The Pilgrim’s True Path

It started with a glance out of the bus,
A blood red disc of a sandstorm sun,
It was ten past ten.

The light numinous rather than luminous,
As we opened the door to leave Bisley church,
Emigrant-ghosts waiting for the Bristol cart,
And a six week voyage to New South Wales.
It was twenty to eleven.

We walked through deep, shadowed holloways,
Walking the Bisley Path,
High above the valley marshlands,
Through woodland shrouded in the strange glow
Of another world’s grey-green light,
The harbinger of Hurricane Ophelia,
The wind now shrieking through the creaking trees,
Leaves falling like some autumn snowstorm.

It started with a glance out of the bus,
A blood red disc of a sandstorm sun,
It was ten past ten.

The light numinous rather than luminous,
As we opened the door to leave Bisley church,
Emigrant-ghosts waiting for the Bristol cart,
And a six week voyage to New South Wales.
It was twenty to eleven.

We walked through deep, shadowed holloways,
Walking the Bisley Path,
High above the valley marshlands,
Through woodland shrouded in the strange glow
Of another world’s grey-green light,
The harbinger of Hurricane Ophelia,
The wind now shrieking through the creaking trees,
Leaves falling like some autumn snowstorm.

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Edward Thomas and the Snake’s Head Fritillary

The local Swindon paper’s obituary for Edward Thomas
Commented on his love for the country around the town –
And William Cobbett’s hated rotten borough,
‘The place by the river’, was just six miles or so
From his grandmother’s house near the railway works;
Did he, I wonder, ever make an Easter visit
To the Lammas Meadows at Cricklade,
From Swindon’s Old Town station,
After talking with Alfred Williams,
‘The hammer man poet’,
Glimpsing the ‘Other man’ in the Anglo-Saxon fields,
Or near where a vengeful King Canute crossed the Thames,
And did those memories flit through his mind
On that fateful Easter Monday in 1917,
Recalling some of the ‘Other names’
Of the snake’s head fritillary,
Such as bloody warrior or widow’s wall.

The local Swindon paper’s obituary for Edward Thomas
Commented on his love for the country around the town -
And William Cobbett’s hated rotten borough,
‘The place by the river’, was just six miles or so
From his grandmother’s house near the railway works;
Did he, I wonder, ever make an Easter visit
To the Lammas Meadows at Cricklade,
From Swindon’s Old Town station,
After talking with Alfred Williams,
‘The hammer man poet',
Glimpsing the ‘Other man’ in the Anglo-Saxon fields,
Or near where a vengeful King Canute crossed the Thames,
And did those memories flit through his mind
On that fateful Easter Monday in 1917,
Recalling some of the ‘Other names’
Of the snake’s head fritillary,
Such as bloody warrior or widow’s wall.

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Battalions fraternised from the following regiments, Christmas 1914

Devonshire, Surrey, Manchester, Cheshire, Norfolk,
Seaforth Highlanders,
Royal Warwickshire, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers,
Hampshire,
Rifle Brigade, Somerset Light Infantry, London Rifle Brigade,
East Lancashire,
Lancashire Fusiliers, Field Ambulance, Royal Field Artillery,
Monmouthshire,
Essex, Royal Garrison Artillery, Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Leicestershire,
Argylle and Sutherland Highlanders, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles),
Leinster,
London (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), Royal Fusiliers,
Staffordshire,
The Buffs (East Kent), Queen’s (Royal West Surrey), Royal Scots,
Wiltshire,
Yorkshire, Border, Gordon Highlanders, Northumberland Hussars,
Bedfordshire,
Royal Engineers, Royal Horse Artillery, London (Kensington),
Northamptonshire,
Irish Rifles,
Garhwal Rifles.

17th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, Saxon Corps:
134th Infantry Regiment,
133rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Regiment,
104th Infantry Regiment,
139th Infantry Regiment, 107th Infantry Regiment,
179th Infantry Regiment; Westphalian Corps:
55th Infantry Regiment,
15th Infantry Regiment,
158th Infantry Regiment,
11th Infantry Regiment,
16th Infantry Regiment.

Christmas 1914

Christmas
1914

There was, of course, more than one football match
In the long line of unofficial truces
That stretched all along the front in Flanders;
Indeed, the matches themselves were a sort of climax,
Punctuating the peace that started before Christmas
With shared burying of the dead in No Man’s Land,
And that lasted in some areas until the early spring.

But on Christmas Eve, Christmas trees appeared,
Glowing in the gathering Tannenbaum twilight:
‘Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches’;
Miracle of miracles, the rain stopped,
A full moon stepped across the cloudless sky,
A hoar frost shimmered in the starlight,
Boots crunched on mud now stiff as duckboards.

Soldiers moved as if in a trance or dream,
Climbing out of their trenches, milling around,
Swopping bodies, kodaks, insignia, Schnapps, beer,
Tobacco, jam, stew and addresses;
Saxons laughed at Scots, blue beneath their kilts,
Over at frozen, peaceful, Ploegsteert Wood,
Then caps were dropped on the ground for goalposts.

Kurt Zehmisch, 134th Saxons, wrote in his diary:
‘Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love managed to bring mortal enemies together for a time… I told them we didn’t want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas either. They agreed.’
So there they were, dodging shell holes, fox holes,
Barbed wire, ditches, turnips and cabbages,
Some roasting a pig together, chasing hares,
Feasting further on plum pudding and wurst,
In what Sergeant-Major Frank Nadin called
‘A rare old jollification, which included football.’

His comrade in the Cheshires, Ernie Williams said:
‘The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side… They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part…Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us…There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all.’
So fraternization continued, with singing and smoking,
Tea and cocoa, until darkness descended,
When as Private Mullard of the Rifle Brigade said:
‘Just after midnight you could hear, away on the right, the plonk-plonk of the bullets as they hit the ground, and we knew the game had started again.’

And so the dream ended, the nightmare restarted,
No more ‘Wotcha cock, ow’s London?’
Nor, ‘Are you the Warwickshires?
Any Brummagem lads there?
I have a wife and 5 children there.’
No more: ‘ we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles’.’
No more ‘Dearest Dorothy, Just a line from the trenches on Xmas Eve – a topping night with not much firing going on & both sides singng.’
No more ‘Friede auf der Erde’, ‘Peace on Earth’,
No more headlines like ‘TOMMY’S TRUCE BETWEEN THE TRENCHES’.

Instead, a boast of sharing cigars
‘with the best shot in the German army…but I know where his loophole is now and mean to down him tomorrow.’
Instead, the German Londoner who shouted:
‘Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country;
I fight for mine. Good Luck.’

Instead, ‘ I do not wish to hurt you
But [Bang!] I feel I must.
It is a Christian virtue
To lay you in the dust.
Zip, that bullet got you
You’re really better dead.
I’m sorry that I shot you-
Pray, let me hold your head.’

The Christmas Truce

 

 When war broke out, the British public cried,
‘We’ll be in Berlin by Christmas’,
But by Christmas thousands had died,
As Mons, the Marne, Ypres and Messines cut
Down the youth of Europe, while Flanders floods
Drowned dying, dead and alive.
Summer’s dream was swamped by winter’s mud,
Rats, lice, death and blood
In No Man’s Land; a hell hole nightmare scene
Of jagged wire, flares, shells, screams and shrapnel,
(A choreographed commonality,
That saw each side’s men attack, flail and fall
In ceaseless dance of Death’s banality),
Until Christmas Eve 1914,
When Hamburg, Berlin, London, Manchester
Said ‘No!’ to the killing fields’ mad mayhem,
Ordered by King, Flag, Map and Kaiser,
And met instead in friendship. Walking tall
And slow, comrades in war’s adversities,
They embraced in No Man’s Land and football
Harmonised nations’ animosities:
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht.

Regiments from which Battalions Truced and Fraternised Christmas 1914

Devonshire, Surrey, Manchester, Cheshire, Norfolk, Seaforth Highlanders,
Royal Warwickshire, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Hampshire,
Rifle Brigade, Somerset Light Infantry, London Rifle Brigade, East Lancashire,
Lancashire Fusiliers, Field Ambulance, Royal Field Artillery, Monmouthshire,
Essex, Royal Garrison Artillery, Royal Welch Fusiliers, Leicestershire,
Argylle and Sutherland Highlanders, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), Leinster,
London (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), Royal Fusiliers, Staffordshire,
The Buffs (East Kent), Queen’s (Royal West Surrey), Royal Scots, Wiltshire,
Bedfordshire, Yorkshire, Border, Gordon Highlanders, Northumberland Hussars,
Royal Engineers, Royal Horse Artillery, London (Kensington), Northamptonshire,
Irish Rifles, Garhwal Rifles.
17th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, Saxon Corps: 134th Infantry Regiment,
133rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Regiment, 104th Infantry Regiment,
139th Infantry Regiment, 107th Infantry Regiment, 179th Infantry Regiment;
Westphalian Corps: 55th Infantry Regiment, 15th Infantry Regiment,158th Infantry Regiment,
11th Infantry Regiment, 16th Infantry Regiment