Sat barely 3 foot away from me, head bowed, hands meticulously breaking up a stiff rough chunk of rye bread. He was as dishevelled looking as I felt, and like me, probably hadn't seen a decent shower in months. Looking up, he smiled and passed me a piece of the dry baked dough, which I washed down gratefully with a swig or two of cheap champagne, from a bottle that was being passed around. The only light came from the odd lantern swaying in the cool breeze and a few small open fires, around which huddled shadowy figures in dark trench coats. Murmurs of strange and broken conversation drifted back and forth through the hazy night air.
I watched him rub his hands together briskly, before pulling his collar up over his ears and crossing his arms tightly across his chest, his fists buried deep within the pits of his arms. The two of us sat together quietly puffing heat clouds into the darkness of night.
I fixated on his slight stature. No older than 17? 18 at a stretch? So young, too young for all this! I was only 22 myself, so not exactly a veteran of life, but we'd both experienced the world in a way no person should ever have to do. Reaching into my inside pocket, I pulled out the small tin that held the remnants of my little luxuries; a small bar of chocolate and a box of fags. His eyes followed my hands, unwavering, unblinking. I handed him the chocolate and motioned for him to tuck it away inside his coat; a treat for later when the lanterns were extinguished and the night would draw back into itself, waiting for the next dawn. He clasped it tightly with both hands in thanks and stuffed it quickly inside the vastness of his coat.
I pondered a short moment. I could feel the sting in the corner of my eyes as my sight blurred momentarily. I pretended to brush the messy wisps of hair from my face, in an effort to conceal my fragility.
I decided there and then that my next haircut would just have to wait! I tapped the small box remaining in my hands until two slightly bent cheap cigarettes revealed themselves. Lighting first one and then the other, I proffered one up to my erstwhile companion. It was accepted with a nod in silence, as he inhaled deeply and then quickly spluttered a succession of choking coughs as the unfamiliar peppery afterburn cut a rawness into the back of his throat. The intensity of his gaze had waned to an empty look of hollowness, but still he smiled and drew on the unlit end again, this time more slowly. This moment of quiet in the stillness of night; a peace I had not felt for sometime.
We exchanged few words that evening but instead joined in with a few festivities and songs, whose joyful words carried through the night air, juxtaposed against the harsh reality presiding beneath them. Minutes turned to hours and the jovial voices slowly waned around us. Then all too soon, the call came, and our time together was over.
My companion's eyes widened as he pulled himself up with a seemingly great heaviness of body and spirit. I took his outstretched hand in mine and held it tight whilst drawing him close in a hug that has connected him to me forever. "Ich bin Hans" he said. " I am Peter, Merry Christmas" I whispered back. As he turned to leave, I pulled the woollen scarf from around my own neck and wrapped it around his; a scarf that had made it's way to me from the distant shores to which I longed so very much to return.
"Home before the leaves fall" the propaganda that has once swept through England. "No way this would last beyond Christmas", the popular narrative. But, here we were.
"Back to the trenches. Everybody! Now!" came the calls from High Command. Soon the Silent Night, the Holy night, The "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" would be broken, and replaced by the familiar sounds of reciprocal gunfire across the trenches.
Christmas day, 1914.
A Christmas on the Western front that would forever be emblazoned on my heart and in my soul. A memory of an evening spent with a stranger in no-man's land; an erstwhile enemy whom I came to realise was just like me. Both just young boys, barely men, fighting for a cause neither fully understood. Unlikely companions for a short time; in a wasteland, in a world turned upside down.
I will never know whether Hans made it out alive that night, but he will remain forever in my memories, a companion til my very end.
Photo credit: Ahmed Zayan