A time for practising what we preach

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Ironically, soldier foes killing each other on the Western Front during The Great War (1914-1918) brought to the world a far more eloquent message of peace and goodwill than could any bible-thumping priest berating his sleepy congregation.

In the Belgian town of Messines, a statue commemorates Christmas when two opposing armies came together, not to fight, but to extend Christmas goodwill under an unofficial truce.

It was Christmas 1914 on the Western Front and five months into The Great War. Initially, the truce was granted as a pause in the carnage during which lull each side in the conflict was to be given sufficient time to bury their dead comrades scattered across the shell craters of No Man’s Land. Indeed, a better term for the expression No Man’s Land might better be God’s Sanctuary.

German soldiers went one step further. One can only reflect the emotions as young uniformed men from villages, hamlets, towns and cities scattered across the lands of Imperial Germany took the welcome and unexpected opportunity to set up Christmas trees using whatever garlands came to hand.

Candles were lit by bedraggled infantrymen and placed as flickering lights in the darkness of night and to light the way in the darkness of men’s souls. Then the men in barely a whisper at first began to sing the haunting melodic carols of Christmas.

Of course, most of the carols were known and loved by both sides in the conflict. We all know and love ‘O Christmas Tree’. The lyrics of the Christmas ballad began life as a 16th Century Silesian love song penned to a faithless woman. The O Tannenbaum melody it inspired was penned in 1824 by organist and composer Ernst Anschutz.

British soldiers who for their part had left behind villages in Somerset and Shropshire, John O’Groats to Land’s End began singing in reply.

On Christmas Day the soldiers of Germany and Britain exchanged greetings, in some cases gifts and later in the day even arranged a football match. On Christmas night all sides returned to the trenches and continued the war.


Lost in time his mother’s words,

When but an arms-held boy,

Remembered sweet the lullabies,

That brought the infant joy.


The years of boyhood, river stream,

Wherever youth will pause and dream,

To breathe their true love’s sonnet, verse,

When posies fall from sweetheart’s purse.


A heartfelt murmur, blessed was she,

Whose future looked so well,

The heavens bright on fire that night,

As though the stars could tell.


Could tell of what, my soldier man,

Whose children now will mourn.

A father, brother, mother’s son,

His life will end at dawn.


A child’s lament, a soldier son,

A boy not yet a man?

And as the sacraments were read,

The words of prayer ran.


They told of lullaby to tomb,

The shuffled feet, he faced his doom,

But yet the squad was pensive still,

For soldier boy such bitter pill.


And in the squad that cold grey morn’,

One boy who gave his thanks,

That he might be the chosen one,

With rifle primed with blanks.


Then one last word to then expire,

Condemned to hear the order 'fire',

It never came, for soldier friend,

Of other flags to bring his end,


Did drop his arm but tongue was still,

Condemned, the victim felt no chill,

Of final word on earth that night,

The stars were weeping tears of light.

Michael Walsh, Irish writer and poet

NOTE: Amazon has removed Michael Walsh’s popular collection of illustrated anti-war poetry, For Those Who Cannot Speak

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