Black earth and silence of peace in No Man’s Land



Richard Williamson



Ninety-nine years ago tonight my father stood in a shattered wood, up to his knees in mud, and listened to soldiers singing carols. They lifted a light on a pole like the morning star as a gibbous moon rose hunchbacked behind them. The soldiers were Germans. The carol was ‘Heilige Nacht’. They shouted: ‘Come over Tommy, we will not shoot’.


English soldiers looked at each other uneasily. Was it a trap? No, it wasn’t a trap. It was a genuine wish for a moment of peace amidst the carnage of war. The next morning the two enemy sides shook hands, wished each other Happy Christmas, played football in No Man’s Land, drank rum or schnapps, smoked each other’s cigarettes and cigars, showed each other photographs, and smiled at each other in goodwill for the rest of the day. Each side buried its dead in peace. The appalled Generals wondered how to stop such silly, and to them dangerous, behaviour.


For my father it was the most transcendent moment of his life. It crystallised his ideas of Brotherhood among men of which Beethoven had dreamed in his Ninth Symphony a century before. He thought: never again must such madness be allowed to happen. His mind was channelled and transfixed into ways in which he could help explain why that war must be the one to end all wars. For the rest of his life Father stuck to his light on the pole and raged, raged, against the dying of that light – a light of friendship and peace.


Of course he was not waving but drowning in his hopeless cause. He thought the new German army would think like him since they too had been to the brink of extinction. Forgiveness, he thought, must work. Sometimes it does. The prime example is Nelson Mandela. That man’s lack of revengeful thoughts and actions and his ability to refocus the opposition on to peace are a lesson to us all. But he understood the opposition. My father did not. His ideas were akin to a bull in a china shop trying to rearrange the ornaments.


A couple of years ago I went to that very spot on the ground where father saw the light on Christmas Eve and you would think butter would not melt in its mouth. There was a herd of black and white cows safely grazing and chewing the cud.


The trees of ‘Plugstreet Wood’ as that red little, dead little British Army called it, had grown up again and I saw white admiral butterflies among all the honeysuckle. But what struck me most was the colour of the ground under the trees, under the hooves of the cows, under the summer sky.


It was black, not just with the fertility of its history, but with its memory. Father had seen that when he made a return visit fairly soon after the war had ended and stood before the rows of German graves stretching out before him and wrote in his notebook:


Black, black, black as charred thistles, pressed together, unloved, stark, black . . .


Every Christmas ever after, father used to go off by himself on a walkabout, and once spent the whole night out on Exmoor, leaping the streams and making a tiny fire of heather twigs out of the wind to comfort himself a she had in the trenches.


This year will see the centenary of the first Christmas Truce. I will be making a vigil in my mind at that very special place and event which was the crucible for the many books father wrote detailing war and peace, from Tarka the Otter to The Gale of the World. For a short while the spirit of peace overcame the horror of war in understanding between soldier and soldier as man to man. It was a true miracle of Christmas.



fox princess

In common with other troops at the front, both officers and men, HW

received a brass Christmas box from Princess Mary, containing cigarettes

and tobacco (for non-smokers the box contained a bullet pencil and

sweets); this he kept for the rest of his life, including the (empty) cigarette

cartons and tobacco pouch.



xmas card Mary 1914
The card that accompanied the Christmas box




Richard Williamson is the President of the Henry Williamson Society. This article was first published in the Chichester Observer on 26 December 2013.