Saturday, 16 December 2017

Winter Ghost

I was reminiscing with someone this afternoon about the 'terrible winter' of 1962/3. He'd been given a bike for Christmas but wasn't able to ride it for weeks because of the Big Freeze. I'd been bought a new football jersey and broke it in - over the top of several layers of vests and t-shirts - playing football out on our snow-filled road rendered impassable by traffic - except for the milk van which was still pulled by horse!

It was the coldest winter in Britain since 1739. The snows arrived in mid-December 1962, we had the whitest of White Christmases and then arctic blizzards swept the country on Boxing Day. Snow fell on several occasions over a couple of months and lay to a depth of many feet - but the low temperatures were the biggest factor. Hard frosts and freezing fog were a daily occurrence through January and February. The ground was frozen (hard as iron), rivers became solid and even the sea iced up around parts of the coast. Sporting events (horse-racing, football matches) were postponed for weeks on end - with Blackpool players ice-skating on the Bloomfield Road pitch - and the thaw only commenced at the beginning of March. It seems hard to credit nowadays.

That's almost by-the-by. What I planned to write about is the much-mythologised Christmas Day football match in no man's land from December 1914. Michael Foreman wrote an excellent and moving children's story about it in War Game. Then there was a big fuss when a leading supermarket chain made it the subject of their Christmas advertising campaign on the 100th anniversary, with some claiming it had never happened and others levelling accusations of such commercialisation showing a disrespect for the dead - so I went to the Imperial War Museum website looking for the truth and it is this:

Late on Christmas Eve 1914, men of the British Expeditionary Force heard German troops in the trenches opposite them singing carols and patriotic songs and saw lanterns and small fir trees along their trenches. Messages began to be shouted between the opposing lines.

The following day, British and German soldiers met in no man's land, exchanged gifts of cigarettes, chocolate and drink, took photographs and played some impromptu games of football. After Boxing Day, the meetings dwindled out, officers being worried that the 'truce' would undermine fighting spirits; and the High Commands on both sides tried to prevent any truces on a similar scale happening again.

I have a profound belief that more unites us than divides us and the essence of that no man's land event still resonates for me, so much so that I've re-mythologised it in today's poem.


There are times when, on balance, the human condition feels like it's a sad one. This low period of winter ghosts is one such time, but it will pass like a weather front. Kindness and a compassionate out-reaching to our fellow human-beings can restore a sunnier clime.

The Ghost Between The Posts
As a lad, he turned out
on the raddled playing-field
of no-man's-land
at Christmas
in that first cruel winter
of the war to end all wars,
big hands keeping goal,
the last line of defence
while his fellows
ran like kids in the local park
leathering a sodden football
out of sheer relief
for being untrenched
and still alive
in the mud of so much madness.

When it was too dark
to distinguish friend from foe,
then the game was over,
the result irrelevant
as there were no losers on that day,
just two weary teams
retaking their respective bunkers
with respectful handshakes
all round
but no swapping of shirts,
for on the morrow
they would be duty-bound
to fall to killing each other once again.

As a lad, he bled out
on the bedevilled slaying-field
of no-man's land
on New Year's Day
in that first cruel winter
of the war to end all wars,
big hands clutching
at his gaping side
as he tried to make sense
of why he had to die,
why his fellows
fell like nine-pins in the dark,
in the fog of stinking gas
and the mud of so much madness.

These days,
he's the ghost between the posts
on that haunted poppy-field
of everyman's land
big hands spread in seeming benediction
for the fallen of both sides,
lads who played that game
out of their love of life
and a simple belief
in our common humanity.

Thanks for reading, S ;-)
Reactions:

13 comments:

Adele said...

The poem is pure genius Steve. I think that you should send it tthis blog article to The Times.

Anonymous said...

Wow!

Anonymous said...

Reading your poem brought tears to my eyes.

Steve Rowland said...

Steady on guys... I'm pleased the poem has moved you, as that was the intention (obviously); and thank-you for the positive comments - but I think it's a long way short of genius, tbh.

Anonymous said...

Another great blog and poem Steve, very nicely done sir!

Anonymous said...

Very moving.

Matt West said...

Truly, this was very good.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, truly excellent Steve. Very cleverly constructed and devastating in its effect.

Ken said...

Yes i enjoyed that Steve. Made me think hard about the winter of 62/63 and what happened to all my pals that played together in that snowy landscape. Great fun and simple pleasures.

Anonymous said...

A terrific read. Loved the poem. Are we due for another big freeze in the new year?

Anonymous said...

Just tremendous Steve.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully expressed.

Anonymous said...

That poem - utterly, utterly brilliant!