Henry's Songbook

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Christmas 1914

  • (Words & music Mike Harding)

    Christmas Eve in 1914, stars were gleaming, gleaming bright
    And all along the Western front guns were lying still and quiet
    Men lay dozing in the trenches, in the cold and in the dark
    As far away behind the lines a village dog began tae bark

    Some lay thinking of their families, some sang songs to others quiet
    Playing brag and rolling fags to pass away the Christmas night
    As we watched the German trenches, something moved in no man's land
    Through the dark there came a soldier carrying a white flag in his hand

    Then from both sides men came running, crossing into no man's land
    Through the barbed wire, mud and shell-holes, shyly stood there shaking hands
    Fritz he brought cigars and brandy, Tommy brought corned beef and fags
    And as they stood there quietly talking, the moon shone down on no man's land

    Then Christmas Day we all played football in the mud of no man's land
    Tommy brought some Christmas pudding, Fritz brought out a German band
    And when they beat us at the football we shared all our grub and drink
    Then Fritz showed me a tattered photo of a brown-haired girl back in Berlin

    For four days after no side fired, not one shot disturbed the night
    For old Fritz and Tommy Atkins, they'd both lost their will to fight
    So they withdrew us from the trenches, sent us back behind the lines
    They brought fresh troops to take our places and told the guns, Prepare to fire

    The next night in 1914, flak was beaming, beaming bright
    The orders came, Prepare offensive! Over the top we go tonight
    And men stood waiting in the trenches, gazed out across our football park
    As all along the Western front the Christmas guns began tae bark

    As sung by Arthur Johnstone


Susannes Folksong-Notizen

  • [1987:] In no-man's-land, between the British and the German trenches during the Christmas truce of that year [1914], an extraordinary event occurred. "The night was cold. We sang, they applauded. Our lines were only two hundred feet apart. We played the mouth organ, they sang, then we applauded. They produced a set of bagpipes and played their poetic tunes. Men were waving torches and cheering. We had prepared grog and drank a toast." [Letter] from a German soldier. - From both sides men came running, and soon were fraternizing "in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received." A German N.C.O. with an Iron Cross, gained "for conspicuous skill in sniping, started his fellows off on some marching tune. I set the note for the Bonnie Boys of Scotland, and so we went on and ended up with Auld Lang Syne which we all - English, Scots, Irish, Prussians and Wurttembergers - joined in." [Diary] of a British Captain. - From some old rags and cord a makeshift football was made, and by the light of flares the two sides played a game of soccer, their previous deadly activities forgotten. (Notes Danny Doyle, '20 Years A-Growing')

  • [1988:] At some points a "live and let live" system evolved - a means of existence involving tacit co-operation between the sides, recognizing a rough parity of forces. [...] One was to have an unspoken agreement [...] not to shell latrines nor to open fire during breakfast. Another was to make as much noise as possible before a minor raid, so that the other side could withdraw to their protected bunkers. This limitation on hostilities did not exist everywhere and was stamped on by command when it came to light. But even such informal arrangements as survived could be quickly buried, along with men killed by snipers, by the odd shell, or gas. The fraternization that did go on briefly between the lines on Christmas Day 1914 did not characterize the way the war was fought in the trenches. Violence was always below the surface, ready to explode. (J.M. Winter, The Experience of World War I, 133ff)

  • [1989:] This song by Mike Harding chronicles a vivid but little reported event in the First World War, where enemies locked in combat could still have a longing for peace while being directed from afar by their generals. (Notes Arthur Johnstone, 'North By North')

  • [1997:] It is as much Britain as Germany that we should worry about, and we both have a common interest in building Europe. It is the football matches between the trenches on Christmas Day we should remember - not seeing off a mythical Fritz who has long since disappeared. (Will Hutton, Observer 9 Feb)

  • See also notes No Man's Land, Tunes of Glory

  • [1998:] The Christmas truce of 1914 really happened. It is as much a part of the historical texture of World War I as the gas clouds of Ypres or the Battle of the Somme or the Armistice of 1918. Yet it has often been dismissed as though it were merely a myth. Or, assuming anything of the kind occurred, it has been seen as a minor incident, blown up out of all proportion, natural fodder for sentimentalists and pacifists of later generations.

    But the truce did take place, and on some far greater scale than has been generally realised. Enemy really did meet enemy between the trenches. There was for a time, genuine peace in No Man's Land. Though Germans and British were the main participants, French and Belgians took part as well. Most of those involved agreed it was a remarkable way to spend Christmas. "Just you think," wrote one British soldier, "that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!" "It was a day of peace in war," commented a German participant, "It is only a pity that it was not decisive peace."

    So the Christmas Truce is no legend. It is not surprising, however, given the standard popular perception of World War I, that this supreme instance of "All Quiet on the Western Front" has come to have something of a legendary quality. People who would normally dismiss that far off conflict of their grandfathers in the century's teens as merely incomprehensible, find reassurance, even a kind of hope, in the Christmas truce.

    This was not, however, a unique occurrence in the history of war. Though it surprised people at the time - and continues to do so today - it was a resurgence of a long established tradition. Informal truces and small armistices have often taken place during prolonged periods of fighting and the military history of the last two centuries, in particular, abounds with incidents of friendship between enemies. In the Peninsula War British and French Troops at times visited each others lines, drew water at the same wells and even sat around the same campfire sharing their rations and playing cards. In the Crimean War British, French and Russians at quiet times also gathered around the same fire, smoking and drinking. In the American Civil War Yankees and Rebels traded tobacco, coffee and newspapers, fished peacefully on opposite sides of the same stream and even collected wild blackberries together. Similar stories are told of the Boer War, in which on one occasion, during a conference of commanders, the rank and file of both sides engaged in a friendly game of football.

    Later wars too have their small crop of such stories. It is rare for a conflict at close quarters to continue very long without some generous gestures between enemies or an upsurge in the 'live and let live' spirit. So the Christmas truce of 1914 does not stand alone; on the other hand it is undoubtedly the greatest example of its kind.

    There are certain misapprehensions regarding the Christmas truce. One widely held assumption is that only ordinary soldiers took part in it; that it was, as it were, essentially a protest of cannon-fodder, Private Tommy and Musketier Fritz throwing aside the assumptions of conventional nationalism and thumbing their noses at those in authority over them. In fact, in many cases, NCOs and officers joined in with equal readiness, while [in] others truces were initiated and the terms of armistice agreed at 'parleys' of officers between the trenches. There is also some evidence that while some generals angrily opposed the truce, others tolerated it and indeed saw some advantage in allowing events to take their own course while never for a moment doubting that eventually the war would resume in full earnest.

    One other misapprehension about the truce calls for rebuttal. There has grown up a belief, even among aficionados of World War I, that the Christmas truce was considered to be so disgraceful an event, one so against the prevailing mood of the time, that all knowledge of it was withheld from the public at home until the war was over.

    In fact, the truce was fully publicised from the moment news of it reached home. Throughout January 1915 numerous local and national newspapers in Britain printed letter after letter from soldiers who took part; in addition they ran eye-catching headlines ("Extraordinary Unofficial Armistice", "British, Indians and Germans shake hands"), and even printed photographs of the Britons and Germans in No Man's Land. Germany also gave the event press publicity, though on a smaller scale and for a shorter period of time. Publishing a year later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his history of 1914 called the Christmas truce "an amazing spectacle" and in a memorable description, saluted it as "one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war". The phrase sums up the attraction of the truce: it is the human dimension which means that this relatively obscure event in the fifth month of a 52-month war is still remembered and will continue to catch the imagination.

    In a century in which our conception of war has changed fundamentally, from the cavalry charge and the flash of sabres to the Exocet, the cruise missile and the Trident submarine, the fact that in 1914 some thousands of the fighting men of the belligerent nations met and shook hands between their trenches strikes a powerful and appealing note. It is perhaps the best and most heartening Christmas story of modern times.

    Adapted from the book Christmas Truce by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton. (Malcolm Brown, BBC News, Nov 2)

  • Jennifer Rosenberg, Peace In No Man's Land

  • See also
    Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (Simon & Schuster, NY? 2001)

Quelle: England


 Sammlung : Susanne Kalweit (Kiel)
Layout : Henry Kochlin (Schwerin)

15.10.1999, aktualisiert am 27.07.2003