Thursday, December 14, 2017

Red Christmas

“On both sides in 1915 there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year.  And there would be nearly four more years of attrition—not to determine who was right, but who was left.” 
              - Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914

As Christmas of 1915 approached, military authorities on both sides did everything in their power to prevent a repeat of the previous year’s unofficial Christmas truce, during which soldiers had met in No Man’s Land to swap gifts and cigarettes, bury their dead, and play a game of football.  In December of 1915, the British high command ordered “nothing of the kind is be allowed this year,” while Germans were warned that any attempts to fraternize with the enemy would “result in execution.” And yet in France at Laventie, British and German soldiers defied orders and met in No Man’s Land to exchange souvenirs, sing carols, and bury the dead.* It was an isolated occurrence.

Harefield Hospital, London, Christmas 1915
In England, darkened cities lived under blackout orders and in fear of Zeppelin raids; hospitals were filled with the wounded of Gallipoli and the Western Front, and many had put aside their gay apparel and donned black in mourning for those who would never return. 

On Christmas Day of 1915, the London Spectator published a poem written by William Henry Draper, the rector of Adel’s parish church near Leeds.  Draper’s four sons were fighting in the war.  His second son, Captain Roger Francis Draper, had been killed at Sulva Bay on August 21st, just four months earlier. 

The Red Christmas

“In these days even our wedding bells ring with sombre and muffled sound.”
            —Mr. Asquith, in the Speaker's Library, November 25, 1915

O take away the mistletoe
And bring the holly berry,

For all the lads are gone away
And all the girls look sad to-day,
There's no one left with them to play,
And only birds and babes and things unknowing
Dare be merry.
Then take away the mistletoe
And bring the holly berry.
Roger Francis Draper
 IWM Lives of the First World War

But oh its leaves are fresh and green,

Why bring the holly berry?
Because it wears the red, red hue,
The colour to the season true,
When war must have his tribute due,
And only birds and babes and things unknowing
Can be merry.
So take away the mistletoe,

Yet keep the holly berry.

And shall we never see again

Aught but the holly berry?
Yes, after sacrifice sublime,
When rings some later Christmas chime,
When dawns the new and better time,
Not only birds and babes and things unknowing
Shall be merry,

But you shall see the mistletoe
Twined with the holly berry.
            —W.H. Draper

How does one celebrate Christmas while experiencing world-shattering grief?  The poem’s title, “Red Christmas,” suggests a holiday awash in blood.  Mistletoe—associated with love and laughter, luck and vitality—is banished.  But “bring the holly berry,” the scarlet fruit, like poppies, associated with the dead of the war.

Known in Scandinavia as “Christ’s Thorn,” the holly of Christmas also recalls Christ’s suffering and death. Its prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns, and its red berries symbolize drops of Jesus’s blood. The evergreen holly is a vivid reminder of sacrifice even as it decks the halls to celebrate a miraculous birth.  In the midst of present darkness, the poem looks forward to a time when “after sacrifice sublime,” a “new and better time” will dawn. 

Adel St. John's WWI Memorial
That time was far distant for W.H. Draper. His eldest son, Second Lieutenant Mark Denman Draper, was killed in an airplane accident on February 7, 1917, and his third son, Lieutenant William Penrhyn Bodington Draper, died on May 15, 1918 from wounds suffered at the Second Battle of Lys.  Only his youngest son, John Godfrey Beresford Draper, survived the war; he was gassed in 1917 and invalided home.†

In a book of poetry published before the war, Draper had written an untitled Christmas poem.  When read with the knowledge that three of his sons died in the Great War, its last lines are heart-rending:

Father of Lights! be with us
When earthly light sinks low,
That we may find hereafter
The love of long ago.††

*Joe Shute, “The forgotten Christmas truce the British tried to suppress,” Telegraph, 26 Dec. 2015,, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.
† Andrew Robinson, “The Great War’s test of faith for church rector,” Yorkshire Evening Post, 1 Aug. 2014,, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.
†† W. H. Draper, “When on the Eve of Christmas,” Poems of the Love of England, Chatto & Windus, 1914, p. v.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Carols and Kings

Two short Christmas poems from soldier poets killed in the First World War:

British Christmas card, 1917

Lance Sgt H.H. Munro


While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
A high-explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.
    —Saki (H.H. Munro)

Hector Hugh Munro (his pen name Saki) is best known for his archly playful short stories. Despite being officially too old to enlist, at the age of 43, he volunteered with the British Army.  On November 14, 1916, while sheltering in a shell crater in No Man’s Land, he was killed by a sniper.  His last words were “Put that bloody cigarette out.”

WWI Christmas car


The Kings of the earth are men of might,
And cities are burned for their delight,
And the skies rain death in the silent night,
And the hills belch death all day!

But the King of Heaven, Who made them all,
Is fair and gentle, and very small;
He lies in the straw, by the oxen’s stall—
Let them think of Him to-day!
            —Joyce Kilmer

American poet Joyce Kilmer is best known for his poem “Trees” (I think that I shall never see/ A poem as lovely as a tree).  He was killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30, 1918.
Sgt. Joyce Kilmer

Saturday, December 9, 2017


"The Vision of the Crosses" by Rex Woods, 1935
Believe.  Believe that the war has purpose.  Believe that the fight is for a just cause. Believe that we will win.  Believe that I will survive the battle. Believe that my son will come home.  

During the First World War, belief was more important than modern readers have perhaps acknowledged.  Religious faith anchored belief, both belief in the afterlife, as well as belief in the morality of the war. Both the Allies and the Central Powers assumed that God was on their side, as evidenced in the British poem “The Dilemma”:

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout
“Gott strafe England!” and “God save the King!”
God this, God that, and God the other thing—
“Good God!” said God, “I've got my work cut out.”*

According to most reports, the spontaneous and unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 began with Christmas carol singing, as described by Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade:

First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come, All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.**

Men on both sides celebrated “tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” as proclaimed at the birth of the Christ child.† But the Christmas truce of 1914 lasted only a day or two before the killing resumed. Three years later, after millions had died in a war that seemed like it might never end, German-American writer Hermann Hagedorn published his poem “Resurrection.”  Hagedorn was an ardent supporter of the Allied war effort, despite strong family ties to Germany -- his father and several siblings had returned to live there.  While his poem envisions peace and reconciliation, they are achieved only at the world’s end with the apocalyptic second coming of Christ.


Not long did we lie on the torn, red field of pain.
We fell, we lay, we slumbered, we took rest,
With the wild nerves quiet at last, and the vexed brain
Cleared of the wingèd nightmares, and the breast
Freed of the heavy dreams of hearts afar.
We rose at last under the morning star.                                                          
Detail "Resurrection of the Soldiers,"
Stanley Spencer
We rose, and greeted our brothers, and welcomed our foes.
We rose; like the wheat when the wind is over, we rose.
With shouts we rose, with gasps and incredulous cries,
With bursts of singing, and silence, and awestruck eyes,
With broken laughter, half tears, we rose from the sod,
With welling tears and with glad lips, whispering, “God.”
Like babes, refreshed from sleep, like children, we rose,
Brimming with deep content, from our dreamless repose.
And, “What do you call it?” asked one. “I thought I was dead.”
“You are,” cried another. “We're all of us dead and flat.”
“I'm alive as a cricket. There's something wrong with your head.”
They stretched their limbs and argued it out where they sat.
And over the wide field friend and foe
Spoke of small things, remembering not old woe
Of war and hunger, hatred and fierce words.
They sat and listened to the brooks and birds,
And watched the starlight perish in pale flame,
Wondering what God would look like when He came.
            —Hermann Hagedorn

Ghosts of Vimy Ridge, William Longstaff
Even after rising from the dead, soldiers continue to argue (this time about their perceptions of the resurrection), but now there is no malice or anger in their disputes. Together, the men rise “under the morning star,” one of the names that Christ claims for himself in the last chapter of the prophetic book of Revelation.  As they wait for Christ’s return, the men watch “the starlight perish,” a fulfillment of Christ’s words that in the last days, “the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven,” events that herald his appearance “in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”††

Many of Hagedorn’s readers would have been familiar with the prophecies referenced in the poem and would have taken comfort from the hope of resurrection and the return of the Prince of Peace.  War and death will be defeated forever, and in the world to come, men are reconciled with one another and with their God. 
Families and loved ones often shared their religious beliefs in headstone inscriptions chosen for the dead of the war.  Captain George Fenwick Hedley Charlton was twenty-four when he was killed near Ypres on October 6, 1916. His younger brother, William Godfrey Charlton, was killed less than two years later on August 26, 1918. With resurrection hope, their parents chose the same inscription to appear on both of their sons’ graves:  

Sleep Lightly, Lad
Thou Art King’s Guard
At Daybreak†††

Poems like “Resurrection” comforted the grief-stricken, for they believed their dead had found rest, their “wild nerves quiet at last” as they awaited the appearance of their God, the morning star.

* JC Squire, “The Dilemma,” Herald, 5 June 1915 as cited in Dominic Hibberd and John Onion’s The Winter of the World, Constable & Robinson, 2007, p. 61.
** Quoted in Naina Bajekal, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914, Time, 24 Dec. 2014,, Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.
† Luke 2:10, King James Bible.
†† Matthew 24:29-30, King James Bible.
††† Epitaphs of the Great War, “Lieutenant William Godfrey Charlton,”, Accessed 8 Dec.