DECEMBER 25, 1914
The engines of the TARDIS ground to their traditional wheezing halt, the central rotor rising and falling like the beat of a heart. He looked diffidently at the clock on the control panel, not even registering the copper embossed numbers…1914.
He didn’t need to look at the clock, as he came here often in those days. In those dark days, after the end of the war to end all wars, when friend and foe alike chased him down with the word abomination ringing in his ears, calling him the destroyer of worlds, he came to this fixed point in time and space. Different moments, of course, and he was always careful not to cross his own time stream. Sometimes he would sit and watch, remembering the horrors and travesties he had visited on the armies of the universe, feeling all too keenly in his hearts the pain brought on by the primitive but still effective weapons these humans used. Change was just around the corner…in just a few months, the horrors of poison gas would be unleashed en masse upon the battlefield and the art of dying, such as it was, would irrevocably change. Other times he would try to help, to be the man his chosen name inferred himself to be. Always trying to find some kind of solace, some kind of redemption…or at the very least, some mirror in which he could face the dark deeds he found himself forced to set into motion.
He walked slowly from the console toward the TARDIS doors, head down, shoulders slouched as if weary from bearing a heavy load. The doors opened and for the first time in ages he walked out to a sight he didn’t quite expect.
Across the field of battle, across no-man’s land, they had gathered. The constant rain of artillery shells and bullets had ceased, and Germans and Britons alike met where once the bodies of their fellow troops fell, exchanging small gifts or parcels of food. In places, groups gathered and played pick up games of football, laughing even as they remained in uniform, their guns stacked to the side as if so much kindling or cordwood, cheerfully ignored and irrelevant. Soldiers trading coat buttons, commendation badges, giving each other hair cuts, acting like long lost friends, not mortal enemies. Acting like brothers.
In the disatnce, he thought he heard...no, he did hear...singing. Different voices, different languages, but a single tune, one by one could possibly forget...
Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
'1914,' he said, his voice breaking slightly. 'Ypres. And it’s Christmas Day.'
He watched from a distance as makeshift tables were set up…planks and boards stretched across barrels, and each side brought out what food and drink they could muster. No great feast, obviously…supplies were dwindling, but to his surprise even the officers were seen bringing out bottles of brandy and wine, ordering the cook staff to hurry. Soldiers from both sides stopped their singing, stopped their games, and ran over, smiling at each other as they shared what food and drink they had.
Finally he stepped down among them, his duffel coat and brown pants not seeming as out of place here as his typical garb, running his hands through his recently shorn hair. In these days, it was often easier to pretend he was someone else…his past self, most often…in order to come to grips with what he had done. He slipped in unnoticed, quietly taking a plate from one Tommy and accepting the thin slices of turkey, the mashed potatoes, and what might have been beans at one point. Quietly he moved on, finding an open seat next to an older soldier wearing a uniform dress shirt with red shoulder straps. The older soldier looked up at the newcomer, his face round, warm, yet worn with fatigue and care, nodded and smiled, and motioned to the empty seat next.
'Have a seat. Decided to step out of the uniform, did you? Can’t say I blame you…the break is nice.'
'You’re not British,' the Doctor in his duffle coat said.
'No, I’m afraid not sir. I am Canadian, actually. Born and raised, even thought my family goes back to Scotland. But I am here at the service of His Majesty, my King. If He calls, it is my duty as His subject to answer.'
He paused for a moment.
'You are though…I detect a bit of Scouser about you. Are you from Liverpool?'
The Doctor shrugged. 'Sometimes…'
The Canadian looked at him oddly, and then turned back to his plate. 'Still a soldier though?'
'Sometimes. I was, once…or maybe I have yet to be one. It’s a hard thing to tell, sometimes.'
The man to the Doctor’s left turned his head slightly, eyeing him curiously. 'Shellshock,' he whispered under his breath.
'Oh, you have no idea. I pray to your God you never do,' the Doctor replied, just as quietly. Thirty years on, the word shellshock would give way to the soon to be ubiquitous term thousand yard stare, something the Doctor could see all around him already. It’d be another 40 or 50 years before they’d coin the even more innocuous term post traumatic stress disorder, but it all meant the same thing. And even if none of the men sitting around him knew the scope of the terrors he himself had faced, they all shared their own tales of horror, many of which would never be known. The Doctor knew how closely he held his nightmares…how much closer could these men be holding theirs? Camouflaged emotion in a thousand yard stare, as a certain band from Aylesbury would term it.
They sat in silence, slowly picking at their food, until the Canadian broke the uncomfortable silence.
'Still, it is a rather funny thing, this.'
'What do you mean?'
'All of this,' he waved. 'Last night, the Fritzies…'
'Fritzies?' inquired the Doctor.
'Jerries. The Germans,' the Canadian artilleryman replied, seemingly shocked that this man had never heard the term before. 'Anyway, last night, they started singing songs. Christmas carols. And putting candles along their trenches, and in some trees they drug out. We were sure it was some kind of trick. But they kept on doing it…'
The Doctor leaned back, listening.
'Pretty soon, our boys started doing the same thing. Soon there were enough candles burning on both sides, it was almost like daytime! They had laid their guns down, and one or two of them came walking over toward our side. Across no-man’s land.' He paused, gathering his thoughts, careful to say the right words. 'Our officers, they ordered us to shoot.'
He paused again.
'Well, they ordered those of us with guns to shoot…'
The Doctor pointed to the red straps on the man’s shoulders. 'Aren’t you an artillery man yourself?'
The older man smiled a tired smile. 'Good eye, sir. I had a feeling you were an old soldier yourself. I am. Or rather, I was. Ten plus years on, though, and I guess they figured I served my time as an artillery man during that second go around with the Boers in the Transvaal. Afraid I was too old to come back for this. But…knowing I have some skill as a physician, both they and I felt I could serve in other ways.'
'You’re a doctor, then?'
'Indeed I am, sir.'
For the first time, the Doctor genuinely smiled. 'Good for you. Making sure the boys get back home.' The Doctor grabbed both of the man’s hands in his, squeezing them tightly in camaraderie.
The older man’s smile faded, even if his grip didn’t. 'Usually, sir…it’s more to make sure they go back out on the field. Broken bones, infections, sprains, bullet wounds…I can heal these. Some of them though…they have seen too much. The officers pull them aside, have a talk with them, and…sometimes I see them again. Sometimes they run. And you know what the punishment for desertion is.' he said, sadness pervading his voice.
'I see too many of these boys too many times…and I have to write too many letters.'
He paused and wiped his eyes for a moment, before he continued. 'But looking at your face, I think you knew that already. I can see it in your eyes. But it’s very kind of you to say so. Thank you. I only do my best.'
'Then…why all of this, doctor?'
The Canadian shrugged his shoulders in a defeatist posture. ' Can’t answer that, sir. Tomorrow we may be firing at each other again. Tomorrow we may be killing each other, and I may be patching up my boys just to send them back into hell again. When you’re called to fight, you do as you’re told. But it’s Christmas, sir, and if ever there was a time to remember that in the end we’re all human, well…why not here? And why not now? Why can’t we have just one day to remember that in the end, we’re all the same on the inside?'
The Doctor nodded sadly. He crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back as both men sat in silence, oblivious to the festivities and frivolity around them, barely touching the meager food on the plates before them.