“So does anyone remember from the video the name of the land between the British and German trenches?” asked Mrs Beatie.
Johnny shot his hand into the air. “I know, Miss,” he said. “Nomad’s Land.”
Mrs Beatie smiled.
“That’s a very good guess, but it’s not quite right. Actually it’s No Man’s Land,” she said, turning to the whiteboard to write it out.
“My great-great-grandad was there,” said Johnny, and Mrs Beatie paused, having just written the ‘M’ in Man. “Or my great-great-great grandad, I’m not actually sure. He was called John Thomson too, just like my dad, and his dad, and everyone’s dad in my family all the way back to when Tutankhamun was alive or something.”
“That’s very interesting, Johnny. Do you know anything more about him?”
“Err, I’ve heard from my dad that he was in Nomad’s, sorry No Man’s Land lots of times, and he was very brave, and he was fighting a lot of battles and only stopped once at Christmas to play football with the Germans. He scored five goals! I don’t remember anything else. Sorry, miss!”
“That’s no problem at all, Johnny. It’s very interesting to hear about your great-great grandfather. And that story about the soldiers from Britain and Germany playing football together at Christmas is true. There was nothing about it on the video, but as soon as Mr. Cummings fixes the projector, I can show you some pictures,” said Mrs Beatie. Her eyelids fluttered as she wondered if any of the eight and nine year olds would pick up on her hints to ask Bill Cummings about the projector when they saw him around the school. “There were many thousands of soldiers, but who knows, we might just see your ancestor on those photos, Johnny – if we can get the projector working.”
Johnny smiled and blushed as the whole classroom turned around to look at him.
John Thomson could feel the slime seeping through a gap in his boots. The end of the freezing cold spell had cheered him at first, as the stinging pain he experienced at night was gone. After a few weeks of winter, he had already forgotten how bad the mud could be though. The thaw left the beaten ground of the trench ripe for churning up anew. Then they rain came and made for one giant sticky mess. The sensation of standing on lookout with your feet slowly getting submerged in a cold mush was as close as Thomson bloody well planned to get to torture.
He tried to focus on the periscope.
“Still no sign of St. Nicholas?” asked a cheerful voice Thomson recognised as Grice, a fellow squaddie in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Grice was ferrying some medical oils along the trench as one of the foot infections further down had turned bulbous.
“I could have sworn I saw Fritz’s gunners take down a couple of reindeer in the sky earlier, but I rather feel Captain Brown felt it was all make believe. A ploy on my behalf to spend Christmas day at the clearing station.”
Grice emitted a wheezy laugh that turned into a rasping cough.
Thomson strained to see the barbed wire and sandbags of the German trench in the dim afternoon light. He had to focus beyond the horrid sea of bumpy black mud strewn with ripped-apart trees, rotting body parts and scraps of blown off clothing. No Man’s Land. What a name. This small strip of land the whole world wanted to fight over – they could have called it Everyman’s Land. Not to mention every wife and daughter’s land, for there might be millions of women who have their loved ones consumed by that diabolical swamp by the time the war was through. Still, like everyone else, Thomson did his best to blot that space out of his mind.
Superficially, the German trench looked just like the English one, but hundreds of hours of staring at the thing since arriving in France in the summer had given Thomson a sixth sense for when something was afoot. There was an incredible stillness on that breezy Christmas Eve that made Thomson curious. Not even Fritz would shell on Christmas Eve, Thomson was sure of that. When the previous attacks had come, you could just see it in the air in – he had that feeling before Fritz’s last big heave-ho at the start of November, just before another lookout had spotted a number of sandbags bulging at the German trench while they busied for the attack.
As a matter of fact, in some absurd way there was a kind of stillness that day you might expect on a Christmas Eve back home. The tingling sensation of peace and goodwill. It reminded Thomson of the crowds strolling under the lamps on Newbury market place and heading to St. Nick’s Church for midnight mass.
‘Better not let your thoughts wander’ Thomson told himself. As much as he wanted to concentrate on the job at hand, he also tried to limit his thoughts about life at a home he didn’t know when he’d return to. He deliberately kept his letters short, figuring that his relatives wanted to know he was still alive but wouldn’t enjoy the details of life in the trenches. That Thomson, a lad of 19, had no wife or even a young lady to court made being away at the trenches a little easier perhaps, although his youthfulness also made the shock of war that much more striking.
“In some way the war came ten years too early for you, but I’m sure you’ll make the most of the experience,” Thomson’s father had told him on the morning he took the train set for London and Dover. His father’s reasoning was that having gone to St. Bartholomew’s, a local grammar school, if John had gone to war at 29, he would most likely have been made an officer. Not that he minded being a humble soldier, at first at least. It just seemed the natural thing to do. His father was a town clerk whose brother, John’s uncle, had died in the Boer War. The call of King and country was just not one young John could refuse. When they had asked for volunteers to declare and go on stage after a show at the local music hall at the end of August, Thomson had stood up together with his friends, Curnock and Patterson, without the three even having to swap glances. How they had soaked up the applause then.
It didn’t take long for Thomson to realise the dark shadows of the war would smother his optimism. When passing through Boulogne to the front, the three friends went to the harbour district, which was teeming with rum-soaked squaddies. The ladies under the red lanterns – something you didn’t see in Berkshire – were the first real sign of entering a mixed-up world. Thomson’s friends egged him on, saying you never know when the next chance might be, etc. The friends had both found mademoiselles by the time a pale young lady with scraggy hair blew a kiss in Thomson’s direction. She lifted her dress at her side and said “monsieur! Avez vouz cinq francs?” while rubbing her hand down her thigh. Thomson sensed this display of flesh was a means to divert attention from the sadness in her eyes. He just couldn’t, and he didn’t.
Now with the muddy water lapping his ankles inside his boot, he regretted his restraint. What use is there for morality, after all, when you spend your days waiting for the next chance to rain shells on the men on the enemy trench – all the while when one can land on you at any moment and send you out of this world altogether, as had happened with Curnock in that November attack?
‘It’s extraordinarily still over there’ thought Thompson. His hopes raised of a little rest over Christmas, as the sky darkened above. A rat then tiptoed into his vision, sniffing towards the top of the periscope. He reached up to the top of the sandbags to swipe his hand at it, only to knock a clump of mud right onto the mirror, obscuring his view.
“Damn!” said Thomson. He wiped his right hand on his coat and spat into it. He clambered up to reach the top of the periscope to try to clean it.
“Fritz at one o’clock!” Shouted the nearest lookout to his right. Thomson jumped down with his heart aflutter. There was a frantic sound of splashing as Captain Brown dashed towards the lookout. Hands on rifles tightened their grasp as far as the eye could see.
“He’s with a white flag! Repeat – Fritz with a white flag!” screamed the lookout. Hands on rifles loosened as soldiers looked around, not knowing quite how to react.
Captain Brown pushed the lookout aside and peered through.
“Well, I say!” he said, just before the first words of song drifted above the trench.
Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
Captain Brown and the lance corporals in the company mounted horses and trotted out to no man’s land to meet their German equivalents. Thomson watched their meeting, which was nervous at first, and could hear a few of the words said from the British side when the wind was favourable.
“Er, right, how do you want to do this?” and “Yes, my men would very much like to try German cigarettes” were heard in Captain Brown’s booming voice. “Got any beer?” was then said by a corporal, greeted by laughter on both sides, followed by “what about women?” Somebody even mentioned playing football, a rough and tumble game which Thomson, a keen cricketer, loathed.
“You aren’t coming to meet Fritz?” asked Grice.
“Erm, no…I just…just can’t bear to look them in the eye, after all the men they’ve killed,” said Thomson.
That was a lie.
There was just no way Thomson could go. He had battled so hard to keep any thoughts of that German soldier away from the top of his mind, pushing them into his stomach to be another nagging pain – along with the lice, bruises and infections. He was sure to be there, and there was no way he could see him again. He was picturing his face now and he felt a swelling in his throat as sweat formed on his forehead.
Thomson strolled around the trench in confusion for a few seconds, not seeing the smiles and laughter on the faces of men leaving their positions and scrambling up onto no man’s land.
He decided to return to his shelter to rest, but on passing the walkway leading to Captain Brown’s dugout and seeing it empty, he couldn’t resist heading in. A Christmas truce meant rules of combat were suspended, so he hoped there would be nothing wrong with a private entering a dugout to have a look.
A lantern had been left on the table. A couple of rats sped out as Thomson stepped in. He sat down at the chair. It may have been only three wooden walls slotted into a mound of earth, but after months in the trench, this was a blissful retreat. He could hear some singing and laughter outside, but the solitude of the dingy dugout was what he needed.
Thomson pictured him again in his mind, and his body was seized with an anxious grip. He sent his shaking hand into his coat for his hip flask. He had been saving his rum rations over the last six week for Christmas. It tasted good but the sharp taste still wasn’t able to dislodge the image of that German soldier out of his mind.
Thomson put his hand to his forehead as his mind reeled through events of that morning in early October yet again, searching for some kind of excuse or solace.
It had been a hazy dawn. There had been talk that the mediocre visibility would get the attack cancelled, but the telegraph from the Field Marshal said proceed. One big push before the autumn bogged them down was what they wanted. It was Thomson’s first attack. Just treat it like a training exercise, Thomson told himself, and he used the awesome energy of the shells to push him on. He had been in the county finals in the 100 yard dash as a teenager, so he expected to be among the quickest, but hadn’t imagined he would get so far ahead of the rest. He started to slow down to avoid getting cut off, but onward he knew he had to go. He could see the barbed wire of the German position in the mist, and took out his grenade, chucking it to where it ripped open a section of wire and blasted a gap in the sandbags. The others were coming now. But so was Fritz. Two men chased out towards him, one with a mean grimace on his face, and Thomson cocked his rifle and shot him in the top of the chest.
It wasn’t his muted cry or the thud when he hit the ground that most alarmed Thomson, nor the fact in itself that he had killed a man. Instead it was the moment when he looked into the terrified eyes of the short German private who was running behind his victim. A young lad holding his rifle askew. The German stopped in his tracks as his eyes, from behind misty spectacles and beneath shaggy blond hair, pleaded for his life. He looked a lot like Hawkins, the lad from the dairy who brought milk to Thomson’s townhouse in Newbury every morning. The German held his mouth open in shock and gulped, expecting this moment to be his very last. Who could say which loved ones he wished he could have the chance to say farewell to right there and then? The German made no attempt to even point his rifle in Thomson’s direction. While Thomson pointed his rifle loosely towards him, the sheer terror of his foe sent a chill through his body. A moist patch spread throughout the top of the German’s trousers as he pissed himself. Thomson looked over his shoulder, thankful that in the mist nobody could see the encounter.
“Retreat,” was then shouted above the gunfire and screams. Thomson turned and ran.
That swapped glance, unpleasant as it was at the time, grew to fester like a sore on Thomson’s conscience. Of course Thomson was just doing the job he had signed up for. If fate hadn’t placed Thomson in that exact spot, no doubt another soldier would have equally filled the German lad with terror, and perhaps even taken his life. Still, Thomson was angry that simply by following his instincts and heart, he had put himself in a situation where he represented a lot more than just John Thomson from Newbury to that boy on the brink of death. Thomson knew his eyes, as far as the German lad could see, stood for imperialism, great power rivalry, contempt for the common man, a thirst for blood. Where had the humanity he always assumed was a defining feature of his character gone for that vital moment? Instead, a confluence of evils had wormed its way inside him and compelled him to kill in their name.
The tears were forming in Thomson’s eyes now as he took another swill of rum. He had never loved, nor had he made his fortune, but he had inflicted great terror on a German volunteer, who was probably in much the same situation as him. A terror that was sure to haunt him for life. Who knows what might become of him in Germany, if he survives the war? Could he go on to enjoy life though when he had seen how cheaply and easily it can all be taken away? That helpless face came back to Thomson whenever he least wanted it to – when the cold was nagging him at night, when his spirits were already low. And now, the German was no doubt over there marking Christmas with our men. The absurdity of it all.
Thomson felt a louse crawl along his right forearm. He slapped his left hand at it until the forearm was sore. He noticed a pistol had been left on the table under a pile of letters. He reached for it. He held the gun out into the darkness and recreated the encounter in his mind.
“Don’t shoot, you monster!” the German boy screamed as Thomson pictured him now in the dugout.
“Why of course not, my friend!” Thomson pretended to say.
“Thomson! Shoot, you traitor!” he imagined Captain Brown shouting behind him.
How many more would there have to be before the war was out? How many men must Thomson put to the sword, and how many could he petrify and then slyly let go? How far had the front moved in the last few months, after all? Five miles?
Thomson turned the pistol to his own temple now. His life was already defined by this war. He could marry later, sure, but that German boy, and the other victims to follow, were sure to accompany him wherever he went.
He took another swill of rum.
“For the sake of King and country, I order you not to!” said the imaginary voice of Captain Brown now.
Thomson leaned back on the chair and laughed.
“For the sake of John Thomson, I –“ he said. He wasn’t the only John Thomson, his father had borne that name too, and his grandfather, and so forth, all the way back to before Victoria’s reign. If he could only get through this war, even if it scarred him for life, he could continue the line of John Thomsons. The thought of a future version of himself not knowing any kind of misery like this in a brighter age comforted him. He laid the pistol down.