Yes, it really happened. On Christmas Eve, 1914, as the first winter of the Great War consumed France and Belgium in conflict, the men on opposing sides in the trenches along the front lines ceased the madness and played football in no man's land to celebrate peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. This enduringly symbolic moment of humanity is celebrated in the words of All Together Now, a UK Top Five hit by Liverpudlian four-piece The Farm in December 1990.
"Countries' borders were right out of sight," sang frontman and songwriter Peter Hooton, "when they joined together and decided not to fight".
"It's about the working classes being sent to war," Hooton told the BBC in 2010. "People across a divide who probably had more in common with each other than the people who had sent them to war in the first place."
The song was first recorded for a Peel Session in 1983 under the name No Man's Land, but it is barely recognisable. "No Man's Land originally had six verses and no real recognised chorus," Hooton explained in 2015. But rhythm guitarist Steve Grimes was convinced that the words would sound better played to the chord sequence from a classical piano piece called Pachelbel's Canon, which was popularised as background music on TV programmes and advertising in the Eighties.
"He had been right," admits Hooton. "It worked brilliantly, but we still had no chorus."
The familiar chant of "all together now in no man's land" came still later, at which point they began working with producer and Madness frontman Suggs on their debut album, Spartacus, which peaked at No.1 in the UK album chart in 1991. It was the height of the "Baggy" scene, so called because of the fashion for baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts, which overlapped with the influential Manchester-based "Madchester" scene to include The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Charlatans, Flowered Up and The Soup Dragons, creating guitar-based dance music typified by a shuffling "funky drummer" beat, heavy on the snare.
Whilst The Farm never hit those heady heights again, the song took on a life of its own on the football terraces, with versions released by Everton FC in the run-up to their 1995 FA Cup final victory and as England's official song at Euro 2004. In a sense, the song had become an anthem for the common man, which was always its intention, but Hooton has always been concerned that the song's true meaning has been diluted by its association with football.
The war was supposed to have been over by Christmas 1914. That was what the men had been promised on both sides of the trenches. In fact, of course, the true horrors, from chemical warfare to devastating air raids, had hardly begun. In the trenches, brief truces were not unheard of. Armies ate meals at the same time and patrols turned a blind eye, adopting a "live and let live" attitude while the enemy gathered their dead or repaired trenches.
The winter weather had been relentless, but as Christmas approached, the rain stopped and the trenches, which had often been knee-deep in water, were drained. Spirits were high. Men were enjoying packages from home, containing plentiful winter clothing, chocolate and cigarettes. And on Christmas Eve, German soldiers began singing carols and displaying Christmas trees along their lines, illuminated by candles. On Christmas morning, British soldiers watched suspiciously as some of their German counterparts tentatively ventured out into the no man's land between their trenches.
Gradually, up and down the front lines, the British risked climbing out of their trenches to join them. At first, the men worked together to bury their dead. Then they began to fraternise - swapping stories and gifts from home. Footballs were produced and kicked around. These young men, who had more in common than they had ever imagined, came together in a spirit of unity.
Inevitably, word soon reached high command and by the end of Christmas Day, the orders came down to end the impromptu ceasefire immediately or face court martial. Soldiers from both sides found their way back to their trenches, never to meet again. In some places, German and British officers saluted one another and then fired shots into the air to signal that the war had recommenced. The conflict continued until 1918 and the ceasefire was never repeated.
"All Together Now exists because of that moment," wrote The Farm's lead guitarist Keith Mullin in 2015, to coincide with an updated charity re-recording of the single. "I struggle to imagine the bravery of those men taking that first step into no man’s land, who were not only at risk of being shot by their supposed enemy, they risked being executed by their own country for fraternising with that enemy. A spirit stronger than war was at work that night, humanity at its best in my opinion. With that in mind, there’s a lot humanity can learn from those men on Christmas Day 1914. That’s the message. That story is used now to educate - and long may it continue."
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About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
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