The Beasts Are Kneeling
Based On Events At The Front, 1914
That was the first Christmas of the war. All Corporal Alfred Hunter wanted to do now was to kill Germans. It wasn’t a very Christmasy thought, he told himself, but there you are. After Billy Waters had been killed, that’s all he wanted to do. He wanted to see them running over No Man’s Land, toward the barbed wire, and he wanted to watch them fall and to have something to do with that falling. You never knew, he thought, if your bullet was the one. It was safe that way: no responsibility, no guilt, just doing your duty. Waters had been doing his.
That was a stupid thing, that charge toward the Hun lines and then hunkering down in the shell craters. Waters had laughed beforehand. Who can run the fastest, get to the Hun trenches first, he said. It was a game. A captain from another trench kicked out a ball and those lads chased it, passing it to each other, seeing who would be the first to get the ball to the Hun lines. Alfred didn’t hear if the ball ever got there. He doubted it. They bogged down in the craters and then were called back. Who makes up these things? But he heard that the captain was killed who kicked the ball and went over the top first to encourage his men.
Now Alfred didn’t want to be a party to any more stupid things. He just wanted to kill Germans. He wanted to see them hunker down helplessly in the craters their own shells had made. He wanted to see one of them fall, try to get up, and then be left there, unmoving, with the fireworks of shells going off above them, as they had left old Waters. It made Alfred feel good to want to kill Germans. It made him feel he was there for a purpose.
“That was a nice field out there, last year.” It was Hopkins. Hopkins was always trying to imagine how things looked before the war. Before the landscape had been changed to deep cuts of trenches, like wandering streambeds, eroded down in the earth, crisscrossing back on each other, before the land was mud and thrown up dirt and holes--everything black, with trees splintered and broken. Yet in the morning sometimes you could still hear the birds, before the guns started. At night you could still see the stars, between the shells bursting. That’s what Hopkins said. Hopkins said just the other day that that Hun boy once had his mother brush his hair before he went to school. That Hun boy who was facing us now with his gun--he once had a mother who brushed his hair back. What a stupid thing to say. Everyone made fun of Hopkins then, called him a Hun-lover, but Hoppy didn’t mind.
“Sure, I’ll kill them just like you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think that they once had mothers.”
“Just that one over there, Hopkins,” said Howard. “Just one of them did.”
Then everyone laughed and it was better again. No one talks about the shelling, thought Alfred. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. But it’s there, all the time. It’s making you nervous, but you always think, oh, that one will land over there. He’s getting it this time.
“Merry Christmas, Corporal.” It was Alfred’s lieutenant, Crispens. “Looking a bit sullen, there, Hunter. Chin up; you don’t have a cold, it’s not snowing, it’s Christmas, and next year the war will be over and you’ll celebrate at home.” Crispens was always cheery. He had to be.
“Just looking forward to making that a reality, sir,” said Alfred, “getting rid of a few Huns for you sir. That’s my Christmas present.”
“Just between us, Corporal, I’m hoping the Hun will take a day off, though I’ve never known him to. Carry on lads.” And the brave lieutenant was off into the maze of trenches.
“Buenos Aires,” said Howard, “that’s where I’m going when this is over. “Nothing’s back in England for the likes of me. But Buenos Aires, that’s where a man can make his fortune. And the birds aren’t bad there either.”
“We’re fighting to keep England free so Howard can go find an Indian woman in South America. Is that fair?” Alfred listened to Wilcox. Everyone always listened to Wilcox. “Our turn at the front is over in two months. Then I suggest the posh lads from the Surrey regiment take over and we go to Paris. The birds in Paris are good enough for me, Howard. I don’t need any dark ones in Brazil.”
“Buenos Aires is in Argentina, you git,” Howard said, but no one heard him, for they were talking about Paris.
No one cares about old Waters, Alfred thought. It’s as if he never lived. That’s the way. You get it and no one mentions you because it’s bad form. Just the way no one mentions the shells, always blasting in your ears and the mud and the cold. It’s like mentioning the heat in the desert. It’s just there. You can’t mention it unless it’s a joke, and no one wants to joke about Waters. So he just doesn’t exist. We left him out there in a crater. I pulled him over on his back and helped keep his intestines in. Then he was staring, just staring, at Hopkins’ stars. We had to run then, back to our own barbed wire, and Matthews got caught on it and shot. He looked as though he were crucified and someone made a joke about that.
Alfred looked down at the letter in his lap. It was still light enough to read it, and after the early winter dark came he could still read it, by the light of the exploding shells. He read it and he didn’t understand it. She talked of rehearsing carols at the Methodist church and of her dog coming in second in the trials. Did they still do that? Did dogs still herd sheep into pens and people judge them? Another letter, in his pocket, he would take out again this evening and read it, wondering. It was from his father, telling him of the other children at school and about the garden--it had been a good fall for squash--and about his mother’s ailing back. It hurt her to walk. He didn’t want to hear that.
Somehow, that world was even more incomprehensible than the one of the Methodist choir and the sheepdogs. He knew the songs, had sung in that small choir. He could picture the dogs, running around after the sheep. Rather like the war. Someone always trying to herd someone else. But Alfred couldn’t picture the home he had lived in all his life; he couldn’t see the familiar mantel; he had forgotten what was on it. He couldn’t see his mother walking, slowly, in pain. All he could see were the shells bursting. Then it was suddenly quiet.
For the first time that Alfred could remember, it was quiet. White looked up at the darkening sky.
“There’s Venus, right on time,” said Hopkins. “First time I saw her without bursts of colored shell around her. I rather miss that.”
“What do you think, Wilcox?” White asked.
“They could be getting ready for another one. Then Hunter over there will get his chance to revenge his Devonshire mate. Don’t take it so hard, Hunter. Just because we all got packages and you just got two bleedin’ letters. White here is married. What’d you get, Whitey?”
“A tin of chocolates, ready to share when the clock strikes midnight.”
“Can’t you share, before?” said Hopkins. “I’ve got shortbread I’m opening at supper.”
“Christmas is at midnight. Everyone knows that,” said White. “All the beasts in the barn and fields bend their knees for a moment at midnight. Everyone knows that story. And it’s true, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a magic that happens at midnight and whether it’s Father Christmas or beasts kneeling, it happens. And this Christmas it’s happening through my chocolates. What about you, Wilcox, you’re the big talker.”
“I’ve got my own present from my own girl and no one’s having a bloody bite of it.”
“I’ve got cigars,” said Howard, “and every tinker’s son is welcome to one. You just have to sing for it.”
“No one’s singing around here,” said Wilcox, “just look at the poor corporal. He looks like he’ll kill anyone who whispers ‘Merry Christmas’.”
“Halloo, Hunter, honest preacher’s son,” said Howard, “can’t you wait one day to kill the Huns? We’re smoking cigars tonight, if you just sing ‘I saw three ships’.”
“I sang that,” said Alfred, “last year.”
I saw three ships, come sailing in, started White, and Howard handed him a cigar.
“That’s all you have to do, Hunter. It’s not that hard.”
“What about Matthews?” Alfred said. “He’s still crucified out there. How can you sing with him out there?”
“He can sing Hark the Angels, can’t he?” Howard said, and the others laughed.
Hopkins was the first to notice it. He was always looking out of the trenches. “Hold on. What’s that? What’s the Hun up to now?”
“They’re lighting little fires, maybe making their Christmas dinners,” Howard said.
“Go on, they wouldn’t have that many,” said Wilcox, “and the Hun doesn’t celebrate Christmas. He’s barbarian. That’s why he’s the Hun.”
Lieutenant Crispens walked briskly by. “Prepare for Hun offensive,” he said as he passed.
“It would be just like the Hun to attack on Christmas Eve,” said White. “Thinks we’re more vulnerable, paying attention to our packages. I’m not opening mine till midnight anyway. Then the craters will be strewn with dead Huns, right Hunter? Now you can do some hunting.”
But it was silent. The men all fell silent as they watched the little lights flare in the enemy’s trenches. Alfred thought of Jenny’s dog, the one he had helped train, and he didn’t want to think of that. He wanted to be ready to kill the Hun. He knew they were coming over the top any minute now. The Hun was just trying to test the British resolve. Trying to wear them down. God, he hated the Hun. If it weren’t for the Hun--
“Christmas Eve,” said Hopkins, “blessed Jesus.”
Now it was completely dark and the lights were still shining in the Hun trenches.
“If Waters were alive,” said Hopkins, “he’d be the first to say, open that tin of chocolates. Don’t wait for midnight or the Hun.”
“Why’s it so bloody quiet?” Howard said.
“I want a bit of fire, to rub my hands over,” said Hopkins. “Maybe that’s all they’re doing, warming their hands on Christmas Eve. Allowed extra fires for the occasion.”
“Don’t you believe it,” said Wilcox. “They’re planning something. He’s tricky, the Hun.”
“Do you hear that?” said Hopkins. “It sounds like singing.”
“Bloody hell, they’re trying to trick us, get us off our guard,” Wilcox said.
“Listen,” said Hopkins. “Blimey, they’re singing ‘Silent Night’.”
And the men listened to Stille nacht, heilige nacht coming softly but distinctly over No Man’s Land, over the craters, over Matthews caught on the wire.
“That’s lovely, isn’t it?” said Howard. “One of them knows English and heard me about the cigars. Come get one, you bloody Hun,” he shouted.
“Shut up,” said Hopkins. “Have you no decency? They’re singing a carol.”
“It’s a bloody Hun song,” said Wilcox. “It’s not an English carol.”
“You’re so bloody stupid,” said Hopkins. “They’re celebrating Christmas. That’s what they’re doing with those lights. If we had any decency, if we had any courage, we’d answer them.”
“There’s a nice fact, the troops singing to each other,” said Wilcox. “It’s a trick. No one is trickier than the Hun. That’s a fact. Started the war when all of France was on holiday.”
“Hunter, you can sing,” said Hopkins. “Answer them. Somebody answer them.”
Howard took out one of his cigars and lit it. He kept the match lit for a long time and held it over the top of the trench. No one fired.
“Go on, Alfred, you know I can’t sing,” said Hopkins. “They’re waiting. Either another song or an attack. Which will it be?”
I can’t sing to people I hate, Alfred thought. Instead, he said, “I’m hoarse as a Scottish crow.” He felt he had something stuck in his throat, too. Perhaps that cold the lieutenant said he didn’t have he had. He had colds before at Christmas. But he had always sung. “I can’t do it,” he said.
Hark the herald, angels, sing, boomed Wilcox suddenly. He paused and said, “If it’s a trick, at least we can call them on it, can’t we?” Alfred listened to the others join in, then the trenches to their right, then their left, and they sang the first verse over. It seemed to Alfred that the whole front was singing. He heard a bagpipe lifting up the melody.
“We only know the first verse. Everyone only knows the first verse,” said Hopkins. “Except old Hunter over there. He knows all the verses. He used to sing in the Methodist choir, didn’t you Hunter?”
Alfred looked down in his lap and realized he still had Jenny’s letter out. It was pale in the dark and he couldn’t see any of the words. He knew what she said. He knew what she would say now, too, if he asked her. He hastily folded the letter and put it beside his father’s in his pocket. He picked up his rifle and looked out over No Man’s Land. The little German lights were still twinkling. In the silence Alfred heard a crazy bird loop some short melody over the craters, as if it didn’t know where it was or that it was night.
God, don’t let them attack, not on Christmas Eve, he thought. I’ll kill them on Boxing Day. Now my father is giving his service, reading from Luke, then Matthew. Always the same. Then asking for prayers for any loved one not present. That would be different. Alfred was perfectly still. He swallowed and his finger felt the cold steel of the trigger.
“The descendents of the Huns who sacked Rome,” said Wilcox, “will now either charge, trying to kill every last one of us, or they’ll sing another.”
“They want a cigar, I’m telling you,” said Howard, “they’ll sing.”
“I’ve never heard it so quiet,” said White. “I wish they’d do something.”
Then suddenly and unmistakably they heard it again.
“They all started in on cue,” said Hopkins. “Almighty Christ, it’s Tannenbaum. They can sing, those Huns.”
“They sang as they sacked Rome,” Wilcox said.
“Go on, Wilcox. Answer them again,” White said.
“I don’t know Hun songs,” Wilcox said.
Alfred listened to Wilcox refuse to answer the beautiful carol and simply felt that a song had to be answered. It was an urge stronger than his anger and the constant nagging fear. He then felt quite calm and that his throat cleared. It was a different kind of duty than he had known since he had been here. It was a duty to the song, the duty of the singer. His father would understand. Jenny would understand.
Then Alfred started tentatively in German, Stille nacht, heilige nacht. He paused. “It’s in the Methodist hymnal, the first verse in German.” He sang it again, and his lone voice floated clear over the wasted land.
“Here’s our best respects to you Huns,” said Wilcox. “It’s one thing singing an English carol, to keep our spirits up, but to sing to them in German--”
“Shut up, Wilcox, this is my best Christmas since I got my dog,” said Hopkins. “Can’t you see what’s happening? Sing it again, Alfred.”
Alfred stood up carefully, his head over the top of the trench.
“You fool, get down,” Wilcox said.
Then he began, a tenor that hovered on the high note, the Ruh of
himmlischer Ruh and let the note sail into the silent night.
Alfred himself forgot, for a moment, that he was where he was. And felt it was Jenny, next to him, listening carefully to his voice. It was just the Methodist chapel, and it felt good to sing it in German; he always thought that.
“Go kill them, Hunter,” said Wilcox, “go kill them all for your mate’s sake.”
Then Alfred started in another key, higher, and the men behind him started singing it in English, and they heard it answered, clearly, from the German trenches.
“Bloody hell, we’re caroling each other,” said Wilcox. “No one will ever believe this.”
“Who’s that? It’s a trick after all,” White said, for someone had just climbed out of the Hun trenches and was walking toward them.
“Shall I pot him?” Wilcox said.
“Hold your fire,” called Lieutenant Crispens, in a whisper. “He’s unarmed.”
“What are those barmy Huns up to?” White said.
“They want your cigars,” said Alfred, and laughed. “They want your bloody cigars.” He kept laughing and leaned his rifle against the side of the trench. He understood what they were doing now. “That’s what they bloody want, don’t you see?”
The man in No Man’s Land now lit a cigarette and just stood there. Wilcox had his rifle aimed at him. “Let me pot him, lieutenant,” he said. “The bastard’s in range.”
“Certainly not,” Crispens said.
“He’s trying to trick us. They’re all ready to go over the top. I know the Hun,” Wilcox said.
“Let them make the move,” Crispens said.
Then the German started very low at first, with the cigarette still in his mouth, but you could hear it, Stille nacht, and he just stood there, fifty yards from the British trench, smoking and singing.
“He’s daring us,” Hopkins said.
“One of us goes out and gets potted by them, the lone Hun crawls back safe and they’ve had their Christmas fun,” Wilcox said.
Then Alfred waved. He waved, then hoisted himself over the top and sang softly in German as he walked. It felt odd and free to be walking there without a gun. He stepped carefully around the barbed wire and tried not to look at Matthews. The German stopped singing and Alfred saw him lower the burning tip of his cigarette. I don’t want to be shot here walking and singing like an idiot, Alfred thought. I’ll be a joke in the trenches for the rest of the war. Would they tell my parents I died with honour?
Alfred waved as if he were meeting a friend and sang a little louder, in German, so he was sure the enemy trenches could hear him. Then the German waved and started singing, Alfred noticed, in the same key as himself. They sang in unison as Alfred approached, winding his way around the craters.
“Bloody fool, come back,” he could hear Crispens shout, but Corporal Hunter just kept walking until he reached the Hun. The enemy offered him a cigar, and Alfred rolled it in his fingers and lifted it to his nose. He couldn’t believe it. Everything seemed very simple now. Alfred didn’t light the cigar but offered the German his hand, and he looked in the eyes of a face older, more unshaven and more desperate than his.
Then it all happened at once. Men on both sides streamed out of the trenches. The enemies ran to where Alfred and the German stood, halfway into No Man’s Land, and formed two long lines, a new front. They were silent as they ran, as when they charged during a battle. Then they suddenly stood there, facing each other, without guns. Alfred thought for a moment they might forget and start fighting each other with their fists. He saw an Englishman offer a cigarette to a German, then all along the line the men reached into their pockets and brought out anything they had and held it out for the other. White reached into his coat and brought out his tin of chocolates.
“It’s not midnight,” he said to Alfred, “but the beasts are kneeling. The bloody beasts are kneeling, are they not?”
Alfred said, “Here, Fritz,” and held out his fountain pen to the man in front of him, who took it, then held out to Alfred a small bar of chocolate.
“It’s only once a year,” Howard said to Hopkins. “Come on, back to the trenches for the bloody cigars and shortbread. They’re handing us chocolates and cigars as if it’s the last day of creation.” And Alfred watched them run back, and he thought of before, when they had run with Matthews.
Then he saw the lieutenant himself stride out of the trench and a German officer walk toward him. Crispens extended his hand and the two officers shook hands, then reached into their coats for cigarettes and gave them to each other. Crispens gave the Hun his whole case, then the Hun gave him a small flask.
Alfred had never felt anything like this. It was like winning a football match, and everyone crazy with celebrating, but more so. There was no loser, here.
Howard and Hopkins came back, and with them, Wilcox, who offered a box of toffees to the enemy. “Their chocolates are better than my toffees,” he said. “Fair trade.”
Alfred felt it lasted for an hour, but as when one is under fire, time slows down, and perhaps it was only fifteen minutes. He saw an orderly approach Crispens and say something to him.
“That’s it, then, gentlemen,” said Crispens. “Orders from above.”
“Afraid we’ll get too much chocolate?” Hopkins said.
“We haven’t got to the beer, yet,” said Howard, “these Huns are big beer drinkers.”
Alfred heard shouting from the German trenches, and the man in front of him shook his hand again quickly and ran back toward the Hun lines. Suddenly Alfred felt afraid, standing there in No Man’s Land.
They jogged back, and Alfred could feel the German’s cigar and chocolate in his pocket. He stopped at Matthews’ body, hanging there on the wire, and started to loosen it. Then the others came, carefully plucking the body off and carrying it to the trenches. Alfred found the crater. He knelt and lifted Waters over his shoulder and went slowly with his burden, the last one back. They leaned both bodies against the trench for now, facing the German lines. No one said anything. Corporal Hunter hunkered down and picked up his rifle. Everything was quiet.
That was the first Christmas of the war.
© Copyright 2008 by James Tipton