24 December, 1914
A full moon had risen early, and hung like a great silver orb in the clear blue sky, which was slowly darkening to black. As Lt. Duncan MacLeod made his way through the British entrenchment some forty miles southeast of the French town of Armentieres, he could not help but recall other battles in other centuries that had taken place on this ground. Foremost in the Scotsman's thoughts was the battle at Waterloo nearly ninety years before.
Duncan chuckled to himself, knowing that the events of that battle and his first meeting with the immortal Darius had led him to this battle… and his desire to remain weaponless during this conflict. He knew that there had been raised eyebrows in the recruiting office of the British Army when he'd volunteered… as a medic and ambulance driver. Here was a man in his "early thirties"… in good health… knowledgeable… who wanted to volunteer… but not to fight. They'd been curious… but in the end… the recruiters had agreed. After all… the British Army was primarily a "professional" army… and fully believed that this war would be shortly over.
The war had broken out in August. By mid-September the first forces had arrived and had swiftly begun pushing the German line back… but then the offense had stalled… and here… three months later… they remained. Both sides had dug trenches into the earth and the line ran from the North Sea in Belgium, south into France. Behind the lines… modern artillery roared, and once lush countryside was slowly being transformed into a barren wasteland. Even the town of Ypres was a shattered wreck. The German guns blasted the city day after day… until it was ghost town.
It was the guns that had changed everything.
The British Army… so capable in face to face encounters with the enemy, had found themselves unable to push any further east as the German guns came to bear on them. The English guns fired back… and a stalemate had happened… a stalemate that no one wanted… least of all… the common soldier in the trenches. Yet spirits were still high.
Approaching a group of four soldiers, three playing cards while the fourth sited at the German line one hundred yards east, Duncan called, "Merry Christmas!" as he tossed small packages to each of them.
"Hey guv'nor… What's this?" called one private.
"A present from Princess Mary," Duncan explained. "She's sent boxes of chocolate to all the men in this regiment."
"Chocolate!" cried one as he scrambled to open and inspect his package. Breaking off a small piece… he let it melt in his mouth as he closed his eyes. "A little bite of home it 'tis." His companions joshed him… slapping his arms as they too tore into their packages.
The soldier siting through his scope over the top of the trench suddenly guffawed. "Well now… that's a sight that is."
"What's up Harry?"
"Them Germans 'ave put a tree up directly across from us."
The three joined him in peering carefully over the top of the trench through their rifle scopes. "They's decorating it with strips of cloth and bits of metal it looks like."
One of the men handed Duncan his rifle as the Highlander made a motion to see for himself. It was indeed a Christmas tree. Strange that in so much blasted earth and deforested land that they'd found one. Strange to see green again that was a sign of something living… and not gangrenous. He pulled back.
From the German trench a song rose.
"What's that they're singing?" one of the soldiers asked.
"O Tannenbaum," Duncan said as he gave the man back his rifle. He could already see up and down the line that other men in the trenches had noted the tree… and the music.
"Wha's that mean, guv'nor?"
"Sounds like O Christmas Tree to me," another replied.
Duncan nodded with smile. "That's what it is." A few moments after the song ended, several of the British replied with the English version. Before long… the sounds of Christmas carols had silenced the guns.
Duncan continued along the trench with his package delivery… it was nice to be doing something other than attending to wounds and carting the men behind the lines to be taken to the rear areas for further treatment.
As he passed Captain Hulce's position, he heard, "There's a white flag." Curious, he stopped and glanced over the top… almost immediately feeling the crackle of power that told him another immortal was approaching. He focused on the German officer and his aide who carried the flag.
"What the devil do they want?" Hulce was saying. He thoughtfully lowered his binoculars and tapped a finger on them. Then he looked sharply at MacLeod. "You speak German… Lieutenant?"
Duncan paled but nodded.
"Accompany me. I want to see what this is about. Your being a non-combatant may help keep things calm… And your knowing German might be a nice plus." Reluctantly he handed his service pistol to an aide.
Swiftly a white flag was made and the two climbed out of the trench to approach their opposites. As they did so, the German officer's steely gaze locked onto Duncan's. His lips parted in a small gasp as he took in the red-cross armband. Then he nodded at Hulce. "Major Kurt Strasser," he said in introduction. He kept his hands behind him. Hulce did the same. "I would propose a truce for Christmas."
Hulce looked up and down the line. Perspiration was beading on his forehead. "Truce?"
"Yes. There are many dead about us. Perhaps it is time to bury them." He sniffed slightly.
Duncan noted the stench of death and decay that hung over the battlefield. Retrieving the bodies of the fallen from the various attacks usually resulted in the deaths of more men. A truce to retrieve and bury the dead was certainly in order. He met Strasser's gaze evenly.
Hulce cleared his throat. "This is highly irregular… I would need assurances."
Strasser smiled. "I am here… unarmed. My men worried I would be shot." He laughed gently. "I am relieved the British still honor a flag of truce."
Around them carols had begun again… From the British lines came "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". Someone had also managed to find a small evergreen and had decorated it in answer to the German one. Occasionally cheers, jokes, and well wishes were called back and forth.
Then the unthinkable happened. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict began climbing the trenches and standing unarmed in the gathering gloom. The sounds of Stille Nacht… Silent Night… rose in the crisp cold air.
"I'll have to contact my superiors… you understand. I can't authorize a truce," Hulce said softly, as if his words were an insult to the growing peace on the battlefield.
"Understood," Strasser replied as he smiled. "But I think our men may have already decided for us." He bowed… met MacLeod's gaze directly as it to say, "… another time" and returned to his line.
Nervously exchanging cigarettes as they were joined by more and more of their fellows and their enemies, the soldiers milled about together. Slowly… as the sky darkened… and the bright light of the full moon cast a silver glow on all of them… only singing and laughter filled the night sky. The guns were silent.
Twenty-four hours later… they were still silent. During the early hours of Christmas morning, enemies had helped bury one another's dead… later, they'd shared pictures from home… and the precious chocolate in exchange for sausages. Although most had not understood their enemy's language… they'd found other ways to communicate and share. Duncan even heard that a hunting party had trapped rabbits with snares and divided the fresh meat between the two sides for Christmas dinner. There was even some talk that on another part of the line… men had kicked a football about during the afternoon.
As the clock hands inched toward midnight on Christmas Day… piercing whistles from both sides sounded… and the men slowly returned to their trenches. Near Duncan… soldiers sat with their guns in their laps… staring at them as if they were somehow distasteful. How do you kill a man you've broken bread with? The demonized enemy now had a face.
Then the artillery fire began once more… and the truce was over.
As Duncan huddled by a small campstove… he wrote by its light with his stub of pencil… a letter to Darius. "My friend… you despaired only eight months ago when I took my leave of you… that your life and actions would ever bring change or peace. You saw the war coming… and feared its consequences. But this war may yet be one to end war… for I have seen a miracle this Christmas… and I tell you that there is yet hope of peace on earth. Do not despair my friend… for the day may come when all men will choose to cast aside their weapons… and embrace their enemy in friendship. May we both live to see that day."