Thank you Sergeant Major. I'll not forget you or the lads." He then sat up straight and saluted. "Good luck lad. Give the regiment's best to your mate." Malcolm nodded and the orderly drove off.
As they drove off, Malcolm looked over his shoulder back toward the front lines, trying to send his thoughts to the German lines, before looking up and saying a small prayer beneath his breath. "Dear Lord, thank you for this gift. Please, I beg of you, watch over my friend Gunther and protect him so that he will once again be reunited with his friend Friedrich, so that they can hike in their hills together once again." The orderly glanced over at the soldier beside him. "What's that lad?" Malcolm looked over and smiled at the man, "Nothing sir, nothing at all." Malcolm looked to the side and surreptitiously wiped his eyes before looking to the front and his future.
This story is dedicated to those soldiers of The Great War, who for a few short moments, 100 years ago on Christmas day, gathered together in friendship and camaraderie. Ignoring politics and national division and just being young men having fun together in peace, in a land of war and death. For a short time, for them, All is Calm, All is Bright and there was Peace On Earth.