The boy choristers of the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, under the direction of Stephen Darlington, perform the ballad ‘The Children’s Crusade’, with music by Benjamin Britten and words by poet Bertolt Brecht.
Described by Britten as ‘a very grisly piece,’ his setting for treble voices of ‘The Children’s Crusade’ tells the story of a group of 55 orphaned children trudging through war-ravaged Poland near the start of the Second World War. The children, who come from a multitude of backgrounds and experiences, band together and journey through the land in search of a place of peace and safety— a land of ‘no more fire, no more thunder; nothing like the land they’re leaving’.
In the dead of a bitter winter, the five-and-fifty children disappear into a raging blizzard and are never seen again, leaving behind only a plea for help written in a ‘childish hand’ and the half-strangled dog who had become their companion when they, though starving, could not bring themselves to eat him.
In the end, the text suggests, the compassion of the children saved no-one; even the dog starved.
The text and context of the piece are mildly disturbing, and I have paired them here with photographs—photographs of only some the children of war and conflict—that may be considered upsetting. I felt it important to do so, just as I felt it important that this piece should be heard.
The video for this piece can be found HERE.
[ Text (by B. Brecht): ]
In Poland in 1939,
there was the bloodiest fight
Turning ev’ry town and village
Into a wilderness of night.
Young sisters had lost their brothers,
Young wives their men at war.
In the blaze and the heaps of rubble,
Children found their parents no more.
Nothing has come out of Poland,
Letter or printed report;
But in the East runs a story
Of the most curious sort:
Snow fell as they told one another
There in an Eastern town,
About a children’s crusade:
Deep in Poland,
Lost children were scuttling, hungry;
in little formations were seen.
There they gathered with others,
Standing where villages once had been.
They wanted to fly from the fighting,
Let the nightmare cease;
And one fine day they’d come upon a land,
where there was peace.
They had their little leader
Keeping them on the go.
He had a terrible worry:
the way, the way, he just did not know.
A little Jew was found marching,
found marching in step:
He had a velvety collar,
He was used to the whitest bread,
And yet he showed much valour, much valour.
Once two brothers joined the pack,
Tried strategic campaigning
When they stormed a peasant’s empty shack
They left it because it was raining.
A thin grey boy kept himself apart,
He avoided provocation.
He was marked by a fearful guilt:
He came from the Nazi legation.
And there was among them a drummer-boy.
He found drum and drumsticks
in a village shop that had been raided.
The troop allowed no drumming:
Noise would have betrayed it.
And there was a dog.
They’d caught him to eat him;
Kept him on as an eater:
That was the only way to treat him.
They had their symphony
By a waterfall in the snow
Our drummerboy could use his drumsticks,
He could use his drumsticks
Since nobody could hear him,
Nobody could— No!
And then there was some loving.
She was twelve,
He was fifteen.
There, in a ruined cottage,
She sat and combed his hair.
But love, it is not forever -
Not in the biting cold,
For how can the saplings blosom
With so much snow to hold?
Then there was a war,
War against some other children on the run.
Then there was a war,
And the war just simply ended.
Sense it had none.
And then there was a trial,
On either side burned a candle.
What an embarassing affair!
The judge condemned!
What a scandal!
Then there was a funeral,
Velvet collar it was whom they buried.
The body by Polish and German bearers
To burial was carried.
Protestants and Catholics,
and Nazis were there,
To consign them to his Mother Earth.
At the end they heard a little socialist
Talk with confidence of mankind’s rebirth.
So there was faith.
There was hope too,
But no meat or bread.
Had people who cuffed them for stealing
Offered them shelter instead!
But none should rebuke the needy man
who would not part with a slice:
For fifty odd children you need flour,
Flour, not sacrifice.
They wandered steadily southward.
South is there, where the sun stands high at midday for ev’ryone.
They wandered steadily southward.
Once, to be sure,
they found a soldier
Wounded, in pinewoods he lay.
They tended him seven days,
So that he could tell them the way.
He spoke up clearly, ‘To Bilgoray!’
His fever made him rave.
An eighth day he did not live to see:
For him they dug a grave.
True, there was a signpost also:
Deep in the snow they found.
in fact it had ceased to show the way:
Someone had turned it round.
And when they hunted for Bilgoray,
No where could they find it.
They stood there around their leader,
He looked at the snowladen air,
And made a sign with his little hand,
And told them,
'It must be there.'
Where once southeast of Poland was,
In raging blizard keen,
There were our five and fifty,
Last to be seen.
Whenever I close my eyes, I see them wander
There from this old farmhouse destroyed by the war
To another ruined house yonder.
High above them
in the clouded sky
I see other swarming, surging, many!
There they wander, braving icy blizzards,
(Homes and aims they haven’t any)
Searching for a land where peace reigns,
No more fire, no more thunder,
Nothing like the world they’re leaving.
Mighty crowds too great to number,
crowds to great to number.
In Poland, in that same January,
They caught a dog half strangled:
A cord was hung round his scraggy neck,
And from it a notice dangled.
PLEASE COME AND HELP US!
WHERE WE ARE WE CANNOT SAY.
WE’RE THE FIVE AND FIFTY
THE DOG KNOWS THE WAY.
The writing was in a childish hand.
Peasants had read it over.
Since then more than a year has gone by.
The dog starved.
He didn’t recover.