Six years after meeting British soldier Aiden Foster during the Christmas Truce of 1914, Jochen Weber still finds himself thinking about Aiden, their shared conversation about literature, and Aiden’s beautiful singing voice. A visit to London gives Jochen the opportunity to search for Aiden, but he’s shocked at what he finds.
The uniform button Jochen gave him is the only thing Aiden has left of the past he’s lost. The war and its aftermath ripped everything away from him, including his family and his music. When Jochen reappears in his life, Aiden enjoys their growing friendship but knows he has nothing to offer. Not anymore.
This is a beautifully written tale of a chance meeting becoming something more. Not all chance meetings are instant bonds but when Aiden and Jochen find themselves talking over literature during the WW1 Christmas truce, it's pretty obvious that bond is real and the author conveys that in a way that is beautiful and believable. If you love historical fiction than this is a must for your reading list and even if they aren't your typical fare, I still highly recommend this great story. It's the first time I've read this author but it won't be the last.
JOCHEN WEBER pulled his greatcoat around him and continued watching the scene in front of him. It had snowed the night before, the ground a blanket of white, a refuge for those who had survived the last few days. Stark contrast to the devastation of clay, mud, and ruined brick that lay beneath.
Men who had shot at each other mere hours before now kicked a ball around a supposed no man’s land—the forbidden area between their trenches and those of the enemy. The lines between friend and enemy had blurred: British, German, and French soldiers spent Christmas together in Flanders, Belgium.
“Come join us, Jochen!” Arndt Dahl yelled. “Put your book down.”
Jochen waved but didn’t move. “I haven’t even started reading it,” he muttered. Reading was more appealing than the game. He’d never really understood why men felt the need to kick a ball around, and preferred to lose himself in the words that came alive on the page.
He caught a movement from the corner of his eye and turned. A young Englishman stood about a meter away, watching Jochen with something akin to curiosity. He didn’t look much older than Jochen, who was barely twenty. The private, like himself—Jochen recognized the British insignia—was several centimeters taller than Jochen, with dark hair and the most amazing dark brown eyes. He smiled shyly, and Jochen couldn’t help but return the gesture.
“Frohe Weihnachten,” Jochen said quietly, not sure what else to say. “I mean, Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” the man said. His voice had a musical quality to it, strong but not as deep as Jochen expected. “I thought this war would be over and we’d be home by Christmas. We all did.”
“Perhaps we won’t be fighting for much longer?” Jochen voiced the hope he mainly kept to himself. “After all, if we can find peace at Christmas, maybe it will last. The war has only been going four months, but it feels much longer.” He held out his hand. “Excuse my manners. I’m Jochen. Jochen Weber.”
The man shook Jochen’s hand. “Aiden Foster.” Aiden shook himself as though waking from a dream. “I’m sorry. I still can’t believe what’s happened. We’re supposed to be on opposite sides. You Jerries are nothing like I expected.” He flushed bright red. “I just insulted you, didn’t I?”
Jochen chuckled. “That depends on what you expected.” He shrugged. “You’re not what I expected either, although I didn’t really believe that you Tommies were as bad as we’ve been told. Not if your Mr. Dickens is to be believed.”
“You’re reading Dickens?” Aiden looked surprised. “Your English is very good.” He grimaced. “Probably much better than my German.”
“Thank you. There were books I wanted to read that hadn’t been translated into German. It was quite the incentive, although I’ve also been told I’m too impatient.” Jochen tapped the side of the book in his hand. “I have read Dickens, but this is Goethe.” He lowered his voice. “Reading a British author in English while in a German trench during a war against his countrymen is probably not very sensible.”
“About as sensible as a Tommy and a Jerry discussing literature on what is supposed to be a battlefield?” The side of Aiden’s mouth twitched.
Jochen laughed. “Exactly.” He liked Aiden already. The man was easy to talk to and had a good sense of humor. One of the soccer balls headed straight for them. Jochen stepped between Aiden and the ball and caught it. “The goal’s that way!” he yelled, pointing to a pile of sandbags a few meters away.
“You could always come and play!” Arndt laughed. He sounded happy, more so than he’d been over the last few months. He missed home, and in particular his girlfriend, Lisel.
“Don’t let me stop you, if you want to join in.” Aiden watched the ball for a few moments.
“Do you want to?” Jochen asked.
Aiden shook his head. “I’ve never been one for football or any game really.” He turned to Jochen. “But as I said, don’t let that stop you.”
“I’d prefer to continue our conversation.” Jochen kept his voice light, but truth be known, he found Aiden rather intriguing. “Besides, this war could go on for a while, and I could not honestly pass by an opportunity to discuss Dickens.”
“I’m more into Tennyson and Keats,” Aiden admitted. “I’ve read one of Dickens’s books, but never got around to the rest.”
Jochen gave him a look of mock horror. “Only one? Which one?”
“David Copperfield. Have you read it?”
“No, I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy.” Jochen studied Aiden. “So… Tennyson, hmm? Anything in particular?”
“Idylls of the King,” Aiden said without hesitation. “A storm was coming but the winds were still. And in the wild woods of Broceliande, before an oak, so hollow, huge and old it look’d a tower of ruin’d masonwork, at Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay.” He trailed off. “That’s the first stanza of ‘Vivien.’ It’s one I keep coming back to because of the war. It’s like the storm, but today the winds are still, or we wouldn’t be talking like this…. Oh Lord, I’m rambling, aren’t I? Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Jochen assured him. “You make it sound so lyrical. I’ve never read much in the way of British poetry in English, and the flow of it is often lost in translation.”
“I like poetry.” Aiden shrugged, the fire in his eyes fading a little as he retreated back into himself. “It reminds me of music, I guess.”
“I’ve heard it described as music without… the notes.” Jochen hoped that didn’t sound as foolish as he was certain it did. “Are you a musician?”
“Music without the notes.” Aiden sounded thoughtful. “I like that.” He smiled, and his expression softened. Did he realize how breathtaking he was when he smiled? “Yes, I am a musician. I’ve loved music for as long as I remember.”
“What do you play? I love music, although I don’t play anything.” Jochen’s grandmother had attempted to teach him the violin. It had been a disaster, and for months afterward their cat had taken one look at him going anywhere near the instrument, howled, and run away.
“I sing.” Aiden looked a little embarrassed. He studied his boots. “I’ve been with the Avery Theatre for about two years. Or I was until this bloody war.”
“Avery Theatre?” Jochen asked.
“In London’s West End.” Aiden continued to stare at the ground. “It’s a music hall, so there’s a bit of acting involved too.”
“And the shows are focused on the snow?” Performing on stage would take a great deal of confidence. Jochen wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to. Or want to.
“Huh?” Aiden looked up.
“You keep looking at the snow.”
“No! I mean….” Aiden sighed. “I’m not very good at talking about myself. I hate it.”
“Yet you perform on stage?” Jochen tried to imagine a confident Aiden on stage, wooing the audience.
“Yes, but that’s not me. Not really. When I sing, it’s not me, it’s a… role.” Aiden shrugged again.
“It’s still you,” Jochen said firmly. “Be proud of who you are, Aiden. Of what you can do, and of what you want to achieve.” Those were his father’s words, spoken to Jochen as a child, but he’d never forgotten them. Why was he repeating them to a man he barely knew?
“Thank you.” Aiden frowned and tilted his head to the side. “There’s something going on over there.” He gestured to the end of the makeshift soccer field. A group of men were talking together—a mix of German, British, and French officers. “I can’t hear what they’re saying, though. Can you?”
Jochen strained to hear, but he couldn’t make it out either. “We could always go find out,” he suggested, slipping his book into the pocket of his greatcoat.
“It looks as though we won’t have to,” Aiden said. “They’ve finished talking and are coming this way.”
Jochen stood to attention as his commanding officer approached. Hauptmann Grünberg was accompanied by two other men of equivalent rank—the commanding officers of the British and French troops.
“This is Captain Williams and Capitaine Brodeur,” said Grünberg in English. He was a good man, and fair. His men respected him. “Given this truce, we have decided to work together to bury our dead. As you are fluent in German and English, Weber, I’m counting on you to help spread the word.”
“Foster, find Mills and organize shrouds and stretcher-bearers.” Williams glanced back toward the barbed-wire fences in front of the British trenches. “It’s a chance to give our chaps and theirs a decent burial.”
“Yes, sir.” Aiden saluted his commanding officer, took one last look at Jochen, then headed toward the group of men socializing nearby. He spoke briefly to a red-haired man. Several others overheard and joined the conversation, offering to help.
Jochen had the same response when he approached men in his own troops. They’d all lost friends and comrades over the last few weeks, and their bodies were still lying out there, decaying under the snow.
THEY BURIED their comrades in silence. Jochen offered to dig graves for both sides. The ache in his arms took his mind off what they were doing. Not completely, yet enough to numb his emotions so he could pretend he was able to ignore them. Until now, he’d known logically these men were dead, but seeing their sightless eyes and still bodies, often with limbs missing or at odd angles, made him shiver. He’d have nightmares about it soon enough.
He leaned on his shovel and closed his eyes for a moment. A light touch on his shoulder jerked him back to attention.
“It’s not easy, is it?” Aiden said softly. He nodded toward the grave Jochen had just dug. Jochen realized the man in it was a British soldier. He’d dug so many graves he’d lost track of what side they’d been on. They’d all worked together to get the job done.
“It’s not meant to be.” Jochen watched the plain wooden cross being hammered into the ground. Someone had made crosses from old biscuit boxes. Others had taken it upon themselves to collect identity discs from the corpses so their families could be informed. “Did you know him?”
Aiden shook his head. “No. There are so many men I didn’t get the chance to know. And so many I did know who are now dead.” His voice shook. “We’ve lost so many already. How many more deaths will there be before this bloody war is over?”
“Too many.” Jochen picked up his shovel. They finally seemed to be getting to the end of the burials, at least for now. These men would have the luxury of a grave, but how many more would not?
“I’m not sure who wins a war.” Aiden glanced around, his gaze resting briefly on Captain Williams, who was far enough away so their conversation wouldn’t be overheard. He lowered his voice. “Why are we fighting, Jochen? I joined up because it was supposed to be the right thing to do. I was going to do my bit for king and country, and save Britain from you Jerries.”
“I’m thinking the same thing,” Jochen admitted. “I….” He swallowed and gripped the handle of his shovel tightly, his knuckles white. “Have you seen a man caught on the wire?”
It was an image he’d never get out of his mind. The soldier was younger than Jochen by a few months. They’d chatted briefly when Jochen had joined their unit. Conrad had been a student at Göttingen University, studying literature, so they’d had that in common. He’d had fire in his eyes when he’d spoken of his love for the subject, of his dreams for his future. An hour into the attack on Ypres he was dead. Hanging on the wire, unable to get free while shells rained down around him. Caught in the crossfire, the lower half of his body blown away a few moments later.
Jochen had vomited when he’d seen it—what was left of Conrad wasn’t really him. Jochen couldn’t believe it was. He didn’t want to. His stomach still churned at the memory of it. He’d wanted to run at the time, to pretend the whole thing was just some kind of sick nightmare, a landscape of death brought on by something dark lingering deep in his own mind.
“I’ve seen it,” Aiden said quietly. “I wish to God I hadn’t.” He looked directly at Jochen. Jochen met Aiden’s gaze. He’d seen an echo of Conrad’s fire in Aiden when he’d talked about his music earlier that afternoon.
“Don’t die on the wire, Aiden.”
“I’ll try not to.” Aiden’s words were an empty promise. They both knew it, but what else was he going to say?
The red-haired man Aiden had spoken to about arranging the burials walked over to him. He too held a shovel, and he wiped perspiration from his brow despite the cold. “There’s going to be a combined service for the dead,” he told them. “In about ten minutes in no man’s land in front of the French trenches.”
As they made their way over, men were already beginning to gather, soldiers from opposite sides sitting together, conversation dwindling to a respectful silence. A British chaplain stood in front of them, a Bible in his hand, a German beside him. Jochen recognized him, although he didn’t know his name. The young man was only a few years older than Jochen and was studying for the ministry—would he ever get the chance to complete those studies?
Jochen and Aiden found somewhere to sit a few rows back from the front and joined the company of men. The German spoke first. “Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel. Geheiligt werde dein Name.”
The British chaplain repeated the words in English. “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.”
They then spoke a few words each, some from the Bible, the rest from their hearts. Their congregation was silent apart from a few quiet “amens.” Jochen saw a couple of men wipe tears away. He was close to it himself.
Finally the chaplain bowed his head in prayer. When he’d finished, he spoke quietly to the man who had come to stand next to him. It was Captain Williams. He nodded and looked over the crowd, his gaze fixing on Aiden.
Aiden must have guessed what Williams wanted. He inclined his head in response and then stood. Jochen glanced between the two men, confused. What did Williams expect Aiden to do?
“Aiden?” Jochen asked softly.
Aiden smiled at him and began to sing. “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining….” He lifted his head, his voice strong and clear, each note building on the last to create something truly beautiful, something angelic. Aiden’s eyes shone; his body swayed slightly in time with the music. He was the music.
His audience sat in awe. Jochen could feel the emotion rippling through the men around him, tangible, as though he could reach out and touch it. He felt something inside himself reach out, wanting to be a part of it, to be carried along the wave of pure music, to grab it and never let go.
Finally Aiden sang the final verse, the notes fading as he came back to himself and sat down again next to Jochen. There was no applause, it wouldn’t have been appropriate, but Jochen could see men around them wiping tears. One man closed his eyes and gently moved from side to side as though he could still hear Aiden’s song.
Several minutes later, the congregation dispersed, heading back to their own trenches. Aiden began to stand. Jochen laid a hand on his arm. “Can we talk?” he asked. Tomorrow they’d probably be fighting again. He’d heard whisperings that the Staff were visiting the trenches that evening, that they weren’t impressed with the fraternization between their men and those of their enemies. But Jochen didn’t want to lose this magic, this brief friendship with Aiden, just yet.
“Of course.” Aiden seemed surprised at Jochen’s words. “What about?” He acted as though his performance hadn’t happened. He was merely a soldier, nothing more.
Jochen led Aiden back to where they’d first met. Men were still talking quietly in small groups, just as reluctant to return to the reality of the war as Jochen was.
“Your singing…,” Jochen said. “It was beautiful. It touched me, Aiden, took me away from everything.”
Aiden blushed. “It… it was nothing.”
Darkness was falling quickly. They didn’t have much time. “I wish we weren’t on opposite sides,” Jochen said. “I’d… perhaps in another life we would have been friends.”
“I would have liked that.” Aiden’s blush grew deeper. He swallowed. “Perhaps we are now, just for this day. I’ve never met anyone who listened to me the way you do. Not my music, but me.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Thank you.”
“I’ve never met anyone who listened to me like you do either,” Jochen said. It figured, didn’t it? He’d finally met someone who understood and it had to be a man he’d probably never see again. “I’ll take your song with me too. I doubt I’ll ever forget it.”
“What will you do after the war?” Aiden asked.
“Go back to my studies, I hope.” Jochen noticed Aiden spoke of a life after the war as though they’d both have one. “I want to teach, if I can. Will you return to the theater?”
Aiden nodded. “Yes. It’s my life, really. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“You should,” Jochen said. “Go back to it, I mean. People need music in their lives, especially music like yours.”
In the distance lanterns were being lit. The lights of the Christmas trees shone from the top of the German trenches—a glimmer of home. They were all far from home tonight.
Jochen hesitated. He didn’t want to say good-bye, to just walk away as though they’d never met. An idea struck him, a foolish one perhaps, but what else was there? He yanked off a button from his uniform, low down where it wouldn’t be immediately noticed. “Happy Christmas, Aiden,” he said, handing it to Aiden.
Aiden took it, their fingers brushing momentarily. A welcome warmth spread through Jochen. “Thank you,” Aiden said. He studied the button. “It’s different to ours,” he said. “A lion holding a shield. I like that.” He slid it into his pocket, then pulled one off his own uniform. “Happy Christmas, Jochen.”
“Thank you.” Jochen took the button Aiden offered. “You’re right. It is different.” It was inscribed with a crown, although made of brass like his. “I’ll keep it safe. I promise.”
“I’ll keep yours safe too,” Aiden said. “I promise.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Bloody war,” he said suddenly. “I don’t want to fight you, Jochen.” His voice shook. “Survive this insanity, and have a good life.”
Before Jochen could answer, Aiden spun on his heel and walked away. Jochen watched him go—back to the British trench, to the reality of death and killing, farther away from the sanctuary of his music, leaving behind a friendship that had been doomed before it had begun.
“I don’t want to fight you either,” Jochen said softly. He fingered the button in his pocket. “Survive this insanity, and have a good life too, Aiden. I won’t forget this. Or you.”
Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand, sharing her home with her twin daughters, at least during the holidays, when one of them isn't away at university. Her son has left home and started his own family, although she claims she is too young to be a grandmother already. Her three cats are convinced that the house is run to suit them; this is an ongoing "discussion," and to date it appears as though the cats may be winning.
In 2008 she completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching and has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and a librarian. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction club and plays piano for her local church and violin for a local orchestra.
She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as "too many." These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of "spare time" is really just a myth.