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Gifts of Warby Mackenzie Ford
Had it not been for the war, Christmas 1914 would have been straight out of a fairy tale. On 24 December the weather changed abruptly. Along the Front it turned bitterly cold, and the sun that shone all afternoon was too weak to unfreeze the puddles of muddy water that stretched everywhere. Rats and rabbits skittered on the ice, and even the lice--as dug in as we were, in our hair and clothing--seemed lethargic in the cold conditions. It was a better day than most for scratching. That night a thin cloud cover formed but the temperature didn't ease up and a light snow fell, dusting the desolate landscape with a fine layer of crystals. The branches of dead trees--what trees remained standing--became lit in an unnatural way, rather like actors onstage are lit from reflected light below. What was beginning to be familiar terrain suddenly took on a strange, eerie appearance and I remember wondering whether I had, in fact, been shot and killed and was now looking onto the other side--a version of hell that had indeed frozen over.
But no, the eeriness was all too real. That night, as midnight approached, when it was already Christmas by their time, but not with us, we heard movement in the German trenches. Where we were, they were about eighty yards away--no more--so sounds carried. First one, then another small fir tree was hoisted on to the lip of their trenches, lit by candles. One of our sharpshooters fired at one of the trees, and knocked it back down out of sight. This normally would have brought a burst of answering fire from the Germans, but not this time. All was quiet. I barked an order, the sharpshooter made no attempt to fire at the second tree, and we waited. After a delay, there was a small commotion on the German side and another candelit tree was positioned on the lip of their trench. This time we left it alone.
Again we waited. Some minutes afterward we heard the strains of a mouth organ, a trembling, unassertive--even vulnerable--sound, which only just carried across the distance. Its tone was plaintive, melancholy. The musician played a few bars and then voices joined in. The song, which I recognized, was "Die Wacht am Rhein," "The Watch on the Rhine," based on a nineteenth-_century German poem. The clouds had gone by now and the Front had a stark beauty in the clear moonlight. On our side we had all but forgotten the cold.
As the song ended, one of our men shouted, "Guten singing, Fritz!" or something very like it. We all laughed and cheered. After a short silence, the mouth organ started up again, and the Germans gave us "Stille Nacht," "Silent Night," which of course allowed us the opportunity to join in with English words. What a scene! Two groups of men, in ditches eighty yards apart, who hours before had been doing their level best to slaughter one another, singing in unison. Well, almost.
Everyone sensed that this was something historic. It was one of those moments in life when everyone--everyone--raised his game, and no one who was there will ever forget it.
I was twenty-_three then, and a second lieutenant in the Forty-_seventh Gloucestershire Rifles. I was born and grew up in Edgewater, a tiny Cotswold hamlet not far from Stroud. My school career had its moments--mostly wrong moments. I was good at languages but that was about it. I was caught smoking twice and fighting twice. These fights weren't brawls but midnight bare-_knuckle knockout bouts in the school ring--this is how arguments were settled in my school, and highly illegal.
Twenty-_three was a little old for the rank I held, that being mainly due to the fact that I had delayed my degree at Cambridge, to spend two years in--of all places--Germany. My father had been more impressed by my facility with foreign languages than I was myself and at his expense I spent one year in Berlin and another in Munich, brushing up my German (though not only that). The prewar years in Germany, in Munich especially, were the great years of modernism. The birth of abstract painting took place there, the first forays into cabaret; the great novels of Thomas and Heinrich Mann were written in the city. What a time! It was in Munich that I learned to drink and to swear. I dabbled in painting, song writing, and I lost my virginity. I played the tables, lost my allowance, worked as a bouncer in the casino to pay off the debt (the boxing came in handy). I visited hermaphrodite strip shows, learned to nurse a drink for hours on end in all-_night piano bars, and took part in everything the new century had to offer. I never knew whether this is what my father had intended for me, but I loved most of my time in Germany and silently thanked him all the same.
So I didn't go up to Cambridge until I was twenty and therefore didn't come down until May 1914, just before I turned twenty-_three. I'd been working in publishing in London for all of six weeks when war broke out.
Despite my Munich-inspired sophistication, my familiarity with abstract art, continental women, foreign food, and fashion, like so many others I didn't see the Great War coming. And, like so many others, I volunteered immediately. My father was half-pleased. He was always a rather distant man, whom I respected rather than loved. We never really talked about it, but I think he understood the danger more than I did. I suspect he thought that I would get a better--and maybe safer--commission if I volunteered early. He thought my German would help to get me a billet in intelligence, away from the front line. He was wrong: what was most wanted in the early days was infantry, fighting men--or, as the skeptics in the newspapers insisted, "cannon fodder."
My mother was against the war from the very beginning and didn't want me to have any part of it. She would, I think, have even been prepared for me to be a conscientious objector. My mother was a ferocious figure of respect, too, rather than love. I don't want to give the impression that my parents were cold people--they weren't--but the distance they kept was their way of allowing my sister and me to develop our own personalities. Anyway, my mother distrusted authority--any authority. She had no belief in God, loathed the church, and thought the army High Command little better than a bunch of brutish, emotionally stunted pigs, as intellectually vapid as a flock of geese (her very words). Men, she said contemptuously to anyone who would listen, make mistakes in life that women would never contemplate. When I left the house to join up she kissed me on the cheek but said nothing, not even "Good luck" or "Good-_bye."
My sister, Isobel, was different again. Two years younger than me, Izzy was the archetypal younger sister (or so I thought then), adoring of her elder brother, looking up to him, taking his lead in everything. I didn't ask for it; she just grew up with her attitude without thinking. For me it was as much a burden as it was a pleasure. And it made me underestimate her.
I obtained a commission in the Forty-_seventh Gloucestershire Rifles, based at Tetbury. As a second lieutenant--the lowest commissioned rank--I did a month's officer training, and just three weeks basic training. There's not much to say about Tetbury but, about half_way through the course, we got a weekend pass and several of us took the train down to Bristol. Bristol was to play a walk-_on part in my story in a number of ways, and the first time was that weekend.
I traveled with a couple of other second lieutenants; we had been primed by the adjutant on the general staff not to miss a certain "establishment" (as he put it) near the docks, called the Baltic Wharf, and to use his name. Not to mince words, the establishment, while a perfectly serviceable pub on the ground floor, turned out to be a brothel on the floor above. All was revealed when one of us, in ordering some drinks, mentioned the adjutant's name. Apparently, the owner of the Baltic Wharf had been a company sergeant major earlier on in his life, and still had a soft spot for khaki. None of us knew whether we would be allowed out of the camp again before our training was completed, and it didn't take a genius to see that, once we were in France, or Flanders, or wherever we were going, women would not be very high on the army's list of priorities. Add to that the fact that each of us had had no chance to spend our pay for several weeks, and the Baltic Wharf began to seem like a little splash of color in a very gray-and-khaki world.
I remember that the girl was called Crimson--not her real name, obviously--and that she was from Halifax in Nova Scotia. She had lived in Bristol for some months, having been smuggled aboard a ship in her hometown in Canada to service the crew, then been too frightened to sail home, because war had broken out and the North Atlantic had suddenly become very dangerous.
The Wharf was a very civilized place for a brothel (at least, I imagine it was; I am not too qualified to speak, Munich and Bristol being my only experiences in that direction). Besides a number of bedrooms on the first floor, the Wharf had a sitting room, a place where you could relax, put your feet up, have a smoke and a drink, read the newspapers. It was quite clever in its way. The idea was not to rush the men away, once the main business was finished, so to speak, but to persuade them to linger, perhaps try another girl after a suitable break. Anyway, I was relaxing in the room, alone with a drink and a cigarette, waiting for the others I had traveled down with and leafing through that day's Morning Post, when another man joined me. He nodded, poured himself a drink, and began to light a cigarette.
I was a bit preoccupied, to tell the truth. There was a piece in the paper about some of our ships being sunk off Ireland. Crimson wouldn't be going home yet awhile.
Just then we heard a commotion below, and raised voices. A look of fear crossed the other man's face and he rushed to the door. He stuck his head out, left it there for a moment, then slammed the door shut.
"Jesus!" he growled.
"What is it?" I asked. "Police?"
"No," he breathed, more quietly now. "Worse. Curfew."
"Curfew? It's not late."
"Not that kind of curfew. Enlisted men aren't allowed by the harbor. Officers only."
He shrugged. "I don't make the rules. There've been a couple of fights, a knifing."
"Are you going to run for it?"
He shook his head. "It's all up."
"What's the penalty, if you are caught?"
"The penitentiary, bread and bleeding water. Loss of privileges for weeks, more. I could even lose my stripe."
I got up, went to the door, and looked out. A lieutenant was moving toward the stairs that led to the bedrooms and the room where we were waiting. I closed the door again.
"What's your name?"
"I mean your first name, and don't call me 'sir.' "
He nodded. "John, sir." He made a face. "John."
I took off my jacket. "You're in luck. I know the officer on the stairs. Only slightly, but he'll recognize me."
"How does that help me?"
I held out my jacket. "My first name's Hal. Put this on and sit over there. Try to look relaxed."
"You want me to impersonate an officer?"
I still held out the jacket. "It's your choice."
He took it.
I lounged in an easy chair, trying to look as relaxed as I could.
Meadows hesitated, looking me straight in the eye. Then he slipped his arms into my jacket and slumped onto the sofa.
The door burst open and a man I knew as Lieutenant Ralph Coleman came in. He stopped, looked at me, nodded, and then looked at Meadows.
"John," I said. "Can you spare another cigarette, please? I think I must have rolled onto mine." I grinned.
He did his best to grin back. "Sure, Hal. Here." And he threw the packet in my direction.
Coleman took a step further into the room. What now? He looked from me to Meadows. "Can I bum one of those cigarettes, do you mind? I've run out."
Meadows nodded and I threw the pack toward Coleman.
He lit the cigarette, dropped the packet on a table, blew smoke into the room. "You lucky bastards," he said softly. "I was told there were some enlisted men in here today, but I've found no one so far." And, as he backed out, he grinned. "Don't tire the girls out, you two. My turn tomorrow."
I never saw Crimson or the Baltic Wharf again. Toward the end of October, we shipped out to France. We arrived at the Front by motorbus. Two thousand of them, driven by reservists, had been sent out by the government. You can imagine the jokes that circulated about arriving at a war by bus. In no time, in November in fact, we saw heavy fighting around and along the Marne River and our strength was reduced so much that the minimum height restriction for recruits was lowered from five foot eight to five foot three. Christ, we were taking a battering. I was directly affected by this because my immediate superior, a full lieutenant who was from Bath and all of six months older than me, was killed in the push on Nieuport and I had to take over.
nd so, with the war only weeks old, my unit was--in terms of personnel--already 80 percent different from the one that had left Tetbury. Almost no one under my command was out of their teens, and some, I am fairly sure, had lied about their age to get into the infantry and should by rights have been at school.
By Christmas Eve we were all, in a way, tired old men. The mud, the danger, the constant bombardment, the sight of so many bodies, and so many bits of bodies, not to mention the blinded, the maimed who had lost arms or legs, the quantities of blood sluicing through the mud, the screams, in the middle of the night, of men who could not be rescued from no-man's-land... this was a very different kind of experience from Munich. We learned to sleep standing up, to ignore cold and damp, to forget about sex, to accept the insect life on our bodies, to stop thinking beyond the next day. In my first letters home I tried to describe the horror, but after a few attempts I gave up. No words could describe what we saw. In the trenches, we stopped talking about it.
From the Hardcover edition.
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