Friday, December 26, 2014

1914 & All That

Happy holidays, and let me apologize here for my absence (in case anyone is actually that crickets I hear?).  I've been spending 2014 learning a lot about 1914, military history buff that I am.  I've been watching things on the History Channel, listening to podcasts, looking at maps....sort of how I followed the 150th anniversary of the US Civil War for a minute, until it became exceedingly dull.  Now the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's death is approaching and I'm all, zzzzzzz...I'm sure it'll be interesting again in April.

But the centennial of the Great War is completely fresh, as of July anyway.
 So I'm still addicted to whatever anyone is doing in English, French or German to commemorate or damn it.  One of the most exciting pods is one by the BBC which features interviews (mostly years ago, no doubt) of people who lived through that era, all British I think, but soldiers, women's auxilary members, etc.  Talking about new things the war brought: foxholes, automatic rifles, chemical warfare, and the Americans (as far as Britain was concerned.  Some of us are pretty use to Americans), and ANZAC.  And tanks, though I guess their debut here was less than effective.

Born in the sixties, I first learned about the legends of the First World War in 1967, from a Christmas song by the Royal Guardsmen (a US group, btw...they were just trying to be British sounding with their name since British was all the rage back then), Snoopy's Christmas.  I'd got a little phonograph the year before and my parents, after a little prodding, brought home the 45 rpm record one day.  I hadn't thought much about the song until this year, when I believe I first began hearing references to the Red Baron, German airman Manfred von Richthofen..,.or when I began paying attention to them.
But to explain about the Christmas song...of course it comes from Charles Shultz' "Peanuts" comics,  wherein Snoopy, everyone's favorite beagle, sits atop his doghouse with fighter pilot helmet and glasses, and pretends his house is actually a Sopwith Camel, and he is after the famous German Fokker flyer, The Red Baron. (I just found out recently that that was a perfectly legitimate make of fighter plane from England, not just a wierd name Snoopy came up with. .)  The song itself was very mystic to me at the age of 5. Knowing my late father's penchant for history, I'm sure he gave me the whole story back then, but I doubt I understood it.  At that time even for an older kid, the First World War might as well have been fought by ancient Greece and Troy.  But I did listen to the lyrics though.  Each time I heard the song, I briefly wondered who the "Ala-kazam" was, and why he was fighting the Germans.  This was a misheard lyric, "The allied command ignored all of his men"....a puzzle I also solved this year.

You see I hadn't thought about the song much in the recent past.  I don't think I thought about it much by the time I wore out or broke or lost the record.  It was a fun melody, Snoopy was in it, and it was a Christmas song.  That was all I cared about.

There was one little thing.  As in another song they wrote about Snoopy and his comic book nemesis, the Royal Guardsman suggested the respect and dignity airmen on both sides of that war indeed gave each other.  Because the Red Baron appears to be winning, but instead guides Snoopy to a landing in German territory, then they share a holiday toast, exchange Christmas greetings, salute each other, then fly their separate ways "each knowing they'd meet on some other day."

I think the reason this song is stuck in my mind lately is that I swear I've heard it more this holiday season.  And given its commemoration of an alleged bond among enemy warriors, I wonder if its popularity this year has to do with the date of this Christmas: the 100 year anniversary of the Christmas Truce.

There's another great song that laude's that event's joyful but sobering imprint upon soldiers on each side of WWI,, written and sung by John McCutcheon, "Christmas in the Trenches."  If you've been in a coma or eschewing tv, radio and the internet over the past two weeks:  On December 25, 1914, WWI was just a few months old.  Many recruits and inductees had been told upon enlisting, "It'll all be over by Christmas," but that idea had been shattered weeks before.  Both Germans and Allies (British & French, primarily) were literally entrenched across a barran "nomansland" from each other, and had been fighting as one would expect...hoping to get the other guy before he got him.

But in several places along the line in Belgium and France, soldiers on each side began singing Christmas carols, holding up white flags, and eventually, meeting in the middle of nomansland to talk, sing, share pictures and other souvenirs, and play soccer.  A wonderful picture, which many songs have no doubt been written about and which at least a couple of films have portrayed.

The sad part, of course, comes when they have to get back to the dread work of war.  After seeing pictures of the German wives and children, an English character in McCutcheon's song sings, "Whose family have I set within my sights?"

Yesterday's Washington Post has a good article about the truce, and refers to a very well done commercial a company called Sainsbury's released this week (The WP calls it controversial; not sure why except for the typical artistic license such dramatizations inveriably contain).  I will provide the links to "Snoopy's Christmas" and the John McCutcheon song, but this commercial blows me away, so here it is:

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