Gifts of War - By Mackenzie Ford

The Majestic Hotel, Paris, May 1919

IT IS TWO A.M., RAINING HARD, and the cobblestones on the Avenue Victor Hugo are glittering like a thousand silver spoons. Vast puddles are forming in the gutters, black as ink. There are more cabs battling the rain than you would expect at this hour, the hides of the horses shiny and sleek. The clatter of their hooves is muted by the hiss of wind and rain. Oblivious to the weather, two lovers embrace under a tree. I hear dance music faintly from the ballroom several stories below me. How far away the war seems already.

The war. Some people are already calling it the Great War, not because great moral issues were settled—not at all—but because of the number of young men killed: a whole generation has gone. I survived the war. In fact, and ironically, paradoxically, the Great War—if that is what it was—brought me the greatest happiness I have known.

By now, I suppose, everyone has heard of the Christmas truce of 1914. From Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, all along the Western Front, some six hundred miles from Belgium to Switzerland, ordinary soldiers on both sides of the war, and in marked defiance of orders from High Command, laid down their arms, hauled themselves from their trenches, and clambered into no-man’s-land to fraternize with the enemy. In some cases, the truce had been prepared with the exchange of messages, scribbled on paper and thrown across the barbed-wire defenses in used tobacco tins: “You no shoot, we no shoot.” In other places, the truce was more spontaneous. Soldiers suddenly appeared, without weapons, carrying a white flag tied to a broken tree branch or, on our side, a cricket stump. The other side responded in like manner, and men met in the middle, to exchange cigarettes, swap buttons or badges, and complain about the higher-ups.

A week or so later the newspapers were full of it. Ordinary “Tommies” and “Fritzes” had written home to their parents, and some had forwarded their sons’ letters to the press. I remember one headline that read “THE TRUCE OF GOD,” which I thought missed the point. Why had God allowed this damned war in the first place?

No one knows my story, though, which began during the Christmas truce and would not—could not—have happened without it. This has been my secret for nearly four long years; I have guarded it more closely than any of the innumerable military, political, and economic secrets with which I have been entrusted in that time. But now something has happened and I must set down my story. You will see why.

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