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The Executioner's Song: Belleau Wood

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here. Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P.)

Christmas Eve in the winter of 1914, Allied soldiers, clutching rifles, sit huddled in the snow laden trenches far away from their families. Across a scorched stretch of earth, German soldiers sit in similar trenches, just as cold, just as lonely. Amidst brief silence, a tune rises from the German trenches. A Christmas melody familiar to the Allied lines. Soon, though the language is different, both sides lend their voices.

"Belleau Wood" performed by Garth Brooks and co-written by Joe Henry, poetically depicts actual events on the front lines during Christmas in World War I. It is a powerful song, slow and somber, highlighting the brilliance of the human spirit in the darkest of times while glimpses the harrowing cost of war on the human soul.

We revel in true stories. We need them for perspective and inspiration. This is an advantage that "Belleau Wood" has over the competition. "Belleau Wood" is based on true events; men from warring nations peered from the safety of their trenches to share goodwill during a holiday.

In solemn country fashion, Garth Brooks evokes the complex mixture of hope and fear engaging soldiers during the truce. Brooks describes a sobering glimpse at the struggle to find humanity in depths of hell. Upon a frozen and battered ground, surrounded by tools of destruction and man-made divisions, hope overshadow even the most justified of fears. Unspoken words share the sentiment: “Here's hoping we both live / To see us find a better way.”

It is both a mix of triumph and tragedy. Despite the temporary truce, Brooks sings to us of the inevitable return of violence with perhaps the most poignant lyrics of the song.

"Then the devil's clock struck midnight,
And the skies lit up again,
And the battlefield where heaven stood,
Was blown to hell again."

"Belleau Wood" is a portrait painted in three short minutes of soldiers grasping for humanity in the worst circumstances human beings can invent. It’s the story of heaven and hell existing in the same place. Within the lyrics and tone is the sad revelation of the cost of warfare on our own humanity, pitting men with similar hearts to take each other’s lives. It’s a harrowing tail of loss and an inspiration for hope.

four comments

I watched a very good movie on WWI yesterday; a Belgian film from 2004 entitled “A Very Long Engagement.” A woman left behind after the war tries to uncover the fate of her fiance, who was forced “over the top” as punishment for self-mutilation. I’m not one for love stories, but I’d recommend this one.

Thanks for the recommendation Slobber, we’ll have to check it out.

Except, the song is mis-named. The fighting for which Belleau Wood is remembered involves the Ludendorff Offensive in spring, 1918: as badly mauled French forces withdrew, the US 2nd Division (including a brigade of US Marines) counterattacked and halted the German advance. Which, in true Marine fashion, was promptly heralded in the press as the greatest victory since Agincourt…

Snarkiness aside, Belleau Wood isn’t even in the right location. The famous Anglo-German Christmas Truce of 1914 took place outside Ypres (in Belgium), and subsequent versions in 1915 also took place in the “greater Passchendaele area”. The Franco-German Christmas Truce in 1915 took place in the Vosges (eastern France, near the German border). Belleau Wood itself is located near Chateau-Thierry, about 40 miles outside Paris.

So, full marks for writing a poignant and haunting song (well done, Garth Brooks).

But points have to be deducted for displaying ignorance of the geography of the Great War and (arguably) implying that American troops were involved in the Christmas truce.

I vote for Waltzing Matilda.

@ Curmudgeon – I both hate/understand the necessity for bending the truth for art. Changing the location, makes sense to me because it sounds nicer and would probably sell easier the “Ypres” which Americans can’t say.

But on implying that the Soldiers were America, which I think the song does, I have to agree with you; points get deducted.

great points altogether.