A short story:
As I walked along the trench, I took a quick look over the parapet at the distant lights. Jerry was put on quite a show tonight, with red and green and yellow star shells lighting up the night sky in preparation for another bombardment.
Walking along the boards above the mud, edging around heaps of ammunition plastered with skulls and warnings, I ducked down into the command post buried under several feet of clay and concrete. Captain Stokes was inside, poring over a map on the table.
“Hello, Watkins!” he said cheerily, as soon as he caught sight of me.
“Jerry’s putting on quite a show tonight,” I said, pulling off my trenchcoat, and settling into one of the armchairs by the table. “Preparing for another bombardment, I suppose.”
Stokes sighed and fingered his luxuriant moustache, and sat down at the table, the light from the bare electric lamp above him picking out the stubble on his face, the care-worn wrinkles on his face, and his heavy, tired eyelids.
“War is hell, y’know, Watkins,” he said eventually. “It’s a terrible waste. So much pain and suffering and grief. So many casualties. And it just goes on and on and on.”
“Captain, I’ve been wanting to have a word…,” I began. But Stokes was just getting into his stride.
“I was in the field hospital earlier,” he continued. “To see some of the casualties from Jerry’s last bombardment. Fine young men, they once were, but now they were just lying there moaning and groaning, or calling out, or even manically cackling with insane laughter. The doctors do their best, but most of them are beyond helping, and they have to let them slip away. Tomorrow I’m going to have to write to their parents and sweethearts back home. And it’s the very worst job that I have to do.”
“And their parents and sweethearts back home are working just as hard as we are, keeping us supplied with ammunition and artillery. They work round the clock to keep us supplied. They’re almost as exhausted as we are.”
A look of profound gloom spread over his face, and he began fingering his moustache again.
“Captain, I’ve been wanting to show you something that I found a few days ago.”
“Yes,” Stokes replied, absently. “What is it?”
“It’s this,” I said, pulling out a handkerchief from my pocket and carefully laying it open on the table to reveal a small shiny object.
Stokes peered at it closely. “It’s one of those Jerry bullets, isn’t it?” he said eventually.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s one of theirs all right. But it’s not a bullet.”
“Isn’t it?” Stokes replied, his eyes widening. “Then what the hell is it?”
“It’s a mint humbug.”
Stokes said nothing, but his mouth fell slightly open.
“Try it,” I said. “Pop it in your mouth and suck it.”
“Good grief, Watkins!” Stokes bawled. “Have you lost your marbles? Do you think I’m going to put a German bullet in my mouth and suck it?”
“Well, then I will,” I said. And took the bullet between thumb and forefinger, and popped it into my mouth.
Stokes stared at me aghast as I sucked on the bullet, and then pulled it out and showed it to him again.
“See. It’s got smaller. That’s what happens when you suck mint humbugs,” I said. “And I also found this.”
I took out a cannister from my pocket, and set it on the table.
Stokes backed away from the table. “That’s one of their hand grenades, you fool!” he shouted. “Don’t touch it. It may go off!”
I carefully unscrewed the top, and deposited the contents of the cannister on the table, as Stokes cowered against the wall with his hands over his face.
“Nougat,” I said. “Sticks of nougat, with cherry and walnut. Very nice too.”
Stokes dropped his guard, and hesitantly returned to the table.
“So what if they’re mint humbugs and nougat?” he said. “They’re obviously poisonous mint humbugs and nougat.”
“No they’re not. And they’re very tasty. I ate all the nougat in one of their grenades last week, and I feel as right as rain.”
Stokes stared at me very hard.
“I’d like to suggest, Captain Stokes, that those Germans in the trenches over there aren’t our enemies, but our friends. And they bombard us daily with gifts. Mint humbugs. Nougat. Black forest gateau. Chocolate. Wine. Schnapps. Beer. And we ought to thank them for it, because it’s really very kind of them.”
Stokes lifted the receiver of the field telephone, and laid it on the desk.
“And what do we fire back at them, eh?” I asked.
“Well,” said Stokes, recovering his composure. “It’s pretty lethal stuff. Let’s see. Last week we fired off about four hundred 16-pound roast turkeys, dripping with gravy, and stuffed with bacon and roast potatoes and carrots and peas. And we followed up with a couple of hundred plum puddings. And several dozen bottles of Greensham Best Bitter. That shut them up all right!” He grinned broadly.
“I’m sure it did,” I replied. “It probably took them days to get through it all.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Stokes said. “It’s a preposterous idea, that the Jerries are eating all the poisonous stuff we throw at them. Next you’ll be suggesting that our brave lads are doing the same with their humbugs and nougat and sausages!”
“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting, Captain. Those casualties that you were visiting earlier weren’t dying men. They were merely suffering from acute indigestion. It’s what happens if you stuff yourself with cake and nougat and sausage and humbugs, and wash it all down with schnapps and brandy. Most of them were probably blind drunk as well.”
Stokes tapped his fingers on the table impatiently.
“So I suppose that you also think that my aunt Maud, who has spent the last two years on a night shift in Barnsley, making heavy duty pork pies and Cornish pasties and sausage rolls to ship out to us troops for our guns, has simply been aiding and abetting the enemy, eh?”
“Exactly! Although the pork pies are rather inedible. The Germans do much better when they’re posted opposite the French, and they get croissants and coffee and Gitanes and escargots and pate-de-foie-gras and Creme de Menthe and Benedictine raining down on them. It’s a tough assignment to be posted opposite us Brits with our spam and roast beef and bread-and-butter puddings.”
“And when the Americans join the war?” Stokes grinned and canted his head to one side.
“It’ll be a rain of doughnuts and Pepsi and quarter pound cheeseburgers and ice cream and hershey bars and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Jack Daniels whiskey.”
“And they’ll be dead in minutes!” Stokes exclaimed. “Do you think the Jerries will last long once they get hit by all that, eh? Have you read the health warnings on that stuff?”
Just then the door burst open, and couple of burly military policeman rushed in.
“Arrest him!” shrieked Stokes, pointing at me. And within seconds I was pinned to the wall, with my arms behind my back.
Stokes advanced triumphantly towards me.
“Do you think that I believed a single word you said? Because I didn’t! You can believe all that nonsense about nutritious and tasty German nougat, but I don’t! And I keep a few things in my trouser pockets too. Like this!!”
He drew out a long brown object from his pocket.
“Do you know what this is? Do you? Well, it’s a two-year-old English pork sausage, fried in batter. And it’s absolutely lethal. And if I’m ever in a tight spot, and there’s no way out, I’m going to eat it. And I’ll be dead in minutes, after suffering awful convulsions.”
“As for you, you’re in a tight spot right now, chummy. Because tomorrow morning you’re going to face a court martial. You’ll be charged with treason, and fraternising with the enemy. And you’ll face the death penalty for it. And don’t expect me to slip you a bit of my sausage to give you a quick way out! Now take him away!!” he bawled.
The policemen bundled me out of the door, and dragged me to the brig, where I lay sleepless until dawn broke.
The trial only lasted 10 minutes. The evidence was laid out on the table. One half-sucked humbug. A cannister of nougat. A small bottle of Pils. A transcript of my conversation with Stokes, overheard on the telephone handset. The death sentence was to be carried out immediately.
I was dragged to a muddy trench, and lashed to a tree stump, and a handkerchief was tied over my eyes as the firing party assembled. And I trembled as I heard the sergeant tell his men to take aim, and then to fire.
And then the rain of mince pies began, splattering over my face and chest. One trickled into the corner of my mouth, and I licked it up. It was sweet, and flavoured with brandy and ginger and perhaps a hint of cinnamon or cloves.
They were mince pies to die for.
Happy New Year.