Over one-hundred years ago, on December 23rd, 1914, the British weekly periodical Punch published a Christmas poem for a nation at war. The anonymous poet dreamed of a return to happier times, pleading, “Take back the blood-stained year again, / Give us the Christmas that we know!”
On Earth -- Peace
Judge of the passionate hearts of men,
God of the wintry wind and snow,
Take back the blood-stained year again,
Give us the Christmas that we know!
No stir of wings sweeps softly by;
Beneath the wild and wintry sky
No shepherds watch their flocks tonight.
In the dull thunder of the wind
We hear the cruel guns afar,
But in the glowering heavens we find
No guiding, solitary star.
But lo! on this our Lord's birthday,
Lit by the glory whence she came,
Peace, like a warrior, stands at bay,
A swift, defiant, living flame!
Full-armed she stands in shining mail,
Erect, serene, unfaltering still,
Shod with a strength that cannot fail,
Strong with a fierce o'ermastering will.
Where shattered homes and ruins be
She fights through dark and desperate days;
Beside the watchers on the sea
She guards the Channel's narrow ways.
Through iron hail and shattering shell,
Where the dull earth is stained with red,
Fearless she fronts the gates of Hell
And shields the unforgotten dead.
So stands she, with her all at stake,
And battles for her own dear life,
That by one victory she may make
For evermore an end of strife.
In this world at war, the comforting figures of the Nativity are nowhere to be found. The angels are silent, the shepherds are absent, and the guiding star fails to appear in the bitterly cold night sky. Cyril Winterbotham in “A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches” also described the quiet despair of men crouched in the wet, snowy trenches of the Western Front: “In our dark sky no angels sing….Our gifts must bullets be.”
Yet in the poem a vision appears, breaking through the glowering heavens. The defiant figure of Peace stands amidst the shattered ruins, a flaming crusader clad in shining armour. Like Joan of Arc, this woman warrior “fights through dark and desperate days.” Calm and confident in the midst of “iron hail and shattering shell,” Peace fiercely protects the unforgotten dead. But her cause is more noble than any military objective: she fights for everyone, for she aims to end all wars.
This poem that begins with a wistful longing for happier Christmases of the past concludes with a dream of the most extravagant of gifts: world peace forever. To modern readers, the thought of eternal peace on earth is likely to seem as miraculous as that of the virgin birth. What the readers of Punch could not know was that the war that was to have been over by Christmas of 1914 would continue its bloody course for nearly another four years, costing over nine million lives. By November of 1918, when Peace finally won the day, her arrival seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was a peace that did not last.
Although the poem was published anonymously in Punch, an on-line source recently asserted that it was written by a British officer who was present at the 1914 Christmas Truce. The claim, however, is unverified, and as “On Earth—Peace” was published in London on December 23rd –
before the Christmas Truce occurred – this seems unlikely. A more probable author is the Canadian poet of the Laurentians, F.G. Scott, who volunteered in August of 1914 for overseas service as a military chaplain. Scott is named as the author of the poem by Kate Luard in her memoir Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, published in 1915. Luard’s diary provides a sobering glimpse of Christmas on the Western Front:
Xmas Eve, 1914_-- And no fire and no chauffage [heating], and cotton frocks; funny life, isn't it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of "'ome, 'long o' Mother," --British, Germans, French, and Russians ….
Xmas Day, 1914 -- And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed.