The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Carol from Flanders

by Frederick Niven (1878-1944)
Vocal Recording: MP3 / OGG

Musical Setting by composer Graham Fitkin: A Christmas Truce

This poem recounts the story of the spontaneous 1914 Christmas truce
along the lines of the Western front.

In Flanders on the Christmas morn
The trenched foemen lay,
the German and the Briton born,
And it was Christmas Day.

The red sun rose on fields accurst,
The gray fog fled away;
But neither cared to fire the first,
For it was Christmas Day!

They called from each to each across
The hideous disarray,
For terrible has been their loss:
"Oh, this is Christmas Day!"

Their rifles all they set aside,
One impulse to obey;
'Twas just the men on either side,
Just men and Christmas Day.

They dug the graves for all their dead
And over them did pray:
And Englishmen and Germans said:
"How strange a Christmas Day!"

Between the trenches then they met,
Shook hands, and e'en did play
At games on which their hearts were set
On happy Christmas Day.

Not all the emperors and kings,
Financiers and they
Who rule us could prevent these things
For it was Christmas Day.

Oh ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.

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Musical Setting by composer Graham Fitkin: A Christmas Truce

Composer Graham Fitkin recently completed this carol arrangement of Frederick Niven's "A Carol From Flanders," premiered by Truro Cathedral Choir in UK during their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 2011.  It commemorates Christmas Day 1914 when the Germans and Allies, against orders, put down their weapons and met between the trenches to pray, sing, exchange gifts and play games together.  Graham said "I chose the theme as I still find it immensely poignant in a world rife with warfare'"

On this webpage, there are excerpts from the score and from a recording, and links to contact the composer.

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Note: For up to two days, the guns of war fell silent as men who had been enemies only hours before, after defying officers, laid down their weapons to sing carols, exchange gifts, mementos, and traditions and to bury the dead. For more information about the Christmas Truce of 1914, see Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub (New York: The Free Press, 2001). Also see Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914 (London: Trans-Atlantic Publications, 1984). An enjoyable video, featuring Walter Cronkite and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is Silent Night, Holy Night: The Story of the Christmas Truce, also available from Amazon.

For additional information, see:

Yahoo has a page with six links to articles concerning the Christmas Truce of 1914.

This event was not without precedent.  It is said that a similar event occurred during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. See the notes to O Holy Night.

I have been unable to determine the date this poem was composed. One source, The The Maccabee, gives the year as 1918.


How Festive Spirit Halted Great War

by Neil Griffiths

NINETY years ago tonight, a group of bedraggled Scottish soldiers, Cameronians mostly from Lanark, spotted Germans clambering into the open with no sign of hostile intent.

They were on the Western Front, near Lille. Baffled, they held their fire but the Germans came right up to the trench and offered cigars. It was 1914 and the near-mythical Christmas truce had begun, when men laid down their weapons, shook hands and embraced the season's message of peace on earth.

If it seems incredible to us, to the men themselves it seemed beyond comprehension.

There were plenty of reasons why the truce should never have happened - explicit orders, wartime hatred and good military sense - but there were many reasons which fostered precisely the opposite. Extraordinary circumstances often lead to extraordinary events.

The first Battle of Ypres in October and November had brought horrific casualty figures. The British lost more than 50,000 men and the Germans perhaps twice as many, but a lull followed as both sides awaited replacements for the savage losses.

The huge armies dug in and watched each other as close neighbours, able to hear one another's chatter and smell their cooking.

The lull brought an inertia and a curiosity about the enemy. Did he too have rats, lice and floods? What of his food? What was he really like? These were the first stirrings of fellow feeling brought about by isolated men sharing extreme circumstances.

Back home both Britain and Germany were thoroughly enjoying the war and, by way of participating, swamped the mail with presents for the troops. In fact the public went berserk.

In the six days preceding Christmas every soldier, sailor and nurse was sent cards by the King and Queen, plus a present from a special fund associated with Princess Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of George V. This dislocated distribution systems in three countries - ammunition and food were delayed because of it. Christmas had become an obsession.

Germany's deep love for Christmas manifested itself in swamping their supply lines with half a million fir trees, a commodity particularly suited to fouling up any postal system. The spirit of the season was, though, unstoppably afoot.

The final attack by the British, on December 19, at Ploegsteert Wood, ended in a local armistice in which both sides helped each other bury their dead.

The British High Command took fright that the Christmas wind-down might be a fiendish Hun trick and warned "the enemy may be contemplating an attack".

That this was applicable to every single other day helps explain why it was ignored. The Germans, too, issued identical warnings.

On Christmas Eve, frost hardened the mud and froze the pools. When night fell, almost simultaneously, the Germans mounted trees on their parapets and lit candles and lanterns.

Thousands of British watched in fascination as the wondrous sight was joined by the distant haunting sound of men singing Stille Nacht.

THERE cannot have been a moment like it in either the history of war or in the performing arts. Every survivor spoke of the abiding impact of that one carol.

In many cases the British responded with a carol of their own, applause or calls for more. Almost always the second was Tannenbaum. When the British sang O Come All Ye Faithful the Germans accompanied with the Latin version, Adeste Fideles.

Seaforth Highlanders, just to the north of Ploegsteert Wood were, unusually, the first to begin the singing but were "spellbound" with the returned carol. A Corporal Ferguson led most of his company into no man's land for cigarettes and handshakes - accompanied by calls of "Fergie, Fergie?" so that the Germans imagined this to be a Highland greeting and politely repeated it.

Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders near Armentieres initially agreed that only two from each side should meet but quickly changed their minds.

The Belgians and French, holding more than 400 miles of the front, shared the same experiences but very much at arms' length - the invader was on their soil and more than 300,000 French had fallen in August alone.

Christmas Day dawned calm, still and very cold. Services were held but the singing was muted for fear that the night before's truce was an aberration, but the process quickly repeated itself. Almost all accounts suggest the Germans initiated the moves. The day was spent identifying and burying the dead.

The Rev Esselmount Adams, chaplain to the Gordon Highlanders, organised a joint service in no-man's land with prayers in German and English. Both sides wrote home using phrases like "fairytale", "day of fiction" and "extraordinary".

Rations and cigarettes were swapped even though the British hated the German tobacco. Buttons and regimental flashes were exchanged, the ultimate souvenir being a pickel-haube (the spiked helmet).

The romantic notion that a game of football was played has a weak basis in fact. There are references to how neighbours played but nothing states who and where.

In frozen churned-up mud nothing more than a kick-about could have been possible anyway, but it represents the ultimate - akin to the ancient Greeks laying down arms for the sacred Olympics. In this context it may be a powerful folk memory which transcends the facts - it should have happened but didn't.

IN some areas the truce continued until January 10, but it couldn't last. At its simplest it was a triumph of the human spirit, when the ordinary soldier called off the conflict for Christmas, when the will for peace prevailed over the might of war. In the year that followed, poisonous gas was introduced, Zeppelins bombed London and one of the first U-boats sank the Lusitania.

When Christmas came there were numerous orders forbidding fraternisation. There was no truce in 1916 and a heavy military bombardment ensured no-one attempted one.

By 1917 friendly meetings were unthinkable. By 1918 the Armistice had been signed and the memory of the Christmas truce of 1914 slipped into legend, a moment from the forgotten golden age when even the participants suspected it never happened.

But it did happen - when man's fundamental decency surfaced briefly in the midst of hell - and should never be forgotten.

Neil Griffiths is the press officer of the Royal British Legion Scotland.

Source: Edinburgh News

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