By Hazel B. West
I’ve always liked the story from WWI about the Christmas truce in the trenches, and this is sort of just an extension of it between two pilots caught in a snowstorm.
The snow was coming down in gentle puffs, blanketing the landscape with a hush of white. It was strange, the Englishman thought, how something so simple could turn this war-torn countryside into something beautiful. And where was he, exactly? He didn’t know. He only knew that it was Christmas Eve, it was snowing, and he had crashed his plane. It didn’t look like he wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon.
He checked over the crumpled Sopwith a final time before he finally gave in with a sharp curse. There would be no repairs made this time. The propeller was only in half of its glory, the wings looked worse than those of a plucked chicken, and the engine had coughed its last long before he had plowed into the snow bank. The only thing he could really be thankful for was that he was alive and, amazingly without serious injury, bumps and bruises notwithstanding.
The Englishman then allowed himself the truth of the matter: he would be stuck out here until further notice, and would likely be dead before Christmas morning. Whether by the cold, though his fur lined coat and boots should help prolong that for a while, or from the Jerrys as he had likely been unlucky enough to land on enemy territory. His only real option was a long trudge back to the airbase in a strengthening snowstorm in which his sense of direction might lead him over enemy lines if he wasn’t already.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, old girl,” he said to what used to be his plane as he made to see what shelter he could construct from the wreckage to at least keep himself safe through the night. Perhaps if the snow stopped by morning a patrol would find him, if he were indeed that lucky. Or unlucky, if it was an enemy patrol.
It was then that he heard a sound miraculous to him. An engine, slightly muffled by the wind and the snow, growling overhead. His first thought was, poor fellow, and then perhaps rescue came sooner than expected?
But as he turned his eyes skyward, a bright flash of red and the Teutonic Cross caught his eye through the flurries. A Jerry. He was dead.
He prayed that the German would fly over him, hoping the snow would have obscured him from view, but that hope vanished as the dangerous triplane banked and swung around, coming back. The Englishman cursed again, and quickly hurried to his cockpit for his revolver. He had just freed it of its holster as the German plane bounced roughly to a stop a few yards away. The Englishman forced his cold fingers against the trigger and cocked the revolver, waiting for the German to make a move.
He stood frozen to the spot as the German stood in the cockpit of his plane and raised his hands, showing he had no weapons. The Englishman wavered, but didn’t lower the gun. He watched, confused and wary, as the German jumped down from his plane and started to walk over to him.
“Peace, Engländer,” came the accented voice over the wind. “I mean no harm.”
The Englishman still did not lower his weapon, not up for trusting this man. “What are you doing here, then?” he asked.
The German held up his hands again. “The storm is getting worse, and my base is too far. I thought I would stop before I end up like you.” He nodded with a small smile to the Sopwith and its sad state of affairs. “Maybe we can wait out storm together, ja?”
The Englishman wavered for a second, looking the German over. He was young, no older than the Englishman, and oddly enough, seemed to have no guile in his blue eyes. He seemed sincere enough and didn’t seem to be readily carrying a weapon. The Englishman made a swift decision then and lowered his revolver, uncocking it, but slipping it into his pocket where he could reach it again if he had to.
“Fair enough,” he said with a sharp nod.
“Gut,” the German replied. “We should make a shelter, ja?”
The Englishman nodded and the two of them worked on stripping the already torn canvas from the fuselage of the Sopwith. The Englishman winced slightly, but knew the mechanics back at the base would have to replace it anyway with the damage it had taken. Still, taking a knife to the lovely, buxom woman dressed in the Union Jack he had painted on as his insignia made him smart.
“She is very pretty,” the German told him with a grin as they began to attempt to maneuver the flapping canvas over the lower wing and tie it off on the wheel strut, forming a sort of tent to keep out of the wind. “Give us something nice to look at while we wait.”
The Englishman grunted in agreement, tying off the canvas as well as he could before sitting down under the small shelter and scooting over as far as he could to make room for the German pilot in the small space.
It was cold, but the Englishman felt a marked difference being out of the wind, and his fur coat was protecting him. He noticed the German also had a thick, fur lined coat and boots, so he must have been warm too. The Englishman wasn’t sure why he cared, only it seemed like it would be rather horrible to wake up next to a dead man, Boche or not.
He reached into one pocket and pulled out a pocket watch to check the time. Nearly midnight already. Bloody night scouting missions. No one had seen this snowstorm coming.
He was suddenly aware of the German looking over his shoulder. “It is almost Weihnachten—Christmas—ja? Bad luck being out here on this night.”
“Yeah, not my idea of a bloody holiday,” the Englishman replied and reached into his boot, slipping out a thin flask and uncapping it, taking a sip of the liquor, and feeling it warm him a bit on the inside. With a slight hesitation, he offered it to the German who took it and sipped gratefully before handing it back.
“Danke,” he said and then reached into his coat to produce a slightly crushed box of fags, offering them to the Englishman, who took one gratefully, having left his back at the base.
“French,” the German said with a laugh. “They are best, though our officers don’t approve.”
The Englishman cracked a smile. “I’m inclined to agree.” He watched the German take out a box of matches and make to strike one of the sole of his boot. “Good luck lighting a lucifer in this weather, though.”
The German grinned as he produced a flare of fire and cupped his hand around it before puffing on his fag to get it to light before offering it to the Englishman who had raised his eyebrows, mildly impressed. Soon they were breathing smoke into the snowy night and the Englishman began to become more and more comfortable with his unexpected companion, wondering what it would have been like if he had simply been left out here alone all night.
When they finished smoking, the Englishman took out his flask again and they passed it between them until the liquor was gone. By then, they started chatting. The German had slightly halting English, but they understood each other well enough. The funny thing was that they never once spoke of the war. Instead, they talked about home. The Englishman told about his sweetheart and how he would marry her when he got back to Dear old Blighty, and the German spoke of his family, especially his mother’s wonderful cooking, and the feasts they would have on the holidays or whenever he went back home.
Pretty soon, after they had been talking for hours, the wind and the snowstorm started to let up, and there came a hush over the countryside. A hush that the Englishman hadn’t heard in a very long time. It was almost eerie. There was no canons booming, no gunfire, not from any direction—and he knew he wasn’t that far away from the fronts. It was almost as if the snow had brought along peace when it had landed.
The German stood up from their shelter and stretched his legs, stamping life back into his backside. The Englishman joined him and they looked up silently at the moon. The clouds had broken and the sky was becoming clear and the moon shown down almost like a beacon on the two pilots in the fresh new snow. The German turned around and smiled, pointing to the west.
“Is that your base?” he asked.
The Englishman turned too and cursed good-naturedly as the saw the Union Jack flying in the moonlight. “Yes, it is.”
The German laughed and clapped him on the back. “Then you can walk back, ja? This is gut. I think it is time we should leave.”
The Englishman felt a strange reluctance at parting with the other pilot, but he nodded. “We should. You have a long way to go.”
“Ja, but it is nice night. Good for flying.” The German started off back toward his red Fokker triplane, but turned back before he climbed into the cockpit. “Ah, I almost forgot. Merry Christmas.”
The Englishman smiled and held up a hand in farewell. “Merry Christmas.”
The German hopped into his cockpit and the Englishman spun his propeller for him to start the engine before retreating to his own ruined plane. He watched as the red triplane taxied and lifted lightly off the fresh snow, flying into the calm, moonlit night. The German banked sharply and came back around, low, and threw a salute to the Englishman on the ground, who returned it smartly.
The Englishman stood and watched until the red plane disappeared into the cold, Christmas night, and then turned and started on his slow walk back to the RAC base.
Several days later, a red Fokker triplane flew over the base and dropped a small box with a parachute on it. It wasn’t addressed to anyone, for they never had found out each other’s names, but the Englishman knew who it was for, and who it was from. When he opened it, he saw a bottle of wine and a package of French cigarettes.
The Englishman smiled as he read the note accompanying it:
A late Christmas geschenk. Danke for sharing your shelter. I hope someday we may meet again under better circumstances.
The Englishman knew that was wishful thinking, but all the same, he never shot at a red plane in a future.
Auxiliary Author’s Note
While the English pilot wasn’t based off anyone in particular, the German was supposed to be Manfred von Richthofen, the famous Red Baron. He was by all accounts a genuinely decent fellow, and though he killed over 80 other pilots in the war, he always followed the rules of conduct and gentlemanly warfare. He’s one of my favorite historical figures.
It was not uncommon for enemy pilots to fly over the bases of the opposite side either. A lot of them would drop wreaths for dead enemy pilots, telling of the camaraderie that all pilots had no matter what side they were on.
“Geschenk” is German for gift because “gift” in German means poison.