As Winter draws to a close, we look back over the past year which saw some wonderful commemorative events to mark the centenary of WWI. December 2014 bore witness to artistic and cultural events in West Flanders which commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the Christmas Truce during the First World War and Quench Culture attended to see the events in all their glory.
In December 1914 soldiers from both sides of the conflict laid down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together. The World War One veteran Bruce Bairnsfather recollected in 1958: “and there we were all chatting and talking as best one could…in the middle of No Man’s Land.” Bairnsfather explained that the “owners and organisers” of the war were none too pleased with this fraternisation and ordered the troops back into the trenches, ceasing the festivities and the impromptu kick-about with a football that occurred. It was fitting that a century on, the anniversary of this all too temporary ceasefire during one of history’s bloodiest wars was marked in its original location.
François Maekelberg of the Comité de la Bataille du Canal organised a re-enactment of the Christmas Truce on farmland in Ploegsteert where this lull in fighting had taken place a hundred years previously. A faithful reconstruction of the trenches and No Man’s Land had been painstakingly created with actors playing the parts of the British and German soldiers. This was an ongoing depiction of life in the trenches, taking place over several days. This culminated in a moving ceremony of remembrance on Sunday 21st December, followed by a football match between the actors. Whilst (as all the participants were aware), a fully blown football match never took place in 1914, it nonetheless seemed a fitting and appropriate way to mark the end of this dramatic installation. The hard work and dedication of all involved in bringing this historical event to life must be greatly applauded.
Another, perhaps more surprising event that marked this anniversary was a concert by the legendary Welsh musician and composer John Cale on the Saturday at the nearby Peace Village in Mesen. Born in the small town of Garnant in Camarthenshire, the classically trained Cale would relocate to New York in the 1960s, going on to form the legendary band The Velvet Underground with the late Lou Reed. Cale left the Velvets in 1968 and would start a solo career that continues to grow ever stronger almost five decades later. The first half of Cale’s concert in Mesen comprised of the world premiere of previously unheard music inspired by the Christmas Truce. Backed by brass, string sections and backing singers, Cale and his band appeared to thunderous applause. The opener, Young, Proud & Dead began with an ominous electronic drum beat that led into a lengthy atmospheric instrumental. The lyrics of the song perfectly reflected this immensely dark period in history. A highlight of the new material performed was Cale’s recitation of the Dylan Thomas poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, Of A Child In London, set to experimental music. The first act concluded with a moving instrumental entitled Caligula which featured exceptional use of the brass section, demonstrating Cale’s proficiency as a classically trained composer.
The second half was, fittingly, a full performance of Cale’s landmark 1973 album, Paris 1919; the title a reference to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The album was given a complete re-imagining with the songs being far more electronic and experimental than those found on the original recording. The only song bearing a significant resemblance to the original was Graham Greene. Whilst some may have been annoyed at this tinkering with a classic, it proved to be a welcome breath of fresh air in a world where many bands and artists opt to do a ‘by numbers’ trawl through classic albums. Half Past France was the most heavily reworked, with bass guitarist Joey Maramba taking a leaf out of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s book, creating an errie and disconcerting drone by playing his instrument with a violin bow. The closer, Macbeth featured an extended jam at the end with Cale getting the audience on their feet, singing and clapping along. Before closing the night and wishing the appreciative audience a merry Christmas, Cale returned for an encore of I Wanna Talk 2 U, the opening track from his 2012 album Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood. Tonight Cale not only provided a moving musical tribute to a significant historical event but also proved that at 72 he remains one of the most innovative and experimental figures in contemporary music.