This short story is set at Christmas during World War I.
Bertie Connolly shivered as he scratched the words onto the paper by the light of a sputtering candle. Despite his greatcoat, the damp cold ate into him. His puttees were caked with mud. His feet hadn’t been dry since early October. A rat ran over his outstretched legs. Bertie chucked his mess tin at it but it was too quick for him.
Sighing, he settled down to his writing again.
27th December 1914
Dearest Ma and Pa,
Hoping this finds you in good health. I was very grateful for the parcel. Your seed cake went down well with the lads, Ma. Please send some baccy again next time if you can, Pa.
We moved up the line a couple of weeks ago to a new “place” but it looks just like the one we left. Trenches and mud and rats as big as cats. Me and Jimmy Cathorn have got a bet on as to who can brain the most. I’m up on him so far. And don’t worry, Ma, I’ve been saying my prayers. God’s looked after me so far.
I was sorry that it wasn’t all over by Christmas, like everyone said it would be, so I could be back at home with you. I pictured you having your Christmas dinner. What wouldn’t I give for a taste of your plum pudding, Ma!
The strangest thing happened here over Christmas. You wouldn’t credit it. I was on sentry duty on Christmas Eve – just my luck! It was freezing cold but not raining, luckily. I had to stamp my feet and flap my arms to keep warm. The Boche and us had been slugging away at each other all week. I could hardly hear myself think.
The shelling stopped for a bit, so I looked through the periscope to see what was happening. No Man’s Land is not very wide here and you can see across to the other side, through the wire.
Imagine my surprise when I saw a row of candles stuck on top of the Boche’s trenches. Blimey, I thought. They’re not going to surrender, are they? I called the Sergeant over to have a look.
“Some trick of theirs, I expect,” Sarge said, shrugging. “Crafty beggars, they are.”
He’d just turned his back when singing drifted over No Man’s Land. The music sounded like ‘Silent Night’ but the words were all in German, I suppose. Some of our boys came up out of the dugouts and listened.
George Barton said, “Come on, lads. They’re not the only ones as can sing. Give ’em a chorus of ‘Good King Wenceslas’.”
So we all joined in and gave it to them. They sang back with some German song. We replied with ‘Oh come, all ye faithful’.
“Hey, Tommy. Merry Christmas!” shouted a voice from the other side.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Fritz!” George bellowed back, cupping his hands around his mouth.
Men on both sides shouted greetings for a minute and then it all fell silent again. Sarge took another look through the periscope.
“Lord bless us,” he shouted. “They’re coming out into No Man’s Land. One of them’s carrying a Christmas tree. Where the devil did they get that?”
Grey figures were picking their way across the muddy ground, dodging the craters.
“Don’t shoot, Tommy. We’ve got something for you. A Christmas present.”
We all looked at each other. “Don’t see any weapons,” Sarge said.
“What do you say, lads? Shall we go and wish Fritz a Merry Christmas in person?” George asked.
A few of the lads looked a bit doubtful but he put his foot on the ladder and hauled himself up till his head was over the top. We expected him to fall back into the trench with a sniper’s bullet in his brain. But nothing happened. So we put down our guns and clambered up after George.
They were waiting for us in the middle of No Man’s Land. Someone had planted the Christmas tree in the mud. We scrambled through the barbed wire and squelched through the muck. It didn’t half smell out there from the bodies that hadn’t been buried. Everything had been churned up or blown to bits by the shells, except for a couple of dead trees like skeletons. The only green thing was their blooming Christmas tree.
Some Fritz beckoned to us and held up a bottle. We got closer and soon we were shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. We had a drink out of the bottle. It looked like water but smelled strong and burned your throat as it went down. Snaps or something, they called it.
One of them had a few cigars which he handed out. I tried one but didn’t care for it so I gave it to Sarge. I prefer my baccy. One of our lads gave them a few tins of bully beef he’d brought with him and they seemed to like that. They’re welcome to it!
I found myself standing next to a tall, thin Boche with red hair and freckles. He grinned at me, showing a couple of gaps in his teeth. He looked about my age. In fact, he reminded me of Kipper Johnson from school. Do you remember him? We had some larks together, Kipper and me. I heard he’d lost a leg at the Marne. Bad luck but his war’s over.
Smiling at the skinny Boche I pointed at myself and said, “Bertie.”
“Ja, ja,” he replied and pointed at his chest. “Werner.”
We shook hands. “Where do you come from, Werner?”
He shrugged. Couldn’t speak English. I shrugged too and we both laughed.
Then he pointed at my coat. At first I thought he wanted it, although he was wearing a greatcoat of his own. Perhaps he wanted to exchange coats. I made to take it off but he shook his head and pointed at the buttons.
“Ah, you want some buttons,” I said. I had a pair of wire-cutters in my pocket so I snipped off two buttons and handed them to him.
He nodded and smiled his thanks. He held out his hand for the wire-cutters, cut off a couple of buttons from his own coat and gave them to me. “Thanks,” I said, and chinked them in my hand like dice. Souvenirs.
I offered Werner a smoke. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. We stood around for a bit, smoking and taking the occasional pull from the bottle. A couple of their men spoke English but no one said much. We were just a group of lads hanging about. We could have been anywhere.
That’s what struck me. These Fritzes were ordinary people with parents, sisters, brothers, wives, sweethearts back home. Just like us. Exchange uniforms and you wouldn’t have noticed the difference. And yet up till now we’d been trying to thump each other into the ground. It made me think.
After a bit it was getting dark and cold and we shook hands and went back to our own lines. Werner pressed my hand hard. He said something. “Owfeederzane,” it sounded like. I shook my head. He pointed at me and then at himself and jerked his thumb back towards his lines. Maybe we could be friends once this was all over. I’m sure that’s what he meant.
He took out my buttons and jiggled them in his hand. Then he closed his fingers over them and smiled. I did the same with his and put them in my pocket. He gave me that crooked grin again and turned away into the dark. I waved but he wouldn’t have seen.
Christmas Day we sang a few carols again and shouted greetings across No Man’s Land but no one went over the top. Lieutenant Horrocks came and told us we were to stay in the trenches. The top brass didn’t care for us fraternising, whatever that means.
We got an extra ration of bully beef and rum. That was our Christmas dinner. Normally we only get that if we’re going over the top. I wondered what Werner had for his Christmas dinner on the other side. I hope we’ll meet again.
Boxing Day, our side started up the shelling again and it’s gone back to how it was before. Their Christmas tree didn’t last long. Now it seems like a dream, that little truce in the war.
Well, I must close now. The candle has almost burnt down to the stump and we’ve been ordered to rest up in preparation for something. Can’t say more than that.
Here’s hoping we can all spend next Christmas together again. Thinking of that, I will wish you a very ‘Happy New Year’. Give my love to Florrie, Emmy and Auntie Ett. One look at her and Fritz would run home screaming. Don’t tell her I said that or my life won’t be worth living when I get home!
Mrs Connolly folded the letter, smoothing along the creases, and replaced it in the envelope. A few places had been blacked out but most of it was readable. She put it in the biscuit tin with his other letters and the telegram. She pressed her lips together and breathed deeply, her eyes stinging. Where had God been when Bertie went over the top for the last time?
She also placed in the tin the other things they had found in his pocket with the unsent letter. His “effects”, they had called them. A rosary, a dog-eared photograph of her and Pa. And a couple of buttons.
Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2012. All rights reserved.
“Bertie’s Buttons” was first published in Writers Abroad’s anthology, Foreign Encounters (2012), available in paperback and ebook versions on Amazon. It is reprinted by kind permission of the members of Writers Abroad.