by Harry Turtledove
Messines had been through hell, but it looked like heaven to the men of the 16th Bavarian Infantry Reserve Regiment. They’d gone through hell themselves. They and their comrades hadn’t quite driven the Tommies out of Ypres, but too damned many of them had died trying. Many more were too badly shot up ever to go back into the meat grinder of war again.
Half of the ones the rifle and machine-gun bullets had missed, the ones who hadn’t got torn to rags by shrapnel balls or shell fragments, came out of the trenches and back to Messines with weary relief. Battle had shattered the little Belgian town, but it made a soft billet all the same. Not even the biggest English guns could reach it now. If you were going to celebrate the Christmas season anywhere in this world gone mad with murder, Messines made a better place than most.
Soldiers sang “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.” They improvised Christmas trees by using cartridge cases to hold candles on evergreen boughs. Most of all, they stood straight when they walked. You skulked through the muddy trenches, hunched over like a chimpanzee. You did if you wanted to live, anyhow. If a limey marksman got a glimpse of the top of your head, even for a second, he’d splatter your brains against the trench wall behind you.
Folks back home did their best to make the Landsers as comfortable as they could. Cards and letters poured forward. At Christmastime, so did packages. The Feldpost worked miracles, getting socks and mufflers and cakes and hams and sausages to the men for whom they were intended.
A brewery in Munich shipped beer to the regiment to help it celebrate victories against the Russians. A man with a few marks in his pocket might get sparkling wine from the Belgians. A man who didn’t mind knocking them around with his rifle butt might, too. The military police would come down on you if you were too blatant about it, but they took a broad view of such things.
Not everyone in the regiment cared about Christmas. Most of the men were good Catholics—most, but not all. Most of them poured down all the beer and wine and schnapps and applejack they could get their paws on—once more, most, but not all. Every outfit will have its handful of white crows.
Sometimes they get grief from their comrades. Sometimes, if they’re brave and eager in spite of being strange, they earn the right to be left alone. Sometimes their strangeness blends with their bravery, and they even win respect.
A Gefreiter with an upswept mustache sat under the shelter of overhanging eaves, working on a watercolor of the battered monastery across the way. The subject was gloomy. So was the watercolor. The Gefreiter nodded to himself, pleased with the lines’ lack of sharpness. That showed something of the way the monastery’s sharp lines had been abraded by time and by shellfire, and also something of the way the mist in the air blurred his view.
Of course, there were other ways to get your view blurred, too. A soldier from the regiment staggered down the street, one of those liters of Munich beer clamped in his right fist. By the way he stumbled along, and by the sozzled grin plastered across his mug, it wasn’t his first liter, or his second, either.
To the Gefreiter’s annoyance, the drunken Landser spotted him in his little half-dry niche. “Adi!” the fellow exclaimed, and waved so enthusiastically, he almost fell over. “What are you doing there?”
“Hello, Klaus,” Adolf Hitler answered reluctantly. “I’m trying to paint a picture.”
Would Klaus take the hint? Too much to hope for; Hitler had feared it would be. “What are you wasting your time on rubbish like that for?” the drunk demanded. “Grab some beer, man, some beer! Christ only knows when we’ll ever get our mitts on more.”
“That’s all right. I don’t really want any.” The Gefreiter despised beer and wine and spirits. He hated the way they turned men into leering apes.
“Don’t want any?” Klaus dug a fingertip into his ear, as if he couldn’t follow Hitler’s Austrian dialect. “You’re a queer duck, Adi—no two ways about it. Don’t get me wrong. You’ve got balls. Nobody I’d sooner have beside me when the bullets fly. But sweet Lord Jesus, you’re a queer duck.”
Hitler shrugged a tight little shrug. He knew Klaus was only saying what most of the men in the outfit felt. He was one of those white crows, one of those green monkeys. The soldiers had had a bellyful of war by now. They wanted to go home to their parents or their wives. He had no one like that to go home to. And he liked it at the front. He’d never felt so alive as he did when he went into action. Wasn’t survival of the fittest what life was all about?
Klaus sighed. “Well, if you won’t drink, at least you can snag something to eat. They’ve got goose and ham and roast capon and all kinds of goodies. You’re too skinny, Adi. Gotta fatten yourself up.”
Fatten myself for the slaughter, Hitler thought. Aloud, he said, “I’m fine. I had something before I came out here.” And he had—some prunes and some hardtack. He ate meat only when he couldn’t get anything else. It made him feel heavy, greasy, bloated.
With a shrug, Klaus lurched off. His attitude seemed to be that he’d given it his best shot. If his Kamerad didn’t feel like listening to him, well, that was just Hitler’s tough luck.
Muttering under his breath, Hitler went back to the watercolor. He muttered some more when he made a brushstroke he didn’t like at all. He’d let that drunken idiot distract him, dammit.
An Unteroffizier came by. The sergeant was also working on a bottle of beer. But he could still reliably put one foot in front of the other. He might drink, but he hadn’t gone and got smashed. Not yet, anyhow, Hitler thought with a wasp’s sting of malice.
Maybe he shouldn’t have let that cross his mind. As if the Unteroffizier had heard it, his gaze swung left till he spotted Hitler under the overhang. “Oh, good!” he said. “I was looking for a runner. Hitler, go back to headquarters and hunt up Leutnant Rombach. He’s got a despatch or a telegram or something that needs to get up to the front right away.”
Most soldiers, if told to drop whatever they were doing and head for the front, would have groused like nobody’s business—and double on Christmas. Hitler neatly packed away his half-finished painting and his watercolors. He scrambled to his feet. “Zu Befehl!” he said, and hurried off to do as he was ordered.
The Unteroffizier stared after him with narrowed eyes. He’d been braced for backtalk. Not getting any made him suspicious. But Hitler was heading straight for headquarters, sure as hell. The sergeant shrugged and took a pull at his liter. You wanted to like a soldier who did just what you told him to do and never complained. You wanted to, but there was something not quite human about it.
Regimental headquarters were in what had been the burgemeester’s office till war overran Messines. Hitler strode in. A couple of almost-comprehensible bulletins in Flemish were still thumbtacked to one wall. Leutnant Rombach sat behind a heavy wooden desk. On it sat the usual piles of paper and a half-empty bottle of red wine. The lieutenant was celebrating the holidays, too.
Doing his best to hide his distaste for the breach of discipline, Hitler came to attention, clicked his heels, and said, “Reporting as the Unteroffizier ordered, Herr Leutnant!”
“Ah, Hitler. So Oskar found you, did he? Good. At ease, at ease.” Rombach was in his late twenties, a few years older than Hitler, with straw-colored hair that had started falling back at the temples and a wispy blond mustache. “I’ve got a wire for you to take to the front. Ludwig Schnitzlein is granted immediate compassionate leave: his mother’s been badly hurt in a tram accident in Munich.” He plucked the telegram from a stack and held it out to Hitler.
“I’ll tend to it, mein Herr.” Hitler took the folded yellow sheet of flimsy paper and stuck it in his Feldgrau tunic’s right breast pocket. “Let me grab my rifle and I’ll be on my way.”
“I don’t think you even need to bother,” Rombach said. “From what I hear, the men in the regiment who’re still at the front were singing carols with the Tommies last night. Nobody on this stretch of line is shooting at anyone today.”
“Mein Herr, I’ve heard the same thing. I hope to heaven it isn’t true.” Hitler’s eyes sparked with disdain. “Something like this shouldn’t even be up for discussion during wartime. The damned Englishmen are just trying to soften us up.”
Rombach raised an eyebrow. “Deliver the message, that’s all. Then come back and take it easy the rest of the day. I promise I won’t bother you again. It’s Christmas, after all.”
Copyright © 2019. Christmas Truce by Harry Turtledove