Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The guns fell silent

"Time check", the one said to his buddy.
"10 past, it's going to be a long one", came the reply.
The two men huddled in the trench, covered in filth. The sky was overcast and grey, the sun tried to peek through, hints of brightness eminating from between thick clouds. In the trench, hundreds of men sat waiting. All just as anxious. They
just waited.
A shell landed around the corner of of the angled trench knocking every one of them down. The sound was incredible, their ears ringing long after the initial explosion. Cries of help could be heard, men scrambled to get to the wounded. The dead could not be helped. A direct hit on the trench that had been their home. All that they knew for the past year. The massive crater it left was awe inspiring and terrifying. But they were used to it. Six dead came the count, at least they think six, two men not accounted for. They probably took the brunt of it. Only their names remain. The wounded were carried out on stretchers, like so many before them.
"Poor bastards almost made it", the one said calmly.

"Time now?"
"28 minutes. Not long now, we're almost there".
Rifle and machine gun fire could be heard over the berm. Out there, in no-man's land, the enemy was firing blindly into the morning mist. Hoping to catch anyone stupid enough to poke up their heads. Sometimes it worked. Our boys fired back.
Sticking their Enfields up over the top and firing blind. Futile yes, but at least it was something. It was too late to go over the top today. Too late now. Too many times had they done that, too many times had they gone through the wire in a vain attempt at some sort of courageous - or foolhardy, attempt at winning the war. Every time they knew the risk, and every time men died. Their bodies left there for the vultures, which made for easy target practice. They couldn't stand seeing them going at their buddies, and they couldn't get to their buddies. The dead were the lucky ones. The wounded sometimes died there because the medics were too easy to pick off. They had to wait til night fell to get the wounded back, in many cases the wait was fatal.
A rat scurried across the one man's boot.
"12 minutes". He had to yell out the time. The noise was unbearable. Shells were still landing near the wire, hopefully, none would land in the trench again today.
The other one chased the rat away with his knife, trying to get it, but it was too quick. He leaned back against the mud wall again and waited. Looking up, he saw the sun, trying to break through, it was almost there, but it was still obscured by clouds and smoke. It was hard to tell where the smoke ended and the clouds began.
Down the trench men were yelling. Could be orders, could be wounded, he didn't know. The voices were muffled over the noise of the battle. He also heard yelling in german; that's how close they were. He could here the other trench, across the deadly wasteland, not 100 yards away. When there was a lull in the shelling, he could hear
them. Intelligence men who spoke german were constantly up and down the trench listening, and writing things down.
"Now?, came an eager voice.
"Four minutes, as long as this watch is working right, it's in pretty rough shape".
They waited. Not talking to each other, they just sat there, looking around at their trench, their home. They held their rifles close and kept up on the sidewall so as not to slide into the mud. It rained the previous day and mud was everywhere. It was over the duck boards that were supposed to keep them dry. It didn't. Their boots were wet and they risked trenchfoot. One of the men had it really bad a few months back, but at least he got to go behind the lines for a few days, to the aid station and have a hot tea. Then when his feet got better he was thrown back into the fray.
"One minute!", the one yelled. He had to keep the time, the other one lost his watch. More gunfire, it sounded like it was getting worse. Machine guns opened up - it was one long continuous burst from a hundred guns - all pointed at them. Thank God for the trench. Another artillery shell exploded nearby. They couldn't tell if it was inside or on the wire - it was too far away. The sun finally managed to break through the smoke.
Then silence.
The shells stopped falling. The guns stopped. It was 11am. The guns fell silent.
The war was over. The armistice agreed upon by the warring nations across Europe started just as the sun opened the skies over Cambrai, Vimy, Ypres, Passchendaele, and a hundred other places in France. Both here and on the Eastern Front, in the air and at sea, in Turkey and in the middle east, the guns stopped.
The two men looked at each other and tried to smile. They tried to believe, but they couldn't. Not yet. It could have easily been broken at any time. One gunner in either trench could have fired off a shot and started it all over again. One man among hundreds of thousands could have negated the cease fire.
But nobody did.
The guns remained silent.

Nobody moved. Nobody yelled victorious, nobody stood up, nobody believed it. For many minutes there was total silence. No guns, no rain, no birds, no airplanes, no trucks, horses, ammo carts, officers yelling orders, nothing. total silence. Everyone in the trench took it in like a warm spring day. They filled themselves with the silence
and let it linger in their minds - something not heard in Europe for almost 5 years - nothing.
A bird overhead broke the silence. A soft call of a dove overhead. Over the devastated, shell blasted hell-hole of no-man's land. It's song audible to both trenches. Then it flew off, it's song only a whisper on the wind.
Slowly, men began to move, some shuffling along the wet duck boards, some, more brave, venturing a look up and over the sandbags. The first the men saw do this stuck his head for the briefest of looks and then popped back down. He didn't get shot.
The one man looked at the other, his buddy in this aweful place for the past 6 months. Then he stood up, and climbed the wall. He went over the top. He stood there on the top of the trench, facing no man's land and looked out. He didn't get shot. He half expected it, but it never came. He gently laid his Enfield down against a sandbag, and stood there looking across.
In the trench across the hell hole, another man stood up and did the same thing. A spiked helmet. Both men stood upon their trenches and stared at each other. After several minutes, the man in the Canadian uniform took the first step. Without a rifle, and to the taunting calls of his own mates, he stepped out across the shell pitted field. He stepped over what was left of the barbed wire, and began crossing the rift. The german did the same.
In both trenches heads popped up to see the sight. In both trenches men stared in wonder - more to see who would die first, but in wonder of the sight of two enemies crossing toward each other unarmed. The german had also dropped his Mauser.
After 10 minutes they stood staring at each other - face to face. The Canadian took off his helmet, dropped it on the ground and slowly raised a hand to the german. The german, looked at the outstretched hand, and responded in kind. They stood there, on top of a berm created by a howitzer shell and shook hands. No words were spoken. No words were necessary. The sun creeped out just a little more, and the dove came back. Both men looked up at the sight, still holding onto the handshake as if now their life depended on this on little act of brotherhood. Their eyes came back to each other and a mutual identification fell across them both. They knew it was over. The war to end all wars was over.
Out of both trenches, slowly at first, then in waves, men came up. Thousands of them. Dropping helmets and rifles, they slowly clambered out of their pits of mud, death and despair, and began mingling in the man-made disaster between their trenches. This hell on earth, where so many had died, was now alive with men, all victims of their government's call to arms. They were now men who had made it.
The moment lingered for what seemed like hours, then men slowly began to recede into their own trenches again. Officers began to call orders again, the noise slowly came back. All the noises associated with a war zone. Trucks, horses, men calling, everything, everything but the guns.
The Canadian soldier and the german soldier just stood there in the middle. They didn't move. They stared at each other. The german man, in very broken english finally uttered a few words.
"Peace, friend, peace now". Then he turned and walked away.

Here at Passchendaele, this man had witnessed the end of the war. It was 11am, the 11th day of November, 1918.

The war was over, the remembering had just begun.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.


  1. Well done Keith. We remember differently today, with perhaps a little more passion than in the past.

  2. Man.. had to go and make me tear up... helluva story and well told. I cannot even imagine what those guys plus the millions since who have been through all kinds of horror that only a few of us could even imagine. God bless those men and women.

    John Day


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