WHEN THE GUNS WERE SILENT by Rabbi J. Ben Avraham
The British soldiers slowly made their way across no-man's land. It was the first time in a year that the Germans weren't shooting at them. It was an eerie silence, so unlike warfare
It all started eight hours ago, the Christmas Eve Truce. It was accepted by the top brass that all units on both sides, would respect Christmas. Both German and allied forces would cease fire for 24 hours, so for 24 hours, enemies would be friends.
Carols would be sung, games would be played, smiles and greetings would be exchanged. The the next day, they would blow each apart with bombs, rockets, rifles, bayonets, and machine guns. Mortars would be launched, machine guns would rattle, and men would continue to die. Some would return home whole, others minus arms or legs, or both, or blinded by poison gas.
But for now, a little bit of peace would be enjoyed, just for one day. Just for a day, the bullets wouldn't whistle through the air. Just for a day, the screaming of the dying and wounded would cease, at least, just for a day.
During the night, the German troops could be heard singing “Silent Night” in German, even though the words were different, the melody was the same. The British soldiers responded as well. They also sung “Silent Night” perhaps trying to out-do the other side. The night of singing ended, and now the soldiers were emerging from their trenches. Both sides met in the middle of No-Man's-Land.
Private Michael Stafford walked slowly along with his buddies, rifle slung over his shoulder.
They were just ahead, those Heinies, those bloody Huns. They were just in front of their own trenches having a game of football. It seemed so strange to have some fun in the midst of war, to relax, if not just for a day.
Michael observed a few German soldiers as they stopped their game and looked towards him and his companions. They waved and shouted something in German.
“Well” said one of the Brits, “seems like they want us to join them in their game, how about it chaps?”
“Let's show those Heinies that the British are just as tough in football as on the battlefield!” replied another soldier, pausing to light-up a cigarette. Michael chose to stay behind as his companions ran to the German soldiers. It seemed odd to face the enemy on friendly terms. Was there really inbred hatred towards England, France, and the other allied countries who fought this war against the Germany? Or were these soldiers just following orders? Orders to aim and shoot at a soldier in a different uniform, who spoke a different language? Was there really hate involved?
As Michael stood there pondering these thoughts he saw a young German soldier pop his head out of a near-by bomb crater. The soldier was probably in his early twenties. His face looked gentle, his short dirty blonde hair blowing softly in the cold December wind.
The German looked at Michael and motioned for him to come over to where he was. “Well” thought Private Stafford, “What did he have to lose? It was a 24 hour truce, might as well enjoy it.” Michael walked over to where the German was. The bomb crater was shallow, the German was sitting on a rock, helmet by his side, and there was a small fire going with a smoking tin pot with some boiling liquid.
“Kaffe?” offered the smiling young German soldier, lifting up a small cup of coffee towards Michael.
Michael thought back to his pre-combat training. He had taken a crash course in basic German just in case he was taken prisoner. His whole company had to go through the language training. He found out he had a mind for languages. He thought about the phrases he had learned, might as well put them to good use now, and he wasn't even a prisoner.
“Danke Schon” replied Michael, as he sat down next to the young German soldier. Michael
took the tin cup from the German's extended hand, nodded to him and smiled.
“bitte” nodded the young German. The German moved over a bit towards Michael and introduced himself to him.
“Ich heisse Hans, Hans Muller”.
Michael understood that. So his name was Hans Muller. So what? Everyone had names.
“Michael, Ich heisse Michael” replied Private Stafford, happy that he could express himself in the language of the Kaiser. The German smiled and nodded as he heard the British soldier's name. He thought it rather interesting that a British soldier would know German.
“Du kanst deutsche sprechen, das ist gut!” replied Hans, smiling at Michael.
Michael thought a minute about the phrase, then he understood. Yes, it was good that he spoke German, even if it was just a little bit, enough to get him by as a POW or as a 24 hour friend.
Hans reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small book. He showed it proudly to Michael.
“Mein Bibel” begun Hans, “ Jesus Christus ist mein Herr”
Michael looked a little puzzled. He had never learned those words, but he had recognized “Jesus Christus” “Bibel” and “Herr”. He put those words together and finally figured out what the young German was saying. That was his Bible, and that Jesus Christ was his LORD and Savior.
“Ja” replied Michael, and he thought about his answer in German. “Das ist gut. Jesus Christus ist mein Herr auch” (Jesus Christ is my LORD and Savior too). Suddenly, Michael felt a special bond with Hans. Hans was a born-again christian and so was he. Michael though back to his childhood in Kent, the small country church near his home. It was nestled among a few farms. He remembered walking to church on Sundays with his mother and father. The kind elderly Pastor Lewis taught him God's Word in Sunday school, and the lessons intensified during the Sunday sermons.
He remembered back to that special Sunday. It was in May, 1909, when he was 12 years old. He went forward and accepted Jesus as his personal Savior and LORD. The pastor gave him a small Bible and signed it, writing “John 3:16” after his signature.
Somehow, since he joined up with the army a year ago, he had lost focus on his faith. He joined in with the other soldiers in drinking ale and laughing at dirty jokes. As he watched Hans open his small bible, he felt a little embarrassed about losing sight of his own relationship with God.
The German looked at him and asked; “Habense dein Bibel?”
Michael understood that Hans was asking about his bible, if he had one. Michael looked down at the ground, shook his head sadly and replied; “Nein, ich habe nicht Bibel”, No, he didn't have his bible with him.
“Warum nicht?” asked Hans, looking a bit confused. “Warum habensie nicht Bibel?” Michael understood, Why didn't he have a bible with him?
Michael responded quickly in English. “It's like this Hans, I've bloody well fallen away a bit, you know, from the faith, but not on purpose, the war you know,. My Bible, well, I left it at home.”
He remembered packing his gear at home, ready to get on the train for the trip to the docks. When he was on the train, he remembered seeing his bible on the kitchen table, he had just forgotten to pack it in his ruck sack.
Hans just looked at him a bit confused. Of course he didn't understand. Then he opened his little pocket sized Bible and started to read. He read out loud, yet quietly. Then he took a photograph from the bible and showed it to Michael.
“Meine Familie Michael” said Hans proudly, “Meine Frau, Helga und meine Tauchter,
Gretchen”. Michael looked at the photograph. There was a young looking lady with reddish hair tied in braids holding a little baby. Michael understood, This was Hans' wife and daughter.
“Nice” replied Michael, as he took out his wallet from his jacket pocket and took out a small, stained photograph of a young woman with a small boy standing by her side.
“Meine Frau Michelle, und mein Sohn, Michael Jr.” said Michael with a broad smile. Hans looked at the photograph and nodded. Hans put his photograph back in his bible and continued to read it out loud. He showed Michael the page, it was the gospel of John. Michael looked on although he really didn't understand all the words in German. He had read the gospel of John a few times, so he understood, more or less, the content.
Time went by, the afternoon shadows grew long, the two soldiers, enemies yet brothers in Christ, sat together in the bomb crater. Hans continued to read his bible. Michael looked on as if understanding all the words. From time to time, Hans looked up from his reading and smiled at Michael. Finally, the whistles blew, first from the German trenches, and then from the British side. The officers from both sides barked orders through bull horns. Both sides received orders to return to their respective trenches.
Hans returned his bible to his jacket pocket. With a sad look, Hans said his goodby to Michael;
“Auf Wiedersehen Bruder Michael” shaking his hand and then embracing Michael.
“Auf Wiedersehen Bruder Hans” replied Michael, trying to maintain a serious look. He didn't want to show his sadness, after all, Hans was his brother in the faith even though he was the enemy. Now they were departing. There was a war to be fought. In a few minutes, they would be in their own trenches, and they would be enemies once again. Michael tried to concentrate on that. Both soldiers got up and left the bomb crater. After a few minutes had passed, they were both back in their own trenches.
“Alright, listen up chaps” barked a sergeant once the troops had gathered around in the British trench, “At 19:00 hours tomorrow, we're going over the top, but not before getting some covering fire from our artillery in the rear. That should put a bunch of those bloody Huns out of their misery” The sergeant lit up a cigarette, looked around at the men and nodded. “Looks like you chaps are ready for a fight, in the meanwhile, rest at ease.”
At that, the sergeant walked off down the trench. The men seemed excited. They all seemed to be relaxed. They talked among themselves quietly, some of them tried to get some sleep. Michael sat down on some sandbags by himself. His thoughts went to his wife Michelle and his son. He thought about his encounter with Hans. He didn't want to think about the unavoidable battle which he would face soon enough. He would try and get some rest, maybe a little sleep. He imagined himself back in Kent, the country side, the church, picnics with his family and church members, the walks along the quaint country road. He was holding Michelle tenderly in his arms, they were at grandma and grandpa's dairy farm, the milk, the cheese, and.....suddenly, he was awaken by a shout.
“All soldiers stand to, get ready, fix bayonets”. An officer walked by, kicking a few sleeping soldiers on the bottoms of their boots to arouse them. It was now December 26th, the soldiers had relaxed the whole day, but now, it was time to fight. The “Stand to” order was echoed down the trench and the soldiers lined up along side the trench walls. They fixed their bayonets to their rifle muzzles, put the ladders in place against the walls. Some just starred into nothingness, others nervously lit up cigarettes with trembling fingers, others kissed crucifixes, others seemed calm and just awaited the order, the sound of the whistle to “go over the top”.
“stand by for artillery cover fire” shouted an officer at the extreme end of the trench. A few minutes passed, and then suddenly, the barrage of British artillery boomed overhead. The soldiers heard the whistle of the artillery shells and then the explosion around the German side. After ten minutes, the shelling subsided. Then, an officer blew a whistle and shouted the words;
“Over the top chaps” The soldiers shouted a war cry, climbed up the wooden ladders and
went “over the top” of the trench. No sooner had the soldiers cleared the top of the trench that a barrage of German machine gun fire let loose with full fury against the Brits. Dozens of British soldiers fell in their tracks. Some were killed instantly, others went down wounded, crying out in pain, clutching their arms, legs, and abdomens.
Michael ran in zig-zag movements, making his away towards the German lines. He caught sight of the machine gun nest, and as the machine gunners turned their weapon of death towards his path, he fell prone to the earth, awaiting the bullets to pass over his head. He got up again and made his way towards the German trenches. So far so good, he hadn't be hit. He knew that somehow, the machine gun nest had to be taken out, otherwise, hundreds of British soldiers would be slaughtered.
“might as well be me” thought Michael, as he inched his way towards the target. He caught sight of one of the many bomb craters up ahead, really close to the machine gun nest. He threw himself to the ground and low-crawled up to the shallow hole, then with a burst of speed, he threw himself into the pit. He crawled up to the edge and peered over the top. He could see the two German machine gunners behind some sandbags about 10 meters away. He was in a good position. He could take them out with a good aim. He had a full clip of bullets as he hadn't fired his rifle yet, being that before now, he didn't have any German soldier in plain line of sight.
There were two German machine gunners, he would have to take both of them out in a matter of seconds. He took careful aim, then fired his rifle twice. The bullets hit their mark. The German soldiers dropped their heads to the sandbags and the machine gun was silenced.
But just then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a movement from another small bomb crater, just in front of him and slightly to his left. He noticed that a German soldier had him in sight, his rifle aimed straight at him, but the German hesitated, doing something surprisingly strange. He lowered his rifle a few inches and strained his head forward just a bit, as if looking for something...or someone.
That was all that Michael needed. He quickly swung his rifle around and pulled the trigger . He saw the German soldier's head recoil backwards as the bullet found its mark. Then, at almost the same time, a German artillery shell exploded almost beside him. The shock shook the ground and Michael felt a sharp pain as an object hit his helmet. The explosion and painful impact caused Private Michael Stafford to lose consciousness.
When he came to, the morning sun was peaking over the horizon. He felt a hand gently touching his body. He slowly lifted his head in response to that soft touch.
“This one's alive sergeant” shouted the medic who came across Michael. The sergeant came over to where Michael lay.
“Are you badly hurt Private? Can you get up?” asked the sergeant rather curtly.
The medic removed Michael’s helmet, passing it to the sergeant. The side of Michael's head was stained with blood.
“Lucky you had your helmet on soldier, or you'd be bloody well dead” the sergeant said, kneeling down to get a better look at Michael's head wound.
Michael sat up slowly, the side of his head was throbbing with pain. The medic rubbed some iodine solution on the head wound and tied a bandage with a gauze pad to Michael's head.
“look” said the sergeant as he handed Michael back his combat helmet, “a little bit more and you wouldn't be sitting up “.
Michael looked at his helmet and saw a sharp piece of German shrapnel imbedded into the side, a little bit had penetrated through and that was the cause of his slight head wound. Michael pulled out the shrapnel and placed his helmet on his head again.
“I'll be OK sergeant”
“Good” replied the sergeant, as he got up and started moving away, “I hear you took out that machine gun nest” continued the sergeant, pointing to the remains of the German machine gun
position. “You'll be getting a medal of valor for that, you saved hundreds of lives”.
“Give that medal to those guys over there” replied Michael, pointing to all the British dead on the battlefield.
The sergeant didn't reply, he and the medic just walked off towards the now empty German trenches. The sergeant turned back once more and looked at Michael, who was now on his feet.
“War is hell” he said, shaking his head, then the sergeant and the medic departed, following the other survivors of last night's battle.
Private Michael Stafford shouldered his rifle and walked forward, following the lead of the sergeant, the medic, and the other soldiers who were blessed to see another day. As Michael continued walking forward, he caught sight of the machine gun nest and the dead machine gunners. Yes, he had indeed saved many lives. Then his eye caught sight of the German who had emerged from the bomb crater just in front of him. He stopped in his tracks, he just starred at the dead soldier. Something was familiar about that particular soldier, but what?
The German was laying face down in the shallow bomb crater, his dirty blonde hair blew softly in the wind. Michael's heart skipped a beat, no, it can't be, not him, not....he couldn't continue his thought. Michael then jumped down into the bomb crater, and turned the body of the dead German soldier over, and looked into the face of his brother....brother Hans Muller.. his brother in the faith.
Michael just sat there starring into the face of Hans, he seemed so peaceful, even in death, with a small red hole in his forehead where the bullet found its mark.
“Why didn't you stay down Hans, Why?” cried out Michael, as he shook the body of Hans. Yes, they were brothers in the faith, yet enemies on the battlefield. He thought back to last night's battle,
“You..You recognized me, didn't you? That's why you lowered your weapon, you didn't fire, you made me....made me fire first”
Michael lifted his brother's head gently and put the German's helmet back on his head.
“Rest now, rest, my brother in the faith, enjoy eternity, walk with the LORD. Now what shall I tell your wife and child?” whispered Michael, almost in tears. “Dear Helga and Gretchen, Your Hans is dead because of me, you are now a widow and your daughter fatherless.” no, he couldn't write that, he couldn't, how could he?, he didn't have the nerve, nor was his German that good.
He then reached into Hans' jacket pocket and removed the small bible. He found the photograph of the young woman with a baby girl, there was an address, in Bremerhaven, a sea port in the north of Germany. Yes, he would send the bible back to his wife, no note, he would just send it back once he was on leave, if he survived until then. Michael knew that Hans was happy in the Kingdom of God. No more war, hate, bombs, poison gas, trench rats, nor bullets to worry about.
He also knew that one day, he too would meet Hans again in Heaven. Together, he and Hans, his wife and Hans' wife, and both their children would walk in the city of the King, enjoying eternal life and bliss. He imagined themselves sitting under one of the fruit trees that lined the River of Life, enjoying the fruit, with uplifted hands singing praises to the Most High God.
The war would be just a memory, perhaps not even that. Perhaps the LORD would wipe their minds free from memories of sin, greed, hate, pain, strife, and war. With the thought of war, he suddenly returned to reality, his reality. For the time being, there was a war to be fought, for king and country, against the kaiser and his army. Michael's thoughts were interrupted by the voice of an officer.
“Get a souvenir and be off with you private, we have a war to fight, and a long way to go, but we have those bloody Huns on the run thank God!”
Michael turned around to look up into the face of an infantry officer who stood there gazing down upon Michael and the dead German soldier.
“He was my brother” shouted Michael, his eyes glistening with a couple of tears.
“If that Hun was your brother, then I'm the kaiser” retorted the officer, taking a puff from his cigarette. “Hurry up and get moving, we're going to follow those Heinies and give them more hell!” with those words, the officer left to follow the other British soldiers, now advancing towards the next German stronghold.
“I have to go now brother Hans” said Michael, looking into the peaceful face of his German brother in the faith. It seemed as though he was just asleep, awaiting to be resurrected from the dead. But Michael knew where Hans was. He remembered the words of King David upon losing his first son of Bathsheba, that his son would not be able to return to him, yet David would see him again someday, in the Kingdom of Heaven.
“We'll see each other again in Heaven, but I have to return to my wife and son, they need me...” Michael stopped his words cold, as if Hans' wife and daughter didn't need the warmth and comfort of a husband and a father.
Michael climbed out of the bomb crater where the body of Hans Muller lay. Yes, there was a war to be fought, an enemy to defeat, and he was a soldier of the crown. He turned back one last time to look upon the body of an enemy soldier, yet his brother in Christ, and spoke his last words;
“Auf Wiedersehen mein Bruder, Auf Wiedersehen”