It was cold and dark on the hill, but inside the dugout the soldiers felt snug and warm.
The fighting had been bitter and bloody all along the front, but that was now over, for a while, anyway. For it was a time of truce; a forty-eight hour truce in which the opposing armies would cease to kill each other and attempt to live a little.
The seven men sat on empty ammunition boxes around their make-shift table.
They were playing cards. In front of them were little piles of coin money and a few crumpled notes of small denomination. Close by were several cans of American beer. Occupying a place on honour near the head of their plank table was a big, dark, raisin-studded Christmas cake. The eighth of their number, “The Kid,” was outside on sentry duty. They had let him take guard alone tonight; there would be no trouble.
Outside, the eighteen-year-old sat huddled in the corner of the sandbag enclosure, his back against the tripod of the heavy machine gun. He felt proud to have been elected to stand guard. The boy had joined the squad only yesterday and already his mates had put him in a position of trust. His eyes flickered from left to right and then back again as he peered across the pale patch of snow beyond the barbed-wire perimeter.
Out there was the no-man’s land he had heard so much about. The Reds had agreed to a two-day cease-fire, but you couldn’t trust the oriental bastards, he thought to himself. What did Christmas mean to a North Korean?
It was then that he heard the sound; the slight squeak of a boot on fresh snow. The Kid raised his head, listening intently. There it was again. He could feel his heart beating rapidly somewhere up in his throat. No time to warn the fellows. Here they come- four, no five of them! The dim shapes moved slowly towards him. His hands trembled as he fumbled off his mittens and released the safety-catch on the machine gun.
The still night seemed to come alive as the automatic weapon blasted out bullets and a foot-long flame into the darkness. There were cries and screams and the sounds of running men.
The Kids seven comrades joined him. They tumbled out into the crisp air, the drink and warmth-induced drowsiness gone immediately. They strained their eyes as they squinted down the slope, rifles at the ready.
But they did not shoot. There was nothing to shoot at. The soldiers could hear someone groaning but after a few minutes the sound ceased and there was nothing but the faint singing of the wind across the whitened hill.
Several hours passed and gradually, almost imperceptibly, the scene lightened.
The men still crouched or lay behind the sandbags, most of them dozing fitfully. There had been no movement from the enemy front all night: no shelling, no aircraft overhead, not even a rifle shot. The sun lifted a wan disc over the horizon, its first weak rays shining upon the hill.
It was then that the kid saw them – the three figures like broken dolls, sprawled against the hill of white. And around them the little packages of food and wood-carvings and model sampans – the Christmas presents they had been bringing to their enemies.
© Tom Ware