Big Ben tolled for the first time in four years. But the cheers that rang out from Parliament Square to celebrate the armistice did not reach all the way across the Channel, where Tommies and Jerries were still entrenched in soggy Flemish clay.
Rumours about the ceasefire had made the rounds these past days but few soldiers were hopeful they would soon be embracing their loved ones again. They were fully prepared for another couple of years of limited military gains for the benefit of unbearable human slaughter.
James, a Tommy, had enlisted four months ago, voluntarily. He had lost two brothers in a harrowing gas attack near Ypres one year earlier and subsequently watched his mother wilt from grief. He was in the trenches to make sure neither of them had died in vain.
Across no man’s land Heinrich leaned against the improvised trench wall, made mostly of rotting wood, with the odd German limb thrown in. The Jerry had not chosen to be here. He was plucked from the school benches by the Kaiser to serve as cannon fodder for a war that – by the time he reached Flanders – was already beyond winning.
When the soldiers were alerted that war had ended indeed, there were hugs, there were tears, but there was no real celebration. Just an acknowledgement of a duty done. And a glance across the hundred yards that separated enemy lines.
James and Heinrich climbed over the edge of the trench, shed their arms and walked towards each other. Seen up close, Tommy and Jerry were not that dissimilar. The uniforms differed, but the mental scars, the weary eyes were the same.
“How old are you?” James asked.
“Seventeen,” Heinrich replied. “You?”
They were men before they had been allowed to be boys.
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