This is certainly a story about crime, but not the kind you might think - Editor
Peace on Earth
by Keith G. Laufenberg
Be proud of those strong sons of thine
Who wretched their rights from thee!
—Tennyson, England and America in 1782.
The father swung his arm around his son’s shoulder and told him that he would take him inside the pub and introduce him to his first pint. The son blanched sharply—he wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, much less to take what his father thought was his first drink. For, Samuel Dewey Baldwin had been introduced to drink in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, when he was but a lad of thirteen, as it wasn’t hard to get a drink in Baltimore in 1910. And now, in 1914, in London, England, where they had gone to visit his father’s family, his father was about to officially introduce him to his first pint. It was the first day of August and the hot noonday sun had burned the morning fog almost completely away. Sammy Baldwin with his American accent was hailed as a Yank but was having a hard time understanding the strange accents and phrases everyone so quickly spat out, in Great Britain.As the Baldwin father/son duo walked through the doors of the pub, another boy was slugging down his third straight beer. Just turned eighteen, and born and raised in New York, Abraham Schmidt was the son of a German father and an English mother, and, considering that England was on the eve of entering into a war with Germany, Schmidt and his father, forty-four-year-old Max Schmidt, were taking quite a ribbing from those in the pub who knew of their lineage.
William Dewey Baldwin ordered two steins of beer and when the dark liquid was set before them swigged his down with relish. As the younger Baldwin sat staring at the dark ale, the bartender smiled at him then nodded towards the two Germans. “C’mon mate, slug it down, ol’ Maxie’s boy done all-idee put down thray ah ‘em, don’t g’wan let a Jerry show yah up—A mate.”
Sammy Baldwin followed the bartender’s gaze to where Max and Abe Schmidt were fast getting drunk and smiled, then quickly downed the beer. His head fairly spun but he slammed the now empty mug on the counter and looked over at his father. “Well, hell, gimme two more right now then—line ‘em up.”
The bartender smiled, like a cat that had just swallowed a canary. “That’s the spirit bloke,” he said, “show ‘at ol’ Fritzie wot’s wot—A matey.”
It didn’t take long for both the Baldwin’s and the Schmidt’s to get rip-roaring drunk and it didn’t take long before an argument started on how the Germans were trying to rule the world and how the English, along with the French and Russians, would destroy Germany, once and for all.
Max Schmidt was about to clobber William Baldwin when his son stepped in and then Baldwin’s son stepped in and it was left to the two youngsters to fight for their respective genealogical glory.
They took it outside the pub and it was a gut-wrenching, all-out war. Both boys were small but compact; Sammy Baldwin was five feet six inches tall and weighed all of one hundred and forty pounds while Abe Schmidt was but five feet five inches tall and a hundred and fifty pounds. It was like two Pit Bulldogs going at each other and it lasted almost an hour.
Both the fathers quickly sobered up and, along with the spectators, finally called the fight a draw. The two boys shook hands and became friendly, especially when Sammy found out that Abe Schmidt was actually an American. They went back inside the pub, where Sammy’s father bought the next round, which was soon returned by Schmidt, and, after much pushing and prodding by their father’s both Sammy Baldwin and Abe Schmidt, decided to enlist, if they would take them, in the British Army.
Needn’t they have worried, for the British Minister of War, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener was planning to send an Expeditionary Force to France and he felt that he needed all the soldiers he could get, be they British, Irish, American or any other nationality, for, as the Minister of War well-knew—in a war—a body was a body.
French and Russian they matter not,
A blow for a blow and a shot for a shot!
We have one foe and one alone, England!
—Ernst Lissauer, Hassgesang Gegen England, (1914)
Wilhelm Helmut Laufenberg was an exhausted German infantry lieutenant. He had been there when the German Army had totally routed Belgium, in the first week of August, and then, two weeks later, had been at Arlon-Virton, in France, when the German Army had killed a reported one-hundred-forty-thousand French men, women and children; then had been in Prussia when the German Army had killed, or taken prisoner, over one-hundred-thirty-thousand Russians at what later became known as the battle of Tannenberg. And now, after another three arduous months of fighting, he found himself, and his men, in a trench, just outside Ypres, Belgium, where the fighting, at first dominated by the Germans, was now at a stalemate and Oberleutnant Laufenberg found himself battling his men’s morale problems, and an eerie feeling that he was going insane.
THE WESTERN FRONT
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
—Rudyard Kipling, Epitaphs of the War: Common Form.
The Western Front, or the Front, as they more often called it, was to Sammy Baldwin nothing short of devastation; it was the only word that he could think of to describe it and he scribbled it down on a wet piece of paper, in a letter that he meant to try and get back to the real world. The real world, he dreamed of it constantly; of such simple, inane things as dry clothes and a warm bed, a hot dog with mustard and relish, or even just a glass of cold milk. He stared with tired, glassy eyes at the muddy trench that he sat shivering in then stood up slightly to see the barbed wire that was spread tightly around poles jammed into the ground just in front of the trenches. The German trenches were, in places, as close as fifty to sixty yards away and almost identical to the enemies’. Baldwin, along with Abe Schmidt, was a Rifleman in the London Rifle Brigade and had been hunkering down in trenches like the one he was in, near Ypres, Belgium, for over three months. He could see dead and fallen comrades’ bodies, strewn all along both sides of the Front. Abe Schmidt appeared in his peripheral vision and he turned slightly sideways to see his compatriot, now hunkering down just a few yards from him. He handed Baldwin a cigarette and Baldwin nodded and reached for a book of matches. Both youngsters had begun smoking, in earnest, on the Front. It was December 23rd, and in less than thirty hours it would be Christmas; there was an eerie feeling floating everywhere, it seemed to be in the air and it got into everyone’s nostrils and when they breathed it into their lungs they became light-headed and insane and they no longer wished to fight but to lay down their arms and refuse, any longer, to kill another human being. It was widespread throughout the trenches, among almost all the enlisted men and even some of the junior officers, usually those who had been pressed into service by the German threat. The higher command, the lifelong military men—of course—were immune, and thought only in terms of winning or losing and their orders were to stay the course and hold the line, at all costs. Sammy Baldwin exhaled a stream of noxious smoke and scowled. “Yah know Abe, our fathers lied to us.”
“Well Sammy they-uz tryin’ tah get us to be where they couldn’t go.”
“Don’t kid yah-self Abe; they din’ wanna go.”
Abe Schmidt stared out at the dead bodies not more than a dozen yards from where they squatted down, in mud that was more like a clayish muck. He loved his father but the truth was something that was hard not to recognize when you risked your life every minute of every day that you breathed in a breath of air. “Yeah, youse might be right Sammy, youse might jus’ be right.”
It is the province of kings to cause war, and of God to end it.
—Cardinal Pole, to Henry VIII. (Notes and Queries, 27 Jan., 1917.)
Wilhelm Laufenberg stared into space then hunkered down on a mat that was made up from two dry pairs of trousers, partially stuffed with straw. He was a lieutenant, after all, and should be allowed to get a little sleep, even in such a horrific time as the present. His eyes were so heavy that sometimes even blinking them caused him to drift off, into semi-sleep, even while he was standing upright, and even while he was walking. He laid his head against the thickest part of the straw-filled pants and immediately fell into a deep sleep. That’s when he had the dream, the dream that would alter his life, and with it the course of history—forever.
In the dream, the young Oberleutnant saw clearly a mustachioed soldier that he recognized immediately as the emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and then another man appeared, George V, the King of England, and dressed in his full regalia. The two men were having tea together, even as young soldiers were crying out in front of them, dying slowly, bleeding to death from gunshot and stab wounds and some freezing to death. Laufenberg knew that the two rulers were cousins, having the same grandmother, Queen Victoria, of Great Britain, and saw clearly that they were both interested in nothing but power and what they could get for themselves, through the war. He saw Paul von Hindenburg, the commander of the German forces in the East, who would become Field Marshall, two-time president of Germany and make it possible for Adolph Hitler to rise to power, step into the picture and offer a toast to the two rulers, even as the soldiers’ cries grew louder. The Oberleutnant wanted to kill the three men but when he made a move towards them, a bright light blasted him awake and he stared into the sky, where he saw what he thought was an angel floating above his head. A voice bellowed forth that there would be peace on earth and he would be forevermore a peacemaker, who would reject all war, in its entirety. He blinked his eyes to see the angel better but it was gone, just that fast, and Wilhelm Helmut Laufenberg, twenty-four years old, and a structural engineer by trade, struggled to a standing position and scratched his head, wondering if what he had just seen was reality or just a part of his dream. Then, he stared straight ahead, at the bodies of his fallen comrades, as well as the enemies’ comrades’ bodies, withered and wilting, rotting and smelling to the high heavens and pondered which was the reality and which was the dream, knowing immediately which he wished was reality and which was not. He rubbed his eyes with the back of a frost-glazed glove and then tilted his head sideways, wondering if what he heard was yet another dream, for he heard the words clearly: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, alles Schläft einsam wacht hur das traute hochheilige Parr.” It was lyrical and it was beautiful; someone was singing Silent Night and the vision he had had of an angel immediately came to mind, for whoever was singing had a melodic, soprano voice that seemed to be that of an angel.
“Well Blimey, stone the crows,” Corporal Thomas Williams spat, cocking his head to one side, even as several other soldiers around him, repeated the gesture.
“Jay-suz, will yer lis’en ‘air, ain’t tit bee-you-tahful though?”
Sammy Baldwin nodded at Abe Schmidt. “It’s Silent Night—ain’t it Abe?”
Schmidt, who spoke fluent German, nodded and closed his eyes. “Sure is Sammy and—oh my—what a voice it is what’s singin’ it.”
It was Christmas Eve and the mood was festive, the Germans had even implanted dozens of Christmas trees along the Front and most of them were decorated with as much merriment as the German soldiers could bestow upon their precious weihnachtsbaums.
Suddenly, just as it had begun, the singing stopped and there was an eerie silence of perhaps a minute, until clapping and cheering could be heard from both sides and one Englishman yelled, loudly, “Jolly good show then Fritz, jolly good, encore I say then.”
It was mid-afternoon and just as suddenly as the German had begun singing Silent Night, several Englishmen, Irishmen and at least two Americans, as Sammy Baldwin and Abe Schmidt joined in, began singing Silent Night, in their different and various accents but harmonizing remarkably well, considering the circumstances. When they finished singing, it drew quite a bit of applause from the German side, along with cheers and shouts, in broken English, of “Englander iz gut sangar,” and ‘Tommy, you are gut enuff for us, we vill join you.”
Sammy Baldwin had heard, along with the others, one of the Jerrys exclaiming that they would ‘join them’ but what had it meant? Had the speaker actually meant to join them in another song, or had he meant to literally join them, to desist hostilities and fraternize with the enemy? Because, if that’s what the German soldier had meant, that they wished to call a truce and stop the killing, even if only for Christmas, then Sammy
Baldwin, for one, along with scores of others that Sammy knew, was ready to agree.
THE SPIRIT THAT MOVES US
A spirit superior to every weapon.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses. Bk. iii, 1. 54.
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side.
—J.R. Lowell, The Present Crisis. St. 5.
Wilhelm Helmut Laufenberg grabbed a tannenbaum, which they had yet to decorate and ran towards the enemies front line, their trenches, poles strung with barbed wire less than a half dozen feet in front of them, were less than sixty yards from where he began his sprint towards the middle ground, the ground in between the two front lines—the ground everyone just referred to as No Man’s Land.
He stopped in the middle of No Man’s Land and stuck the tree into the ground, a mixture of icy mud and the remnants of the all too numerous fallen soldiers’ corpses, some of which had lain there for more than a month. The young German officer could see that there were numerous rifles pointed in his direction and put his hands out in front of him, in a friendly gesture. He spoke fairly good English, he had taken it for three years in school, and had a brother who had settled in America a decade ago who also helped him, by writing him letters in English and making him write back in English. “Tommy, listen to me,” he said, “we Germans wish a truce, peace for Christmas, no more killing. I am Oberleutenant Wilhelm Laufenberg and I give to zoo my word that no German soldier vill shoot. Come out and ve vill be frends—ja? It is Christmnas, ja?”
It was mid-afternoon and the silence and stillness in the air was hauntingly eerie.
But, then, Private Sammy Baldwin looked at Private Abe Schmidt, who looked at Corporal Tommy Barnes, who looked at Sergeant Gerald Thatcher and they all smiled and jumped out of the trench and walked towards the German lieutenant, who was calling for his troops to come forward, which they were also now doing. They met in No Man’s Land and began exchanging cigars for cigarettes and jam and sweets for beer; the English had Princess Mary’s Christmas Boxes, some with cigarettes and tobacco and some with chocolates, and the Germans had their metal German belt buckles that read Gott mit uns or God with us, and German cigar boxes that had a sword with Flammenschwert, or Flaming sword, stenciled into the middle of the wooden box. Some of the Germans spoke
perfect English, like Harry Berg, a Berliner who had spent five years in Canada and Fritz Hoffman, who had driven a cab in London and waited tables there for a decade. And, some of the British soldiers spoke perfect German, like Abe Schmidt or Gerd Eichel, who grew up on a farm in Nova Scotia and spoke only German until the age of six, when he first entered public school. A German soldier began juggling tins of food, than miscellaneous items and did a handstand on a flat board, while he juggled three tins with his other hand; he was given an uproarious ovation and was taking a bow when another German brought out a table with pistols, plates and silverware, which he began making disappear. He spoke perfect English and had been a magician with a troupe in London.
Soldiers from both sides were applauding loudly when suddenly a silence crept over the crowd—when a British colonel and a lieutenant appeared. The colonel muttered to the lieutenant, under his breath, and the lieutenant sneered towards the enemies’ front line. “Ah, the damn Bosches, must bay tryin’ somethin’ sir.”
From out of the ranks an Irishman shouted, “Hey Fritz—make the colonel disappear,” and a roar of approval enveloped the air but then grew seriously deadly quiet, until Oberleutnent Laufenberg stepped forward.
“Herr Oberst, ve are here to make peace.” When Laufenberg saw the astonished look on the colonel’s face and then a look of impatience and anger, he added quickly, “Ja, and ve are here to bury our dead, ja Herr Oberst, Kerahnel? Bury your dead too?”
The colonel glanced around at the stinking and decaying corpses that littered the real estate known as No Man’s Land, and scowled viciously. “Aw-rye men bury our dead!” He stalked off slowly, his boots caked with the clayish mud, with the career, junior lieutenant fast on his heels.
Some of the men began getting shovels and fashioning crosses, trying to give their fallen comrades a decent burial, while others talked to each other; some, in small groups, were even seen crossing over, into the other’s territory. Sammy Baldwin was talking to Abe Schmidt when Baldwin noticed the German lieutenant who had been the catalyst of the truce, was speaking to another soldier, in German. “Ja, Ich sage, Dir Kurt, Ich werde nie mehr jemanden töten.”
Baldwin looked at Abe Schmidt and saw the strange look on his face. “What’d he say Abe?”
“He said he’s not gonna kill anybody ever again, Sammy.”
“Yeah, that goes for me too man. Hey Abe, I’d like tah get me one ah those belt buckles, like the one you got—you know—the one with the crown in ah middle.”
“Yeah, youse want mine Sammy?”
“Naw man, I can get one.”
Sammy Baldwin looked up to see the German lieutenant nodding at him and then at Schmidt and they nodded back, causing Oberleutnant Laufenberg to smile. “Do zoo boys vish to go viz us for some Deutsche Schnapps, ja?”
Baldwin glanced at Schmidt, who licked his lips and nodded, then smiled at Baldwin. “Some good drinkin’ Sammy, what ah yah say? I’m game.”
Baldwin was tired of the war, the orders, always to kill Jerry’s and he had heard this German officer say he wouldn’t kill any more, at least that’s what Abe had just told him he had said and if he couldn’t trust Abe Schmidt then he couldn’t trust anyone anymore.
“Yeah lieutenant sure man. Hey, you think you can get me one ah those belt buckles, the kind with the crown on it and the German writin’ saying God’s wid us?”
The German officer extended his hand, which Sammy Baldwin shook. “Ja, ja, Ich vill do it for you Baldwin.”
“Ah, jes’ call me Sammy.”
“Ja, und you jus’ call me Villie—ja?”
Sammy Baldwin winked at his best friend Abe Schmidt. “Ja, ja, sure thing Villie.”
They all laughed good-naturedly and walked into the German’s front line trench.
It was almost unbelievable but Sammy Baldwin and Abe Schmidt saw many others like themselves, soldiers in the British Army, Irishmen Scots, Frenchmen and Belgians, who were all talking to the Germans as if they were long lost brothers. There were Christmas trees, with lit candles and decorations and men singing Christmas carols, in German and English. They followed the German lieutenant into a hollowed-out, dry bunker, where Germans and Englishmen were all drinking and singing together. Sammy Baldwin and Abe Schmidt were given glasses of Schnapps and toasted each other and everyone, then joined the caroling and a warm feeling fell over the small groups, up and down both sides of the Western Front. Sammy Baldwin saw a soldier whom he had become friendly with, a Belgian whose wife was due to have a baby any day now; the man never stopped talking about her, as she was living in Belgium, only a few miles from the Western Front, in enemy controlled territory. Baldwin moved over to him and they toasted each other and then the Belgian began talking. He was very happy that it was Christmas Eve and the fighting had stopped, even if only temporarily, but he was so sad that he couldn’t see his wife, his beloved wife, his beloved pregnant wife. Sammy Baldwin moved over to where Abe Schmidt was talking to the German lieutenant and brought the Belgian with him. He introduced the Belgian to the lieutenant and the first words out of the man’s mouth were: “Do you know where I can get a horse Lieutenant? I have to get to Roulers.”
PEACE ON EARTH
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
—New Testament: Luke, ii,, 14.
Blessed are the peace-makers.
—New Testament: Matthew, v, 9.
Where there is peace, God is.
—George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum. No. 729.
Peace be to this house.
—New Testament: Luke, x, 5.
The Oberleutnant held the reins to the buggy loosely in his hands and smiled at the thought of reuniting this Belgian soldier with his wife, who was about to have a baby. It was the angel that had changed his life, for the better, he decided and he would resign from the German Army as soon as he could inform his superiors that he was not fit to command a unit, that he was not even fit to be a Rifleman, for he would not kill anyone, ever again and would dedicate his life to making peace, wherever that road should take him, in the future.
The woman was in labor when they got there—there was an old farmhouse but little was left of it—the shelling having ripped most of the boards apart, and so they had gone inside what was left of an old barn, where two cows and a sheep foraged amongst scatterings of hay. There was the Belgian soldier’s sister, her husband and two children, aged five and four and two women who had as yet not left the area, even though their houses were in ruins. The four men were told by the trio of women that they could best help by staying out of the way but the Belgian soldier’s wife called to him and he bent down and consoled her, as she struggled to push out a child that was struggling to stay put, right where he was, inside her warm and comfortable belly.
It was after two a.m., and Sammy Baldwin, Abe Schmidt and the German lieutenant were all fast asleep, lying on a bed of hay but what was to them a warm mattress, back home with their loved ones, as the trio of battle-weary soldiers’ dreams carried them to where their hearts wished they could be.
Someone—somewhere—was singing: “Hark—the Herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King—Peace on earth and mercy mild—God and sinners reconciled!”
Oberleutnant Wilhelm Laufenberg awoke abruptly and rubbed his tired eyes. Sitting up, directly across from him, sat a wide-eyed Sammy Baldwin. “Ah, Sammy, did chew hear the singing, ja?”
Sammy Baldwin nodded to where the Belgian soldier stood holding a shrieking infant and smiled. “Looks like a boy.”
The German lieutenant stood up, just as Abe Schmidt awoke, and they all went to see the newborn infant together. As they gazed down at the tiny bundle of humanity, the German lieutenant uncorked a bottle of Schnapps and they all shared a toast to the boy’s future. They all returned to sleep until the morning sun arose and spent most of the next day, Christmas of 1914, inside a barn in a small Belgium town, in the midst of the insanity of what happens to whole towns, cities, and even nations, when human beings use all their knowledge and power in an attempt to annihilate one another. Dozens of people still living in the small town, located barely a dozen miles from the German front, came to see the newborn child and to bring gifts, anything that they could spare, in tribute to a soldier’s brave wife, and now a new mother, and to a child who had been born despite the inhumanity and insanity that surrounded him. Someone brought a whole broiled pig and someone brought a pot-full of yams, and someone brought a pumpkin pie and the Oberleutnant had brought three kegs of Schnapps and the meal was fit for royalty. They didn’t leave until it was almost midnight, celebrating Christmas Day in what was left of the besieged town. The Belgian soldier wanted to stay with his wife and child but was talked into going back to the Front by Schmidt and Baldwin; the German lieutenant assuring him that he would personally see to it that his wife and child were cared for and left alone by all German soldiers. Before they left, they all sang Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and the men all basked in the warmth of peace on earth—on their share of the earth—on this Christmas Day—anyway.
THE HIGH COMMAND
Thus can the demigod Authority
Make us pay down for our offence by weight
The words of heaven.
—Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. Act I, sc. 2, 1. 124.
We made war to the end—to the very end of the end.
—Georges Clemenceau, Message to the American People, Sept., 1918.
It was three in the morning and it was all quiet on the Western Front, almost as if there was no war anymore and the Oberleutnant shook the Belgian’s hand and then Schmidt’s and Baldwin’s. Just as they were turning to go back across to their side of the Front, he seemed to remember something important and put a hand on Sammy Baldwin’s shoulder. “Ah Sammy, Ich almost forget; Ich vill bring zoo a belt buckle—ja?”
Sammy Baldwin smiled widely. “Yeah, hey, great lieutenant, the one with the crown in ah middle, right?”
“Ja, ja, zah one wif the crown, Sammy, of course. As soon as Ich get sleep a little, ja.”
“Hey great lieutenant that’s jus’ great, jeez, I gotta get a lil’ shuteye myself,” Baldwin replied, yawning even as he said it.
Sammy Baldwin awoke to sporadic rife fire and saw his best friend, Abe Schmidt, staring at his rifle. “Abe, what’s goin’ on?”
“Aw, it came down from on high, youse know, to resume fightin’ wid the Jerry’s.”
“Yer kiddin’ …? I mean—” Baldwin exhaled a stream of frosty air and frowned at Baldwin.
“No—I ain’t; youse know I ain’t gonna do it—I ain’t gonna Sammy—I don’t care what they do to me.” Abe Schmidt shook his head wearily.
“Yeah, me either—psst, Abe—a flippin’ colonel’s comin’.”
The colonel—a lieutenant fast on his heels—was walking, hunched over through the trench, until he came to Abe Schmidt, who was in a sitting position—staring at his rifle.
“Wha’ is this, soldier? I ordered resumption of the war and anyone caught slacking off or talking peace to the enemy is subject to being shot.”
“But sir, youse don’t mean it? I mean the Jerry’s ain’t firin’ at us?”
“Ah, a Yank—A—well son, they will, jus’ you wait ‘un see—now hunker down and be ready to fire yer weapon. The Bosches don’t have a sympathetic bone in thar bodies.” The colonel hurried down the trench-way, as Abe Schmidt glared at the backside of the lieutenant, now fast on the colonel’s heels. He turned back towards Baldwin.
“I ain’t gonna do it Sammy—why, they’re jus’ like us—it’s like killin’ yah friend, like killin’ yah brother—I ain’t gonna kill anybody no more.”
Sammy Baldwin nodded his head in agreement. “Me either Abe—me either.”
The German colonel stomped through the trenches screaming: “Schiesse, oder Ich verschiesse Dich. Shoot or I will shoot you.” The colonel had a pistol in his hand, causing the German sergeant he was facing, and staring at, to raise his rifle, point it towards the enemy Front, then tilt it upwards, towards the sky, and pull the trigger. The colonel stomped away swearing under his breath that he would replace the entire unit with real soldiers and court-martial them all.
When he had returned to his unit, Oberleutnant Wilhelm Laufenberg
saw that a few of his men were still awake and were engaged in a
conversation— a conversation into which he became easily integrated, himself—the four soldiers telling him that the truce was still being observed, and of a football game they had engaged in with the Brits, losing by only a goal. Laufenberg told them of the Belgian soldier and the two Americans in the London Rifles and of his splendid Christmas. He then told the four German soldiers in his command of his pledge to kill no more—forevermore—a sentiment that was quickly seconded by them all, as they and the Oberleutnant parted company, each looking for a spot to lie down and catch some much needed rest, and to a man they all felt giddily happy—for the first time since they had become soldiers at war.
The colonel smiled at the thought of replacing the entire London Rifle Brigade, assign them to a support or a reserve trench somewhere in Switzerland and replace them with soldiers from the Indian Army, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, non-Christians to whom Christmas meant little or nothing to, and he hurried towards the Indian troop area, where he would begin the process of doing just that.
The German colonel saluted the general smartly and smiled thinly. They were going to replace their soldiers with a Prussian unit and would order them to begin shelling the enemy immediately.
Oberleutnant Wilhelm Laufenberg slipped the belt buckle into his greatcoat and smiled; he would find Sammy Baldwin and give it to him now, before the hostilities resumed, which he was certain they would, sooner or later. He crossed over easily and slipped into the British trench, which appeared deserted. Laufenberg wondered where they had all gone, then thought they might be engaging in another football game and wondered if maybe he could join them in it, as he loved football. That’s when he heard the first shots and wondered if they were perhaps celebrating more, after all it was just before dusk on the day after Christmas and, as far as he knew, the truce was still in effect.
The colonel smiled at the Indian major, who turned abruptly and ordered his men to open fire on the enemy Front, barely sixty yards from where they now peered up over the trench they were in. Most of the soldiers of the Eighth Gurkhas and the Fifth Jats were not much taller than five and half feet, if that, and the trenches, dug by many six foot plus Englanders and Irishmen, afforded them plenty of room. There were still a dozen or more members of the London Rifle Brigade present and the colonel turned towards them. “Now that you’ve seen how it tiz done blokes—get at it.”
One of the Brigades’ sergeants stood to take a shot and was rewarded with a bullet through his left eye and he fell back and landed on the lap of Private Sammy Baldwin, who jumped, as the sergeant’s brains splattered his coat and part of his face. He dropped the dead corpse, and the firing commenced all around him. He stood up and stumbled down the trench, then began running, the thick, murky clay-like mud slowing him down considerably, as bullets dug up the dirt everywhere. He finally slid on a frozen patch of ground and hit his head on a large boulder, slipping into a state of unconsciousness.
Oberleutnant Laufenberg saw the soldier, sitting upright and recognized him immediately, thinking ‘what a coincidence that the first soldier I see is the one I am searching for.’ He crouched down, as bullets chopped up the dirt around him. Not realizing that his unit had been replaced by Prussians, he thought his own men must be firing and couldn’t understand what had happened to the truce.
Sammy Baldwin opened his eyes and his head spun; where was he? Then, he heard the firing and bullets cutting up the earth several yards behind him. He grabbed his rifle and sat up, then shivered reflexively, as his wartime senses alerted him that there was someone nearby. He leveled his rifle, just as the German officer came into view and he was reaching into his greatcoat when Sammy instinctively fired, hitting the approaching Oberleutnant in the chest. Baldwin struggled to a standing position and his eyes became saucers when he saw who it was. He staggered over and bent down to cradle the lieutenant’s head under his arm, then gasped when Laufenberg smiled at him. “Sammy, don’t vorry it vasn’t your vault—zoo didn’t know it vas me.”
Tears streamed down Baldwin’s face and he shivered when the German lieutenant opened his hand and the promised belt buckle fell out, as his head then fell backwards limply. Baldwin took the buckle out of his hand and felt for a pulse, first on the lieutenant’s wrist then on his neck and knew there was nothing that could be done, not for a dead man. Death was, once again, all around him. He tried to pick up the lieutenant’s body and finally settled on dragging it towards the shallow part of the trench, where he stood the body upright, then bent down and slung it onto his shoulder. He stood upright to begin his journey towards No Man’s Land, when bullets began cutting up everything around him, including the body he was carrying. It flew from his shoulders, as he slipped sideways and then turned just in time to catch a bullet in the left side of his helmet, instead of squarely in his forehead. Nevertheless, it penetrated the metal and imbedded itself inside his cranium. He fell on top of Oberleutnant Wilhelm Laufenberg’s corpse and he remembered the belt buckle and vowed to never forget what it had cost him. Then he sank, once again, into a state of unconsciousness, this time an ever-darkening, all-encompassing unconsciousness.
THE BELT BUCKLE
Remembrances embellish life but forgetfulness alone makes it possible.
—General Cialdini, Written in an Album.
I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.
—Albert Einstein, Interview, on Belgenland, Dec., 1930.
It wasn’t so much that he was a soldier and it was wartime, hell, the man was an ensign in the navy, whereas he had only been a private, and in a foreign army, one that he never had to, or should have joined. Ah, well, that was so long past now, why should he think of it, hell, he couldn’t even remember anything of it. No, it wasn’t that
so much as it was that she was his first born child and his only daughter and only twenty-one. Aw well, he was only seventeen when he joined the army, after having a fight with the German kid, what was his name, Abe, that’s right Abe, Abe Schmidt, wonder what the hell ever happened to him and why is it I can still remember such things if I can’t remember anything about why I got all those medals for just four months’ service. Was it because of, as one doctor had said, the gunshot wound in the head? Or was it because he, as another doctor had said, didn’t want to remember what had happened? Or was it as another had said, a combination of them both? But, she had only just met this guy, on a blind date, cryin’ out loud. And now, now she wanted to marry him. What had she just graduated from college for, to be a housewife? Aw well, a housewife was all right and he would have some grandchildren, finally, being as he was already 45 years old. He sat in front of the fireplace in his brick home and smiled. He was to meet the man this very night, the man who wanted to make his only daughter his wife. Well, his daughter had already told him all about the man; he was born and raised in a small town in South Dakota, on a farm, and his mother was still living there, along with her oldest son and three daughters, while her middle son, this one, along with her youngest, were both in the navy, this one as an officer, the other one as an enlisted man. He knew the man’s father had died only last year, of gout and exhaustion, must have worked himself to death, he well-knew the amount of work done on a farm because he had worked on one for three years while putting himself through college, back when he first came home to Baltimore. An accounting degree he had gotten and had taken a job with the B&O bus line, in New York City. Had married a girl he had met in college and moved to a nice little town that, coincidentally, carried his last name. He remembered talking to the man over the phone, his daughter all excited as he had just proposed marriage and given her a diamond ring, and all in less than a week and she wanted to accept, and he was going back over to Germany to fight against that madman Hitler. And he was German, spoke it perfectly, as it was his first language and he was in some sort of intelligence work in the navy. Well, he should get a good job then, if he lived to get one. And, he remembered that the boy had told him that he had had an uncle who had died in the Great War, his war, an uncle that he had never known but that he had a picture of. He remembered he had asked the boy about the belt buckle that he had brought back from the Great War, the one he remembered nothing about, now he must remember to show the boy when he came this evening. He shook his head and smiled, his little girl, and now she was getting hitched, God Almighty but time did fly, did it not. He was about to get up and get the belt buckle when his wife came into the room.
“Dewey, Helen’s fiancé is here.”
He stood up and stretched. “Okay. I was just going to my room for a second, wanna get somethin’. Tell them I’ll be right out.”
His wife walked back into the living room and smiled at her only daughter’s fiancé and thought: ‘my but what a handsome man and what a head of hair he has.’ Her husband was bald already, they said it had to do with his war injury but she knew it was also the stress of his job, controlling all the money at so large a company. She told him to have a seat and he sat down on the couch, next to his betrothed, just as her father walked into the room.
They shook hands and he said, “Fran-ah-nah Frank Severin Laufenberg, just call me Frank.”
“Samuel Dewey Baldwin but just call me Dewey.”
They stood staring at each other and then both sat down.
“Well, so you’re in intelligence huh Frank?”
“Ah, that’s right Dewey, I am.”
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the belt buckle and reached over and handed it to Frank Laufenberg, who smiled. “Aw, Gott mit uns—God with us—yeah … well …”
“Ummm, so I been told; and the Emperor’s crown in the middle. Wonder how I got it, anyway.”
Frank Laufenberg frowned. He’d been filled in, the night before, by his betrothed, that her father had suffered a gunshot wound to the head and had no memories of his service in the British Army. “Well sir probably traded it to a German soldier for something of yours. I remember my dad tellin’ me that was done a lot.”
“But, but how would I trade with the enemy. You mean I’d taken one prisoner?”
“Well, yessir, that could be. But, you know it’s funny, my dad, well he told me my uncle Wil, he was over there, he told me my Uncle Wil wrote him that they had this time in 1914, heh, that’s the year I was born, you know, anyway, they had this time when, during Christmas, my uncle wrote him that they became good friends with the British soldiers. Said they were Anglo-Saxons and the Germans, you know, are Saxons, same kind of upbringing I guess and well, they gave each other these things as presents, you know, they exchanged presents at Christmas time.”
Samuel Dewey Baldwin blanched noticeably and his wife frowned. “Dewey, are you alright?”
“Yeah sure, some indigestion, I guess.” He turned back towards his future son-in-law. “They exchanged presents you say. Hah, interesting but I probably got it in a pawn shop, heh!”
“Hah-hah, yes well, anything’s possible. You really have no memory of your service then?”
“No, but he has a chest full of medals, don’t you Daddy?”
“Aw, well. This uncle of yours, he served over there in the German Army?”
“Yessir, I even remember he was in the Sixth Company, I read some of his letters before my dad passed away.”
“Ah, and his name was Wil, you say?”
“Yessir, Wilhelm actually, his full-name was Wilhelm Helmut Laufenberg. He was a lieutenant. Oh, here, here, I got a picture of him, here.” He handed the picture to his future father-in-law, just as his future mother-in-law called them all in to dinner. She had to call her husband three times, as he sat staring at the picture for a long time, a long, long time, before finally snapping out of it, snapping out of a failing, fading memory, as he smelled his wife’s delicious, divine cooking, and his human senses reclaimed his body.