The Guns at Christmas by Gary Earl Ross

This Play is the copyright of the Author and must NOT be Performed without the Author's PRIOR consent

ACT ONE

Scene One

(Darkness. The voice of an OLD MAN is heard.)

OLD MAN (v.o.)
Dear Mr. Cosgrove, I am a devoted reader of your fine journal. Your
insightful articles on the nature of politics, the profits of war,
and our hopelessly human worship of both may have earned you enemies
in the British government but I remain a staunch, albeit quiet,
supporter. Quiet, that is, until now. The end of this war has inspired
me to put pen to paper, to tell a story that may hold lessons for your
readers. You may have heard various accounts of the near miracle I
shall describe in this letter, for the events detailed herein were not
limited to my own short stretch of the battlefield. But my tale is, I
think, unique among the stories of that extraordinary period. Every
word is true, to the extent that I remember it. It was December of
1914 . . .

(Dusk. Lights rise about a third on the entire stage, as the sounds of
gunfire and shell bursts fill the air and the flash of flares
occasionally brighten the sky, revealing the bodies littering the No
Man’s Land between trenches. Each trench is a bustle of activity as
soldiers scuttle about, carrying ammo boxes, ducking at the sounds of
explosions and gunfire, moving their tarp-covered gun barrels as if
engaging the enemy, periodically scratching because of lice or fleas.
Inside each trench are glowing lanterns and something that looks like
a small lit stove. Gunfire begins to dwindle and gradually diminishes
until there is nothing but the occasional gunshot and whistling wind.
Activity settles in the trenches, though there is always something
happening—the passing of flasks or cups or cigarettes or candy bars,
conversations the audience can’t hear, laughter, and the like. The
bustle continues during conversations the audience can hear. When the
focus and lights shift from one trench to the other, previous speakers
talk silently. In the stage right British trench are BILLY, PERCY,
JOHN, DUNCAN, and THOMAS. On the German side are ERNST, JOHANN, WILLY,
HERMAN, and RUDOLF. The Germans wear drab gray greatcoats or
uniforms. The British are in khaki. Headgear is soft because steel
helmets are still a year away. Only the two colonels have pristine
uniform overcoats. Everyone wears gloves with fingertips cut off.
THOMAS wears a clerical collar and a red cross on a white armband. The
English COLONEL enters upstage and walks down the length of the
British trench, saluting.)

COLONEL
Sergeant-major!

PERCY
(Rising and saluting.)
Colonel!

COLONEL
How are the men in your section since the death of your captain?

PERCY
As well as can be expected, sir. Tired but determined to hold the
line.

COLONEL
I know the captain was an old school chum of yours and losing him must
have been . . . difficult.

PERCY
Yes, sir.

COLONEL
In your grief, are you maintaining the proper discipline?

PERCY
I believe so, sir.

COLONEL
Don’t believe, man. Know.

PERCY
Yes, sir.

COLONEL
As I moved among your men, I saw someone light three cigarettes with a
single match. Why is that permitted?

PERCY
Matches are in short supply, sir.

COLONEL
Three on a match during the day is fine, but at night it gives Hun
snipers a fix on your position.

PERCY
Yes, sir. It shan’t happen again.

COLONEL
Can you hold this section till the New Year?

PERCY
We have held it this long, sir. I believe we can.

COLONEL
(After a beat.)
Did I detect a note of hesitancy, Sergeant-major?

PERCY
No, sir.

COLONEL
This stretch of the line is yours, yours and your lieutenant’s back
there. You must hold it. Should the Huns break through here, stopping
their advance would be a Herculean task.

PERCY
Yes, sir. Understood, sir.

COLONEL
Your replacements are en route. They should be here by New Year’s
Day.

PERCY
Yes, sir.

COLONEL
Rare is the enlisted man who moves into the ranks of commissioned
officers. Your captain led to believe you are not just educated but
smart enough to be that rare man. Hold this line and there may be a
lieutenancy in it for you. That could be your foot in the door.

PERCY
(Hesitantly.)
Thank you, sir.

COLONEL
Vicar.

THOMAS
Yes, sir.

COLONEL
You do realize that you needn’t be here at the front. You can serve
just as effectively at one of the field hospitals or in command
headquarters.

THOMAS
Sir, the captain thought I might be most effective with the men who
feel the greatest danger.

COLONEL
Perhaps but your captain now lies there in No Man’s Land, and your
commanding officers are a lieutenant and a sergeant-major. I am
offering you a chance to move away from the front.

THOMAS
Thank you, sir, but I feel my work here is important. It helps men who
risk their lives for King and country to see that I am doing the
same.
(The COLONEL studies both men a moment, then all three exchange
salutes. The COLONEL moves upstage and off.)

PERCY
You had your chance, Thomas. I have urged you to move to the rear for
some time now.

THOMAS
So I can go home to what? Ever since the captain died trying to reach
the Hun trench, it gives the men hope if they feel the eye of God is
upon them. For better or worse, I am that eye. It is my duty. And you
need me to talk to, to be your confessor so you won’t go mad.

(PERCY reacts. Then both men crouch beside the others in the trench.
BILLY has a boot off to examine his foot.)

PERCY
Want to put your boot on, lad? I don’t need to smell what’s
happening to your feet when I can feel it happening to my own.

BILLY
Got a right good nose, Sergeant-major, if you can smell anything in
this latrine but mud, piss, shite and gunpowder.
(Pulling his sock and boot back on.)
The way my skin is peeling off in flaps, I just might lose my toes by
Boxing Day.

THOMAS
I told you to keep your feet dry, Billy.

BILLY
How, Vicar? My boots leak so much even John the cobbler here can’t
mend them. Anything I can use to wipe off my feet is wetter than they
are.

THOMAS
Your bedding, boy, or the side of your rucksack.

BILLY
There’s lice in my bedding and the side of my sack is so coarse
it’s like to peel off all the skin.

DUNCAN
A fair way from London to here, ain’t it, laddie?

BILLY
Duncan, I already told you, I’m from Liverpool.

DUNCAN
And ye’re right proud of Liverpool schoolin’. Half me sheep are
smarter ‘n you. Hold your feet near one of them lanterns. Or crawl
amongst them in the mud after dark and find yourself a good pair.

BILLY
And get shot shopping for dead men’s shoes?

PERCY
Enough, both of you. By New Year’s a different unit will be here and
we shall be close enough to headquarters for a decent bath, or at
least a decent foot soak.

DUNCAN
Aye, right! When they changed me to this unit, they swore I’d be
home by Hogmanay, not sinking me arse in a French bathtub. Next,
we’ll have to teach the Huns “Auld Lang Syne.”

THOMAS
Do you think you could get them to cross arms and link hands with us?

DUNCAN
They’re beasts sure enough, Vicar, but I don’t think their arms
are that long.

(THOMAS chuckles. Then, for a moment, no one speaks.)

PERCY
Things are rather quiet. They seem to have stopped early tonight.

JOHN
And so have we.

PERCY
I expect the lieutenant stopped because they did.

JOHN
Or maybe they both stopped because it’s Christmas Eve.

THOMAS
Wouldn’t that be a lovely gesture from the Lord.

DUNCAN
Ye’re havering! Looks a bit peely-wallee to me, Sergeant-major.
Sneaky bastards are up to somethin’.

PERCY
Right. Look alert, men. John, get down to the lookout point and see if
there’s movement. Billy, get to the lieutenant, let him know our
status, and find out if there’s anything he needs.

BILLY and JOHN
Yes, Sergeant-major.

(BILLY and JOHN scuttle along the trench, JOHN to the middle, where he
peers over the sandbags, and BILLY all the way to the backdrop, where
he exits. Lights shift to the German trench. JOHANN and WILLY are in
front, ERNST and RUDOLF behind. HERMAN is farther back. The OBERST
enters upstage and moves down the trench until he reaches the end and
JOHANN. All rise and salute him.)

JOHANN
Herr Oberst!

OBERST
At ease, Feldwebel. All of you. The mercenaries are too quiet tonight,
I fear.

ERNST
What do you think they are up to, sir?

OBERST
Patience, Gefreiter. We shall know soon enough. They are not a subtle
people, the English. “He crouches behind the dark grey flood/ Full
of envy, of rage, of craft, of gall/ Cut off by waves that are thicker
than blood.”

WILLY
That’s . . . that’s from that poem they gave us.

OBERST
Yes. Reciting Lissauer can keep us wed to our purpose here. What we do
we do for the security of the Fatherland. If we don’t stop the
Tommies here, they will overrun all of Deutschland.

ERNST
“We love as one, we hate as one/We have one foe, and one alone,
England.”

OBERST
See, lads. Young Ernst here knows the poem. You should all commit it
to memory too.

JOHANN
Yes, sir.

RUDOLF
Ernst must be proud to know it, since he and Lissauer are both Jews.
Smart Jews.

JOHANN
And both good Germans, unshakably serious. Herr Oberst, I have told
Willy it would do him good to follow Ernst’s example. When the war
is done, Ernst will be a lawyer or professor or factory owner. The
world is changing. Tomorrow belongs to the focused mind.

OBERST
Wise advice, though if I have any say in the matter, Ernst will remain
in the army and flourish.

ERNST
Thank you, sir. I should be honored to do so.

OBERST
Headquarters has authorized a special delivery for the holidays. When
you think things are quiet enough, Feldwebel, Soldat Weyrich will
bring them out.

JOHANN
Them, sir?

OBERST
Command felt the men would appreciate a reminder of the season,
something to let them know that our cause is just and they are under
the watchful eye of the Almighty. Who knows? That kind of inspiration
might be just the thing to drive them through that line of
resistance.

JOHANN
Yes, Herr Oberst. It might indeed.

(The two men salute, and the OBERST moves up and off. RUDOLF offer
ERNST a cigarette. They light up.)

ERNST
Feldwebel, what was that all about?

JOHANN
It seems the commanders have decided to give us a Christmas surprise.

ERNST
Better a surprise from them than the Tommies.

JOHANN
True. And it appears you’ve made quite an impression on the Oberst.
It seems he has plans for your future. It wouldn’t surprise me if he
attached you to his staff in some way.

ERNST
Should I survive this war, Feldwebel, I would be honored to render
long service to the army.

JOHANN
I suspect it would offer you more excitement than working in your
father’s accounting firm.

ERNST
Yes, it would. My father is a good man but not a modern man. He keeps
our oldest traditions for no reason other than tradition itself. He
does not see the world changing around him.

RUDOLF
(To WILLY.)
Listen to the Gefreiter. Think about your future.
(He takes a long pull on his cigarette.)
You don’t want to end up a pig farmer like my father and me,
smelling of shit and blood and sausages, and growing old and fat with
a greasy woman who still smiles when you walk through the door.
That’s what I have to look forward to.

WILLY
That doesn’t sound so bad, to have somebody smile when you come
home.

RUDOLF
Except when her teeth are all gone that ugly smile will be good for
only one thing.

(RUDOLF takes a suggestive pull, then stubs out his butt. WILLY looks
confused but JOHANN intercedes.)

JOHANN
Soldat, let’s not forget that some of our young charges are
innocents, unwise in the ways of the world. Our purpose here is not to
enlighten them, but to gain ground so we can end this war as quickly
as possible. Then you can get back to your wife and we can start to
look for ours.

RUDOLF
Yes, Feldwebel. But that part of their education may be waiting for
them when we take Paris, eh?

ERNST
Better a Parisian pretty than a Tommie tart.

(RUDOLF and ERNST both laugh. WILLY still looks confused. For a moment
no one speaks.)

JOHANN
Perhaps they have decided to rest for the night. Well, it is Christmas
Eve. Ernst, tell Herman that if he’d like to bring out that special
delivery from headquarters, he can.

(ERNST scuttles along the trench to HERMAN, who nods and moves upstage
and off. ERNST rejoins the others as the next lines are given.)

WILLY
My mother sent me a cake for Christmas. Should I get it, Feldwebel?

JOHANN
Only if you intend to share it.

(WILLY scuttles off as ERNST returns.)

ERNST
Herman says the delivery is small Christmas trees.

JOHANN
Christmas trees?

ERNST
Yes. He will put them on the top of the trench, for our fallen
comrades still in Niemandsland.

JOHANN
I hope their snipers are in a holiday mood.

(Lights shift to the British trench. BILLY and DUNCAN are both sitting
with their backs to the wall, trying to sleep. PERCY and THOMAS are
both trying to read by a lantern. THOMAS gives up first, closes his
Bible, and sits back. As the following exchange nears its conclusion,
HERMAN places three small Christmas trees on the top of the German
trench and places candles on or around them.)

THOMAS
My eyes aren’t what they used to be, Percy.

PERCY
It’s dark, Vicar. If you don’t mind my saying so, this is a hell
of a place and a hell of a time to be trying to read the Word of God.

THOMAS
Where better and when than the hell we’ve made for ourselves? This,
son, is where we need to feel closest to God . . . especially when we
have killed.

PERCY
I doubt seriously the Almighty has any greater stake in this war than
He does in a football match. This is human folly, a feud between
cousins who happen to be kings.

THOMAS
(Sighing.)
I forgot. You’re one of those free thinkers, aren’t you?

PERCY
I expect that term is redundant.

THOMAS
How so?
PERCY
Those who think for themselves are free, even though they be caged.
Those who rethink the thoughts of others are not free, however endless
the ground that stretches before them.

THOMAS
Who said that?

PERCY
I did. It’s something I tell my students every year.

THOMAS
Ah, in the hope that they rethink your thoughts. What are you reading
there?

PERCY
(Showing him the book.)
H.G. Wells, The War That Will End War. I got it in October when it
came out, and I carry it with me everywhere, to give me the strength
to go on.

THOMAS
As if it were the Bible and not the work of a dreamer who put Martian
war machines in the English countryside.

PERCY
Wells is not a dreamer but a visionary. In his book The War in the
Air, Germany attacks America with airships. Mark my words, if we
don’t end this war quickly we’ll see airships over London. And his
descriptions of a most terrible weapon he calls the atomic bomb—

THOMAS
Put your faith in God, Sergeant-major, not the rantings of a man with
a fantastical imagination.

PERCY
Sorry, Vicar, but I cannot seem to embrace the illusions of simplistic
faith, not just in God but in those who put us in this hell, who said
we’d be home for Christmas.

THOMAS
I find it ironic that a man who has so little faith in the existence
of God punishes himself so much for having shot one of God’s
creatures.

PERCY
Not one of His creatures, one of His unarmed emissaries.

THOMAS
(Placing a hand on PERCY’s shoulder.)
We’ve discussed this, Percy. Dusk. Gunfire. Gunsmoke. Shell bursts.
You couldn’t see the cross on his sleeve until he fell.

[End of Extract]

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