Sunday, December 21, 2014

And There Shall Be No Night - Christmas Eve 1914

It was the Ulsterman Brian Desmond Hurst - born in Ribble Street in East Belfast - who directed the classic 1951 Scrooge adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. Hurst's other famous credits would include Dangerous Moonlight (1941), Theirs Is The Glory (1946)  and Simba (1955) which starred Dirk Bogarde and was set in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection against the British.

During World War Two he directed a propaganda feature called A Letter From Ulster in 1943 wherein a Protestant and a Catholic American soldier write home and give their impressions of the province and the people. An attempt to build upon a sense of community between the Northern Ireland population and the huge numbers of stationed US troops it included footage of soldiers' visits to Carrickfergus Castle, the town of Strabane and Derry's Walls. There is also film of a Catholic service held for the American military at St Mary's Church in central Belfast's Chapel Lane - this was the first Catholic church in the city and opened in 1784 with the aid of significant subscriptions from the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland communities. The local Belfast company of the (Protestant) Irish Volunteer movement of the period paraded to the opening and provided a guard of honour for the priest. Many of the soldiers captured on Hurst's film would later fight in Italy at Monte Cassino and Anzio - their fate can only be guessed at. A memorial to the US Expeditionary Force can be seen today in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.

Film was also shot at their army base at Tynan Abbey in County Armagh - built in 1750 and burnt to the ground in a terrorist attack in 1981 with the owners Sir Norman Stronge and his son James being shot dead.  Both the murdered men were Stormont MPs - the former being the Speaker of the House between 1945 and 1969. Sir Norman was the eight Baronet of Tynan while the fifth was Sir James Henry Stronge who held the title between 1849 and 1928 - his only son James Matthew Stronge was killed at the age of 26 while serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in August 1917 in France. In 2011 a relative of Hurst's made a brief documentary where he returned to the Northern Irish locations in the original work including the ruins at Tynan.

Hurst served in the Great War in the Royal Irish Rifles and fought at Gallipoli and in the Balkans and Middle East. In a 1969 Punch magazine interview he noted how "I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland" since in his opinion an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners and an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen. He also recalled Gallipoli and the mixed religious composition of the regiment - which recruited in both Belfast and Dublin - and where "Catholic-Protestant antagonism vanished in this holocaust". Christopher Robbins' extraordinary The Empress of Ireland from 2004 relates the author's own relationship with the flamboyant director over many years and is highly recommended.

The two definitive pieces of literature relating to this haunted Christmas season in my personal opinion are Dickens' story and Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 which was published in 2001 by Simon and Schuster. For the columnist Peter Hitchens "the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers in 1914 is, literally, sacred. It was the last hour of Christian Europe, a tragic failure."

Page after page of Weintraub's work relates to a now lost sense of human worth, decency and warmth - and indeed overlaps politically and emotionally with many themes considered in this blog over the years from Scottish independence to British class division to the failed choreography of European union to the long sad outplay of a British Ireland:

A German sergeant with an Iron Cross suspended from a black and white ribbon and earned, he boasted, for skill in sniping, led his men in a marching tune, and when they had finished, Hulse ordered "The Boys of Bonnie Scotland, where the heather and the bluebells grow". They followed with ballads which both sides knew, singing everything from "Good King Wenceslaus" down to the ordinary Tommies' songs, and ended up with "Auld Lang Syne", which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wuerttemburgers etc joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn it was faked!

In earlier posts regarding the the Ulster Home Rule crisis and the Battle of the Somme I noted how Carson's volunteers infused into the 36th Ulster Division were  to be found within the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers regiments. Weintraub in turn comments upon the 13th Battalion London Regiment position of that night in that:

The regimental history of the Kensingtons conceded, "We were a little embarrassed by this sudden comradeship, and, as a lasting joke against us, let it be said that the order was given to stand to arms. But we did not fire, for the battalion on our right, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, with their national sense of humour, answered the enemy's salutations with songs and jokes and made appointments in No Man's Land for Christmas Day. We felt small and subdued and spent the remainder of Christmas Eve in watching the lights flicker and fade on the Christmas trees in their trenches and in hearing their voices grow fainter and eventually cease."

The component of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the Ulster Division who fought with the Royal Irish Fusiliers were the Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan volunteers. Fatalities at the later Battle of the Somme were heavy - 64 men returned to the trenches from 600 who had left. Many of the dead were members of the Orange Order. Cavan and Monaghan became part of the Irish Free state with the partition of the island in 1921 as did a third Ulster county - Donegal. One particular photograh of soldiers from this regiment leaving a trench defence remains for me the single most emotionally charged image I have yet seen in my life on so many national, cultural, communal and familial respects.

Cinematically the truce has been portrayed in both Oh What A Lovely War in 1969 and 2005's Joyeux Noel - capturing British and German fraternisation in the former and Scottish, French and German in the latter. Weintraub's book alone however underscores the staggering human scale and historic scope of the Christmas events between the British, German, French, Belgian and respective colonial forces - including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from India in the British Army and the Magrebois Muslims in the French from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Weintraub also notes interesting intra-German divisions regarding the respecting the truce between the Saxon regiments as opposed to the Prussian military contingent - and indeed an individual and very bitter Corporal Hitler from Austria.

From the North Sea to the Swiss border that potentially history-changing moment of rapprochement and brotherhood - that the Germans in the main elicited whatever the qualifications concerning their faith in sure military victory - casts a long shadow on our vile godless world of greed, envy, smugness, ignorance and blandness today.

The men on the frozen fields of Flanders surely looked on the face of God that night every bit as much as the living and the dead did six months hence on the morning of 1st July 1916 at the Somme. So much in our lives of routine, stasis and disappointment will pass but this will not. Those fleeting hours in Western Europe by contrast were the everlasting fingerprint of humanity on this cold, unforgiving, timeless, savage and unrelenting rock. There is very little else in the human condition and the human experience nowadays to hold onto.

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