More Vigny Cane Fighting in Chile

Prolific Santiago-based stickfighter Andres Morales (in black) takes on another sparring partner, both demonstrating the characteristic high guards and ambidexterity of the Vigny style:

La canne vigny vs la canne vigny.

Geplaatst door Andres Pino Morales op Maandag 18 februari 2019

The bout is reminiscent of this description of one of Pierre Vigny’s first public exhibitions in London (also his first collaboration with Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright):

Everything is done from the wrist, and the swing which it is possible to get on a stick when it is held this way is immense. Either hand can be used, and they should be changed at will; both hands may he employed to execute a sort of body-shove which is very taking; but perhaps the most valuable cut of all is the back stroke. The cane is brought down to the guard and suddenly swung back over the shoulder. Another method which is used to clear the way in an aggressive crowd consists of sweeps with the right and left hand alternately, with, if necessary, the leg cut, delivered just below the knee, after the cane has completed a half-circle in the air. This will usually disable your adversary.

English Edition of “Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick” Now Available via Vimeo and the Freelance Academy Press

The new English-language version of Alex Kiermayer’s excellent instructional video series is now available as a series of streaming downloads from Vimeo.com. The entire series runs two hours and fifty-four minutes and can be rented for US$29.50 or bought for US$36.90.

The instructional series is also now available on DVD via the US-based Freelance Academy Press website for US$39.95.

Here is our recent, detailed review of the series, which includes lessons on many aspects of Vigny stick fighting for self-defence.

“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: the Rise of the Martial Arts in Great Britain” (2013)

Re-posted here for the benefit of newer enthusiasts who may not be aware of it, the first 12 minutes of this 2013 BBC documentary offer one of the most comprehensive mainstream media treatments of E.W. Barton-Wright’s “new art of self-defence” and of the suffragette jiujitsu phenomenon.

The documentary features interviews with historian Dr. Emelyne Godfrey and Bartitsu/suffrajitsu researcher Tony Wolf, as well as “antagonistics” demonstrations by instructors James Marwood and George Stokoe.

“British Pickpockets and Their French Brethren” (1897)

This article from the Dublin Evening Herald of 22 December, 1897 reveals a number of the ingenious mugging and pickpocketing tricks developed by French street criminals.  A few years after this piece was written, the term “Apaches” would widely be applied to the criminal gangs of Paris, whose distinctive “gangster chic” would then inspire an international craze.


It is a current opinion in France that the national pickpockets are not at the top of their profession, says a Daily Mail writer.

This honor is reserved, in France, for the light fingered gentry of the English race. The British pickpocket is always referred to in the columns of French newspapers as an acknowledged master of this craft, as a workman of the most subtle skill and refreshing audacity. Compared with him, the native product is admitted a little sorrowfully to be a bungling tyro, whose methods are clumsy and whose daring is dubious. To be robbed by so awkward a practitioner is disgraceful as well as disagreeable, while to be eased of your purse by the former is an insult to your patriotism, in addition to an injury to your pocket.

Curiously enough, Charles Dickens is responsible to some extent for this belief in the superiority of the British pickpocket. His immortal description of the training of the thief has been popularized in France, where people are convinced that Fagin has many able successors to teach the art of picking pockets on the most improved principles.

A few years ago, a long and circumstantial account appeared in a Parisian paper of a professional training school for thieves, which the writer professed to have visited in London. The article, of course, was a pure invention; but there is no doubt that the majority of those who read it accepted it as a gospel truth, and it is an amusing fact that its author received several letters offering him money if you would forward the address of the school. Evidently the French pickpocket is not above learning, so that there is hope for him yet. It may be added the word “pickpocket” has come into general use in France, where it has almost entirely replaced the French term, “voleur a la tire”.

Probably it is slandering the native practitioner to say that all the pockets artistically picked in Paris are rifled of their contents by experts from this side of the Channel. Still, it is a fact that the Parisian thief shows a predilection for strokes of business that demand no particular talent. He is always on the lookout, for instance, for an opportunity of robbing persons who have been drinking, not wisely but too well. In one variety of this operation he is called, in French slang, the “guardian angel .” His role is to get into conversation with the toper, who is induced to accept his escort and his arm. Under these conditions, to strip the befuddled percentage of his belongings is child’s play.

A still simpler method of operating is that resorted to by the “poivrier”. This class of rogue lies in wait for the drunkard who is rash enough to go to sleep on one of the public seats that are common in the larger Parisian thoroughfares. As a rule the poivrier is able to explore the pockets of his victim without danger, but it happens occasionally that his wrist is seized in a tight grip, and he is invited to step around to the nearest police station, the pretended sleeper being a detective engaged in what is technically known as “fishing.”

A more elaborate mode of picking pockets is the “vol a l’esbrouffe. ” In this case at least two confederates are necessary. A street is chosen in which there is a fair amount of traffic. A likely victim having been marked down among the passersby, one of the thieves runs up against him, as if by accident, and, instead of apologizing for his awkwardness, lets fly a volley of abuse. A man who has been nearly upset and then insulted in this way gives the aggressor a bit of his mind, and in his excitement, and amid the gathering crowd, he is very likely not to notice that the second thief has eased him of his purse, his pocketbook, or his watch.

When his mere dexterity is at a loss, the Parisian thief often has recourse to violence. In a general way he is careful not to endanger the life of his victim. With this view he has perfected various modes of attack, which enable him to have his prey at his mercy for a few moments.

The “coup de la bascule”is a favorite expedient for robbers working alone, or “philosophers” as they are significantly termed in French thieves’ slang. Suppose a footpad sees somebody coming towards him in a lonely street. When a yard or two from the victim he makes a dart at him and with his left hand clutches him by the throat. Taken by surprise, the victim instinctively throws his head back. At this instant his assailant forces one of his legs from the ground by encircling it with his own legs, as in wrestling. The man who is assaulted is half tripped up, and naturally throws out his arms and effort to regain his balance.

His position, in fact, is very much that of the person attached to the swing board, or bascule, of the guillotine; hence the name of the coup. While the victim is in this helpless state, the thief with the right hand snatches his valuables and then, giving his man a final push or blow with his knee in the pit of the stomach, sends him rolling into the gutter, after which he himself takes to his heels. To be successful, especially if the victim be strong, this coup has to be carried out with the utmost rapidity and precision, far more quickly, indeed, then can be described.

The “coup de la petite chaise” is a sort of a variant of that just given, its object being also to make the victim lose his equilibrium for the few moments needed to allow of the robbery being effected. In this instance the assault is made from behind. The victim is seized by the collar, and the footpad then thrusts his knee into the small of his back, thus offering him what is ironically called a “little seat.” The prey once”spreadeagled” in this manner, the thief gets at his pockets over his shoulder. But the nature of the operation and the aptness with which it is named will be best understood by a glance at the illustration:

Both the coups just described and one or two others similar to them are risky. The chances are all against the victim at the outset, but once he is out of the hands of his assailant, there is nothing to prevent him from screaming for help, or even from turning the tables on his aggressor. A very superior invention from the point of view of the footpad, and a much more dangerous one from that of the victim, is the “coup du pere François .”

In this case two “operators” are necessary. One of them, provided with a stout and long scarf, closes up with the victim from behind, throws the scarf around his neck, turns around sharply, and with a jerk hoists the man he has lassooed upon his back. The confederate then “runs the rule” over the victim, who cannot scream because he is half throttled, and who very probably is in a swoon, the result of strangulation, before the proceedings are terminated.

Ingenious, however, as the contrivance is, it has its drawbacks. The process of strangulation may go to far and be fatal to the victim. Without the least intention of making so ugly a mistake the thieves find themselves murderers, and run the risk of “sneezing into the sack”, which is their picturesque way of saying “being guillotined.”

Such, then, are a few of the methods of the typical Parisian rogue, and those who know the British product will readily admit that for sheer brutality, if not dexterity, his French brother surpasses him easily.


For more details on these and other mugging tricks applied in the mean streets of the French capital, see “Footpads of Paris: How French Thugs Ply Their Thieving Trade”

Finally, this video demonstrates a number of pickpocketing tricks still in use today, along with common-sense defences against them:

Bartitsu Seminar in Yorkshire

Members of the Tree of Shields historical fencing club (Yorkshire, UK) pose after a recent Bartitsu seminar with instructor Kevin Allmond of the Haworth Industrial Bartitsu Club.

Shields! Bartitsu night was a pain in the neck… Geddit.Tom

Geplaatst door Tree of Shields op Maandag 31 juli 2017

Above: Kevin Allmond demonstrates a neo-Bartitsu umbrella takedown.

A Review of “Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick”

Here follows a review of the new English-language edition of the instructional DVD Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick According to Pierre Vigny, which was originally released with German-language captions and narration.  The DVD features instructor Alex Kiermayer assisted by Christoph Reinberger and was produced by Agilitas.tv, a company that has previously produced a number of instructional HEMA DVDs.

Mr. Kiermayer and Mr. Reinberger are dressed in the simple white shirt, suspenders and dark pants ensembles that frequently stand in for Victorian/Edwardian attire in Bartitsu exhibitions.  Their demonstrations take place in a large, distraction-free studio space and are well-covered with a truly impressive range of camera angles, including some high overhead shots as well as well-placed closeups.  The technical presentations are methodical and crystal clear and the DVD itself is well-produced, including the new English narration.  Some of the phrasing is a little awkward, possibly because of the necessary translation from German, but this is no way detracts from the value of the DVD as a training resource.

Also, the chapter select feature very efficiently allows the viewer to refer not only to particular chapters but also to technical sub-sections within those chapters.

Chapter 1: Theory first covers the general history of Bartitsu’s rise and fall at the turn of the 20th century and then offers a special focus on Pierre Vigny and his stick fighting method.  These sections are well-illustrated and very highly accurate.  It’s worth noting that recent (largely subsequent to the video’s original production) discoveries about the so-called “secret style of boxing”, a.k.a. “Bartitsu boxing”, have enabled us to make educated deductions about exactly how it differed from the orthodox boxing/savate practiced circa 1900.

The next section presents a variety of knob-handled and crook-handled sticks, noting their relative pros and cons for both self-defence and training purposes.

In Chapter 2: Basics, the various guard positions are clearly described and demonstrated, including the orthodox front (“right”) and rear (“left”) guards and double-handed guard variants.  Gripping the stick is addressed, including the important but seldom-addressed matter of shifting into a fighting stance from the ordinary walking-stick grip position.  The fundamentals of body mechanics via stance and footwork are also methodically detailed in this section.

Mr. Kiermayer also includes several lowered guards, which are shown as positions of invitation (but not defined as guards per se) in the canonical material.  This section then develops into a series of exercises which serve triple duty as as warm-ups, conditioning training and dexterity drills.  These include moulinets and many techniques of passing the cane from one grip to the other, emphasising the crucial ambidexterity of Vigny stick fighting.

Chapter 3: Attacks begins with a simple demonstration of preferred targets including the face and head, solar plexus, elbow, hand, knee/shin, etc.  Effective use is made of graphics, as red circles are superimposed over the key areas of Mr. Reinberger’s anatomy.

The next section deals with striking mechanics, beginning with “snapping” strikes from the sabre grip (i.e., strikes made primarily from the wrist with the thumb extended along the shaft for extra support and precision, although the point is correctly made that this type of grip is not actually advocated by the Vigny style, which defers to the “hammer” grip instead).  “Sweeping” strikes are described as the “bread and butter of la canne Vigny”, requiring a larger preparation but offering much greater power; these are further developing into the characteristic “fanning” strikes of the Vigny system.

Mr. Kiermayer also introduces a simple numbering system for the sake of convenience in training, comparable with the traditions of numbered positions in fencing (“cut to tierce”, etc.) and numbered angles of attack in the Filipino martial arts.  This was alluded to in E.W. Barton-Wright’s Self Defence with a Walking Stick articles, which included a few references to fencing numbers. Although there is no evidence of a consistent number system being emphasised within the canonical style, it’s a useful tool for training purposes.

A range of striking exercises includes simple standing and lunging attacks employing various dynamics and drills in which the training partner spontaneously presents a striking target at various angles and positions.  This section also includes logical extrapolations from the canonical material, such as strikes in which the sections of the cane held between (or extending beyond) the hands in the double-handed grip are used as striking weapons at close quarters.

In addition, it showcases the use of the “short end” of the cane as a dagger-type thrusting weapon at close quarters, which was referred to by numerous observers of Vigny’s Bartitsu demonstrations and also by Captain Laing in his 1902 article.  Curiously, however, this section does not include examples of attacks in which the stick is held with both hands at one end.

Tha Attacks chapter closes with a series of sample combination exercises – each one finishing with the characteristic “attack while moving back into guard” tactic – and a demonstration of freestyle striking against a hanging car tire target.

Chapter 4: Defences opens with the basic parries of classical canne fencing, named after the fencing convention of numbered hand positions.   Although there is some commonality with the Vigny style, classical canne also includes types of defences that are categorically not part of Vigny’s method, including parries in the tierce and quarte guards (in which the point of impact between the sticks is above the defender’s stick-wielding hand) and low parries against leg attacks.

The classical canne parries are also demonstrated via three-count parry/riposte drills and then via a more elaborate drill adapted from one of Henry Angelo’s early 19th century cutlass exercises.  Again, the latter includes defences which are not part of Vigny’s system, and so while these techniques and drills are of academic interest for the sake of comparison between historical styles, they run the risk of confusing beginners who may be following the exercises step by step, because they will then have to be “forgotten” when the focus shifts back to the Vigny style.

The classical canne section is followed by an examination of Vigny’s single-handed hanging guards, which are directly relevant to the practice of Bartitsu stick fighting.  Again, the progression from isolated technique into defence/riposte drills is shown effectively, and there’s a useful graphic that superimposes “after-images” of the defence positions as Mr. Kiermayer runs through the sequence of five basic parries.

The “stick up” variants that follow, however, again contradict the basic defensive premise of the Vigny style, and the inclusion of these parries in the context of a Vigny-style instructional DVD is regrettable. These techniques were not featured in any of the historical Vigny sources, and in fact were actively argued against – the logic being that hanging guards better protect the weapon-wielding hand, resulting in the range of high guard positions that fundamentally characterise the style.

Although lowered guard stances are featured in the Bartitsu canon, they are exclusively used as positions of invitation (to bait the opponent into attacking an apparently exposed target), with any subsequent parry action being executed from a high or hanging guard.  That said, if – in the heat of a sparring match, for example – a fighter is caught momentarily unawares while in a low guard, he or she may be forced to perform a parry in 3 or 4 out of expedience.

The next section involves the use of double-handed blocks, which do not appear in the circa 1900 material but which are present in H.G. Lang’s 1923 book Self-Defence with a Walking Stick. It’s possible that these were among the techniques Lang interpolated into the Vigny style from the Caribbean bois method.

We then move through several variations of the canonical “guard by distance”, in which the defender invites an attack to a deliberately exposed target in order to slip the attack and riposte.  The first variant is curious in that the defender invites a mid-level attack to his elbow and then counters to the attacker’s weapon-wielding hand, which requires a rather awkward, slightly upward-angled strike leaving little room for error.  The equivalent canonical technique involves a low/mid-level invitation to attack the defender’s hand and the counter is performed to the attacker’s head, allowing for a more powerful and unobstructed riposte.

The Defences chapter continues with a progression of partnered attack/riposte drills, many of which are strongly reminiscent of the drills described in Captain F.C. Laing’s 1902 article The Bartitsu Method of Self Defence.  These exercises gradually introduce greater complexity and degrees of “aliveness” by requiring one or both partners to react to spontaneous, rather than pre-arranged attacks.

There follows a section on using the double-handed cane grip to ward off unarmed attacks, including straight right and left punches and both front and roundhouse kicks, and then a useful study of release techniques against seizure to the cane-wielding defender’s weapon or clothing.  This latter classification is notably lacking in the canonical material and the release defences presented here are martially plausible.

Chapter 5: Additional Techniques and Tactics introduces a number of the canonical sequences originally presented in Barton-Wright’s articles and in Lang’s 1923 book, especially those representing the fusion of Vigny’s cane style with Barton-Wright’s jiujitsu.  It’s pointed out that Barton-Wright particularly recommended this type of technique when faced by an opponent armed with a heavier and stronger weapon.

Many of these techniques are presented with slight “neo-Bartitsu” variations, which are then extrapolated into a series of purely neo-Bartitsu close-combat cane takedowns.  Some discussion or demonstration of how to best train these techniques, particularly against a non-cooperative opponent, would have been useful.  In combination, however, this section illustrates the important point that the Vigny style includes a range of close-combat locking and takedown options.

The final section in Chapter 5 usefully introduces a series of basic unarmed combat techniques, with particular attention to using straight punches and low kicks in combination with the leverage-based releases covered in Chapter 4 to assist in releasing your cane if it’s seized by the opponent.  It’s mentioned that a planned future DVD will focus on unarmed Bartitsu.

Chapter 6: Applications offers a series of self-defence scenarios as examples of how the previously-learned material might be applied in practice.  These include the common-or-garden double-handed lapel grab, a single-handed lapel grip and punch with the free hand, a double-handed shove that pushes the defender to the floor, knife attacks, etc.   As the “attacker”, Mr. Reinberger wears body protection for a number of these sequences, allowing Mr. Kiermayer to demonstrate some of the impact force that would be applied in a real attack situation.

Most of the example defences are logical and realistic extrapolations of the Vigny system as it was practiced at the Bartitsu Club circa 1901, combining basic savate and jiujitsu with the use of the cane; though again, some more discussion of training practices allowing for spontaneity and active resistance would have been helpful.

Finally, Chapter 7: Free Fencing offers a demonstration of several bouts of light freestyle sparring in the Vigny style.  Gratifyingly, both Mr. Kiermayer and Mr. Reinberger demonstrate fluid shifting between a wide variety of guard positions and active ambidexterity in their attack and defence techniques, and there are several points where the fights continue at close quarters (although no actual locks nor takedowns are shown in this section).


In conclusion, Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick According to Pierre Vigny is an excellent new training resource for Bartitsu revivalists.  In the sense that each rendition of the style has added novel elements – from the blending of stickfighting and jiujitsu at the original Bartitsu Club, to the incorporation of African/Caribbean techniques by H.G. Lang in the 1920s – most of the innovations introduced here are both stylistically logical and martially plausible.  The only serious criticism is, again, that the inclusion of certain classical canne parries will serve to confuse beginners and to dilute the canonical style.

The expanded range of double-handed cane techniques and the inclusion of release techniques are particularly valuable, serving to “fill in the gaps” left by the scenario-based canonical sequences from Barton-Wright’s articles. In many ways, Mr. Kiermayer’s DVD is in the spirit of Captain Laing’s 1902 essay on Bartitsu self-defence, which likewise offered a systematic progression of technical drills.

The English-language edition of Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick According to Pierre Vigny is currently available from this website.  It will soon also be available on DVD from the Freelance Academy Press and then as a series of streaming downloads via Vimeo.

Suffrajitsu Mini-Documentary on BBC Two

Suffragettes do jiu jitsu | Back in Time for School

Did you know that some suffragettes used martial arts to protect themselves while campaigning?! 🥋✊

Geplaatst door BBC Two op Donderdag 3 januari 2019

Instructor Jennifer Garside teaches suffrajitsu-style self-defence in this educational mini-feature for the UK’s BBC Two channel.

For a more in-depth treatment of this subject, check out the free independent documentary No Man Shall Protect Us: The Hidden History of the Suffragette Bodyguards:

… and if your appetite for the subject extends to fiction, the 2015 graphic novel trilogy Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons is available via Amazon and ComiXology.  Here’s the video trailer:

The Sting of the Green Hornet

Having previously shone a spotlight on John SteedAdam Adamant and Harry Hart, it’s fitting that our periodic documentation of the use of umbrella and cane weapons by fictional heroes should now focus on Britt Reid – better known to generations of pop-culture aficionados as the Green Hornet.

The Hornet was created in 1936 for a WXYZ radio serial produced by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker.  As such, the character narrowly pre-dated the costumed superhero tradition generally (though arguably) conceded to have begun with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1, which was published in April of 1938.  From the successful radio series, the Hornet flew straight into a movie serial, pulp novels, comic books and, most famously, a 1966-7 TV series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee.

In common with many of his predecessors, Britt Reid was a wealthy businessman who assumed a masked persona to foil wrongdoers who considered themselves to be above the law.   As far as the police, the general public or the criminal underworld were aware, however, the Green Hornet was, himself, a mob boss; Reid believed that the best way to dismantle crime was from within.  He and his partner/bodyguard Kato employed a range of ingenious weapons and gadgets, most famously including the Black Beauty – a “rolling arsenal” in the guise of a tricked out sedan – and the “hornet sting”, an extendable sonic ray gun that could destroy locks or even blow doors off their hinges.  The “sting” also occasionally doubled as a cane weapon in hand-to-hand combat.

The fight scenes in the Green Hornet TV series are typical of their vintage, apart from the unique and indelible presence of Bruce Lee, whose gung fu skills were first showcased for a mainstream audience as Kato.  The Hornet’s own fighting style was the standard ’60s Hollywood concoction of cowboy haymakers and general roughhousing, except for when he happened to have the hornet sting in his hands at the moment the action kicked off.  Under those circumstances, the masked hero tended (sensibly enough) to hold the weapon in an extended “bayonet grip”, using the shaft to parry or block incoming punches and retaliating with bar strikes; he also very occasionally used single-handed strikes to disarm enemies at close quarters.

Here’s a quick compilation of excerpts from the Green Hornet series mostly showcasing the hornet sting as a close-combat weapon:

The tone of The Green Hornet series was much darker and more realistic than that of the contemporaneous Batman show, which was produced by the same company.  It did not, however, achieve Batman’s pop-culture resonance and lasted only one season.  The characters of the Green Hornet and Kato have lived on via sporadic comic book revivals and in the 2011 action-comedy feature film starring Seth Rogen and Jay Chou.

Vigny Cane Vs. Multiple Opponents

Chilean instructor Andres Morales experiments with the Vigny style against not one, not two, but three stick-wielding opponents in this new video:

Una prueba 1 vs 3 por 20 segundos, utilizando walking stick.

Geplaatst door Andres Pino Morales op Vrijdag 14 december 2018

The experimental sparring match is reminiscent of this multiple-attacker sequence from E.W. Barton-Wright’s Self-Defence with a Walking Stick (1901):

… particularly Barton-Wright’s advice to “swing your stick right and left across people’s heads and faces until they disperse”. Incidentally, Bartitsu Club fencing instructor Captain Alfred Hutton once demonstrated an almost identical stick defence sequence during an interview with a London Daily Telegraph reporter.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

In this holiday season marking one century since the end of the First World War, we depart from our usual coverage of Edwardian-era antagonistics to highlight the events of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Although the Truce has been subject to some mythologising since the 1970s, the facts of the matter are extraordinary in themselves.  Defying strict orders against any type of fraternisation with the enemy, spontaneous cease-fires took place up and down the Western Front during late December of 1914.  Sections of No Man’s Land were briefly transformed into common ground, as handshakes, seasonal greetings and small gifts were exchanged between English, French and German soldiers.  Under mutual respite, carols were sung and the bodies of the fallen were buried.   Evidence strongly suggests that at least one 30-a-side football game was played.

May the unique lesson of the Christmas Truce inspire all fighters to recall the values of dignity, charity, respect and fellowship.

The Christmas Truce

by Carol Ann Duffy (2013)

Christmas Eve in the trenches of France, the guns were quiet.
The dead lay still in No Man’s Land –
Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank . . .
The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.

Silver frost on barbed wire, strange tinsel, sparkled and winked.
A boy from Stroud stared at a star
to meet his mother’s eyesight there.
An owl swooped on a rat on the glove of a corpse.

In a copse of trees behind the lines, a lone bird sang.
A soldier-poet noted it down – a robin holding his winter ground –
then silence spread and touched each man like a hand.

Somebody kissed the gold of his ring;
a few lit pipes;
most, in their greatcoats, huddled,
waiting for sleep.
The liquid mud had hardened at last in the freeze.

But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief thrilled the night air,
where glittering rime on unburied sons
treasured their stiff hair.
The sharp, clean, midwinter smell held memory.

On watch, a rifleman scoured the terrain –
no sign of life,
no shadows, shots from snipers, nowt to note or report.
The frozen, foreign fields were acres of pain.

Then flickering flames from the other side danced in his eyes,
as Christmas Trees in their dozens shone, candlelit on the parapets,
and they started to sing, all down the German lines.

Men who would drown in mud, be gassed, or shot, or vaporised
by falling shells, or live to tell, heard for the first time then –
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht …

Cariad, the song was a sudden bridge from man to man;
a gift to the heart from home,
or childhood, some place shared …
When it was done, the British soldiers cheered.

A Scotsman started to bawl The First Noel
and all joined in,
till the Germans stood, seeing
across the divide,
the sprawled, mute shapes of those who had died.

All night, along the Western Front, they sang, the enemies –
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems, in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.

So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist, to open itself
and offer the day like a gift
for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz …
with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.

Frohe Weinachten, Tommy! Merry Christmas, Fritz!

A young Berliner, brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

Then it was up and over, every man, to shake the hand
of a foe as a friend,
or slap his back like a brother would;
exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,

Tickler’s jam … for cognac, sausages, cigars,
beer, sauerkraut;
or chase six hares, who jumped
from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball
and make of a battleground a football pitch.

I showed him a picture of my wife. Ich zeigte ihm
ein Foto meiner Frau.
Sie sei schön, sagte er.
He thought her beautiful, he said.

They buried the dead then, hacked spades into hard earth
again and again, till a score of men
were at rest, identified, blessed.  Der Herr ist mein Hirt … my shepherd, I shall not want.

And all that marvellous, festive day and night, they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file, their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves…

… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.