10:48

There are so few of us left.

Crouching as I move so my head never rises above the parapet, my body smoothly glides through the zig-zag reserve trench toward the communication trench. Discarded fragments of ammunition boxes, compromised ration cans, torn pieces of rotting blankets, components of  discarded molding hobnailed boots, and occasionally a random blown-off body part litter the flooded trench floor. Only infrequently do I run into another soldier. We are so few and far between.

It’s quiet now.

Just one shell from the Brits, answered by one from our artillery, every few minutes to remind each other that the war is still on.

No one left to fight; so few left at all. How much longer can this continue?

Sargent Weiske looks at me askance from his dugout under the front face of the reserve trench.

Twelve men shared that dugout early last Spring. Then we had the offensive, and now the sickness.

SSSHHIIIRRRFFFFFTTTSSSSS - KAASSSHHEETT - A shrapnel round passes by, exploding innocently behind the reserve trench.

The wet, dank heat of summer melded into the frosty, chilling cool of fall. 

“Sargent, do you believe the war will stop at 11?”

Stretching his arms and legs so he looks like a fully flexed starfish, Sargent Weiske does not rise to greet me, but instead turns his pale dirt encrusted whiskered face in my general direction.

“This war will never end. It’s just an armistice. Both sides have temporally run out of men stupid enough to die.” He then pulls at his helmet before shoving his full frame out of the dugout. Rising to 3/4 his 1.8 meter height, Sargent Weiske raises his right arm, pulls his sleeve back, looking at his watch for a moment.

SSSHHIIIRRRFFFFFTTTSSSSS - KAASSSHHEETT - Another shrapnel shell.

Even after over three years at the front, I still hear each individual shell pass overhead.  Today there are only a few. Fired far off, so they won’t do damage.

Few shells, few soldiers, few minutes left of war.

Sargent Weiske regards me for a moment, his eyes catching mine in a knowing look, before he places his bone and tendon wrapped in tight-skin hand upon my left shoulder.

“It’s over for us.” He says in the most gentle voice I’ve ever heard uttered from his mouth.

From below my helmet I look up at his fatherly face. Scarred, streaked with dirt-filled wrinkles, blue eyes, and tufts of brown crust of hair protruding from under his helmet frame a sincerely caring visage.

Thank you! Thank you for guiding me these three years, for keeping me alive, for saving my skin in the Spring Offensive by pulling me out of that shell hole, for harping me to write to my mother, for comforting me when I received word my father died, for giving me some of your meager ration when you saw I was hungry, for picking me up out of the fetid water my first day in the unit when I fell in, for kicking my butt to stay fit, for easing the loss of so many of our men by honoring their sacrifice, for everything. Thank you for EVERYTHHING!!! 

“Thank you Sargent.”

He turns from me to head toward the field goggles. They are aimed at the British lines.

SSSHHIIIRRRFFFFFTTTSSSSS - KAA

(Silence)

What is that?

Where did I go?

Why is it dark?

Opening my eyes, I can’t make anything out.

Everything is fuzzy.

Blinking rapidly, I’m able to focus enough to recognize that I’m laying in the bottom of the trench, fetid water cooling my cheek.

I must have been knocked out by the concussion of the shell.

Surveying myself, I can’t see any wounds. My observable world expands beyond my body to where I can see the trench around me.

No one is around.

I keep looking.

Where is Sargent Weiske?

As I look, I turn the corner of a zag in the trench line where I encounter the remains of Sargent Weiske’s dismembered body. His left arm rests over his broken face, guarding it from the shrapnel that tore through the rest of his flesh. His sleeve is pulled back, exposing the metal faced watch on his left wrist. 

10:48 a.m. November 11, 1918.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A German Sargent who had been with his unit since 1915 was killed at 10:48 a.m. on November 11, 1918,  just 12 minutes before the Armistice between the Central Powers and the Triple Entente went into effect. He was not the only soldier killed that day. In fact, on several fronts battles raged as officers in the Entente were ordered to take as much territory as they could before the fighting stopped. In this case, a shrapnel shell took the life of a man who had endured three years of bloody war and survived until the last moment. The shell was a throw away shot by the British in response to throw away shots by the Germans in response to throw away shots by the British, and so on. Everything in war is thrown away. That is the definition of WAR: To Throw Away.

Exchange

“Good Morning Fritz!” I call out into cold, yet still, December morning air. 

The trench water at my feet is freezing. All of the rats are tucked up inside the dugouts where the other men of my unit stir in the crisp morning air. Bulked up with a warm wool overcoat, rifle in hand, soup bowl upon my head, I’m standing behind the parapet, calling out to my enemy in the middle of a war.

“Good Morning Fritz!” I repeat, figuring he didn’t hear me the first time.

There’s been no firing from either side for the past few minutes. Most of us just aren’t that interested in shooting right now. It’s too cold to bother with a weapon. Instead of aiming my rifle, I’m hoping to talk to one of the krauts.

“GOOD MORNING FRITZ!” Booming across no-man’s land, my echo ricochets back to me.

From across no-man’s land a faint voice calls out “Good morning.”

I got him to reply, and in English no less!!!

“HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” I ask, hoping that he’ll keep talking.

Again, faintly, as if nervous to say anything, but compelled to respond, “Alright.”

There is a real guy over there.

“COME OVER AND GET SOME FAGS!” I offer, thinking that he’d enjoy a smoke as much as the rest of us.

A moment goes by, then another. Just as I’m about to repeat myself I hear, “No, I will be shot.”

That’s a legitimate concern. We are at war after all, and there is a no-man’s land to cross.  

Calling out to my boys, I declare “Nobody fire, I want to see if we can meet this guy.”

A few men look out the dugouts toward me smiling. Most ignore me, going about their quick dry shave or button polishing.

“NO YOU WON’T!” I declare.

I doubt that convinced him, but I won’t shoot him, and there’s no one else with a rifle even at the parapet right now.

More time passes before the faint reply returns to my ears, “Fear.”

“COME OVER!” I call out.

Instantly, he replies, “YOU COME OVER!” This time he’s speaking with confidence.

I’m not going over there. Are you kidding! Dashing across no-man’s land to the enemy trench for a fag is not worth it.

Turner calls out to me from within his dugout, “Meet the kraut halfway if you want to see him so much.”

Yeah, that works.

“HOW ABOUT WE MEET HALFWAY?” I offer, figuring at worst we both get shot.

“OK” he replies.

“Now you have to go.” Turner gets out before laughing.

Yes, he’s right. Now I have to meet this kraut halfway across no-man’s land.

“Cover me, will you?” I call to Turner.

He looks up at me, “You’re on your own Newton. You started this, you finish it.”

With a smile on my face, I slowly put down my rifle, placing it gently on the duck board of the trench. 

At least the water at the base of the trench is frozen so it won’t fall in.

Looking up at the parapet I pause for a moment.

This is it.

Turner, still watching from the dugout yells loudly “HE’S COMING, DON’T SHOOT!”

At that, I climb the ladder. At first I raise my head above the trench wall.

No one shot me!

Then the rest of my body.

I feel like a million eyes are upon me.

Behind me men are starting to stir. Many are beginning to come out of their dugouts to watch.

I’d imagine at least a few are expecting me to be shot any second. I know I am.

From across no-man’s land I see a single German soldier rising out of his trench as well.

“HEY FRITZ!” I call out as I place both of my hands halfway up, exposing one empty open palm, and a pack of fags in the other.

“WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” He calls in reply, one empty palm exposed to me, with a mass of something in a paper wrapper in the other.

Walking toward each other over shell holes, broken bodies of former comrades in arms, and through shattered barbed-wire barricades, Fritz and I keep our eyes on each other rather than the ground.

Do I give him my real name?

“Anthony Willibaugh” I declare. “What’s yours?”

“Gerhard Neufeld” he replies, less than 10 meters from me.

As we approach I can see that he’s holding a mass of something in wax paper in his left hand. He recognizes me looking at it.

“Munster Cheese” he offers, holding it out to me from just 1 meter.

“Yes, please!” I reply. “Fag?”

“That’s why I’m here.” He declares.

He begins opening the wrapped cheese as I fumble with the fag box. Taking out two fags, I hold them out to him. At the same time, he has broken off a large chunk of cheese, which he offers me with his right hand.

“Thank you!” Gerhard says to me, as I say it right back to him. He takes one of the fags from my hand. I clasp onto the chunk of cheese with my left.  

“I’m going to reach into my coat for my lighter” I inform him.

We can’t have any misunderstandings now.

“Of course,” he replies.

As I reach into my pocket I sense the presence of others approaching. Looking up, I can see three Germans coming toward me from behind Gerhard.

What is this, are they going to jump me?

Turning to see what’s behind me in case I need to run, I see four of my boys, including Turner, approaching just a few meters away. Behind them, at least five more guys are making their way out of the trench.

I look back at the Germans again. Each is holding a small object wrapped in paper. As they approach they unwrap the paper, exposing sausage, dark bread, and even a bottle of wine.

My guys come up and start shaking hands with and talking to the Germans.

They’re not so bad.

 

 

 

On December 11, 1914 the first truce took place between British and German soldiers facing each other across no-man’s land of the Western Front. What started out as simple baiting of the Germans by a British soldier turned into a sincere exchange of food and cigarettes. When the opposing soldiers met they realized they could speak English to each other, and that they had much in common. Most were young men away from home for the first time. They avoided talking about the war, but showed pictures of girlfriends, shared their food, and smoked for about a half-hour. When they were done they went back to their respective trenches, at which time the war resumed. This little truce was the harbinger of the Christmas Truce phenomenon that took places at many locations across the front on December 25, 1914. When soldiers met soldiers they realized they were all in the same predicament. When the high ranking officers on both sides heard about the truces they ordered artillery to fire and for the men to never be allowed to converse with the enemy again. This was the last time in the War when soldiers on both sides realized and agreed they had nothing to fight about.