Christmas Eve in 1914
Stars were burning, burning 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,
And far away behind the lines
A village dog began to bark.
Some lay thinking of their families,
Some sang songs while others were quiet
Rolling fags and playing brag
To while away that Christmas night.
But as they watched the German trenches
Something moved in No Man’s Land
And through the dark 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 brought out cigars and brandy,
Tommy brought corned beef and fags,
Stood there talking, singing, laughing,
As the moon shone on No Man’s Land.
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.
When they beat us at football
We shared out all the grub and drink
And Fritz showed me a faded photo
Of a dark-haired girl back in Berlin.
For four days after no one fired,
Not one shot disturbed the night,
For old Fritz and Tommy Atkins
Both had lost the will to fight.
So they withdrew us from the trenches,
Sent us far behind the lines,
Sent fresh troops to take our places
And told the guns “Prepare to fire”.
And next night in 1914
Flares were burning, burning bright;
The message came along the trenches
Over the top we’re going tonight.
And the men stood waiting in the trenches,
Looking out across our football park,
And all along the Western Front
The Christian guns began to bark.
There are many who will tell you that this never happened or that if it did it was wildly exaggerated, but there are so many accounts of the incident in writings of the time that only the wilfully blind would doubt the truth.
The First World War has dominated my imagination since I was a child. The stupidity of all wars was here made doubly stupid by the ineptitude of leaders who were prepared to see men die in millions in the mud, facing each other across a few hundred yards of barbed-wire and shell holes. Two great industrial nations had strutted on the stage of Europe striking warlike postures for so long that when a crazed student assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo it was too late for the fools to back down. And so the whole crazy steamroller got under way, supported as ever by the profiteers, the racketeers and the arms manufacturers.
Between 1914 and 1918 a whole generation was killed, gassed and maimed. Anzac troops were slaughtered at Gallipoli, Sikhs were blown to pieces on the Somme, Canadians were massacred at Verdun, Americans shot to bits at Passchendaele, volunteers from both the north and south of Ireland were killed in their thousands. And boys from villages and towns in every comer of England, Scotland and Wales were waved off at the station by mothers, wives and sweethearts never to retum, and if they did they were often mutilated, gassed or shell-shocked so that their lives were ruined.
When you see the old men at the Remembrance Day services it’s difficult to see them as the sixteen-year-old boys who lied about their age so that they could join with their pals in the Great Patriotic War. Like all wars, it produced heroism and courage on an incredible scale. While the fat brigadiers and generals were safe behind the lines, VCs and MCs were won by young boys and men facing the most unbelievable horrors.
The war produced an outpouring of literature, poems, novels and plays. The poems of Wilfred Owen with their quiet unsentimental concern that the truth be told contrast greatly with all the jingoistic trollop that was appearing in the Boy’s Own paper and Young England. While the comfortable warmongers safe at home were hurrying the young men on to the troop trains, Owen was telling it like it was.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we fumed our backs
And towards the distant rest began to trudge.
The Great War for Civilisation brought forth a whole body of literature from the poetry of men like Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to the accounts of life at the front such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Henry Williamson’s The Patriot’s Progress. But there was a sub-literature of the war, too, diaries and journals that were kept by the ordinary footsloggers and Old Contemptibles. They give a picture of life in the trenches from the viewpoint of the common soldier. These diaries and journals are tremendously valuable for their sheer immediacy and for the light they throw on the Old Sweats’ way of life and death in the trenches. Three such journals that are well worth reading are Old Soldiers Never Die by Frank Richards, The Bells of Hell by Eric Hiscock and Tom Green’s Joumal, to be found in the Imperial War Museum (when, oh when are we going to have a peace museum?).
The story of the first Christmas of 1914 that inspired me to write the song was one I found in Frank Richards’s book. The generals denied that it ever happened, fearful that the desire for peace might spread like an epidemic along the trenches, but the diaries and journals of the men who were there and the photographs that were taken on that historic occasion when men said ‘no’ to war and embraced their enemy prove beyond doubt that it did indeed happen.