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Date: 21/11/05

The Last Roll Call

Alfred Anderson, Scotland's oldest man and longest-surviving veteran of World War I, died today at the age of 109 (full story here).

Mr Anderson was thought to be the last living witness to that remarkable Christmas truce of 1914, when opposing troops shook hands and (if the stories are to be believed) played football in No Man's Land on the front line.

An appropriate time, I think, to give you the lyrics to one of the most moving songs I know:

Christmas 1914 by Mike Harding.

"Christmas Eve in 1914.
Stars were burning, burning bright,
And all along the Western Front
Guns were lying still and quiet.
Men lay dozing in the trenches,
In the cold and in the dark,
And far away behind the lines
A village dog began to bark.

"Some lay thinking of their families,
Some sang songs while others were quiet,
Rolling fags and playing brag
To pass away this Christmas night.
As they watched the German trenches,
Something moved in No-Man's Land,
And through the dark there came a soldier
Carrying a white flag in his hands.

"Then, from both sides, men came running,
Crossing in to No-Man's Land,
Through the barbed-wire, mud and shell-holes,
Shyly stood there shaking hands.
Fritz brought out cigars and brandy,
Tommy brought corned beef and fags.
Stood there talking, laughing, singing,
As the Moon shone down on No-Man's Land.

"Christmas Day, we all played football
In the mud of No-Man's Land.
Tommy brought some Christmas pudding,
Fritz brought out a German band.
When they beat us at the football,
We shared out all the grub and drink,
And Fritz showed me a faded photo
Of a brown-haired girl back in Berlin.

"For four days after, no one fired,
Not one shell disturbed the night,
For old Fritz and Tommy Atkins
They'd both lost the will to fight.
So they withdrew us from the trenches,
Sent us far behind the lines.
Sent fresh troops to take out places,
Told the guns prepare to fire.

"And next night in 1914,
Flares were burning, burning bright.
The message came, "Prepare offensive.
Over the top, we're going tonight."
And men stood waiting in the trenches,
Looked out across our football park,
And all along the Western Front,
The Christmas guns began to bark."

© Mike Harding 1977

(Mike Harding has recorded two versions of this song that I know of. The original (and best) is on his 1977 LP Old Four Eyes Is Back. It also appears on his 1989 album Plutonium Alley).