On The War Memorial Trail….. A WW1 Era Letter From A German Soldier Was An Anti-War Song!

March 4, 2021. Once in a while, when we do a story about a soldier, we find more information than we ever expected.  This was the case when we were contacted by Earle Davison of Kensington, Prince Edward Island, and told the story of his uncle, William Earle DAVISON, a WW1 soldier who lost his life in France while serving with the Sixth Canadian Siege Battery.  (See https://bordencarletonresearchproject.wordpress.com/2020/11/08/on-the-war-memorial-trail-remembering-ww1-soldier-william-earle-davison/)

CIMG4858 Oct 28 2020 Irene & Earle Davison

Irene and Earle Davison beside a box that contained Earle’s uncle’s effects, including the German anti-war poem. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

When Earle contacted us, he mentioned a box containing the last possessions of his uncle.  One of the items he identified was “… a copy of a letter taken from a German soldier…”  We were confused by the word ‘copy’ and wondered what kind of letter it could be.

When we saw the actual document, it was clear that it was not an original letter.  It appeared to be a published leaflet, as the heading at the top of the page was typeset, with handwriting reproduced below it.  Someone, perhaps Earle Davison himself, had written a brief translation in English of the title ‘Eine Stimme vom Grab’ (‘A Voice From The Grave’).

Was it a letter or a poem????

Davison German letter full view

The German ‘letter’ found amongst WW1 Soldier Earle Davison’s possessions. (Courtesy of Earle Davison & Family.)

The handwritten portion was in an old German script and appeared to be a poem.  Our only clue was that in English was written “…Copy of a letter taken from a German soldier to his people, telling them of the real conditions at the front…”  However, the first word in German…. ‘gedicht’ …. indicated this was a poem, not a letter.

The full heading was translated as:  “… A Voice From The Grave…. Poem from the diary of a German soldier who was a victim of Imperial domination….

We didn’t know what to make of it, so a copy of the document was sent to Berlin historian Ralf Gräfenstein.  Was he able to read the handwriting and tell us what it was all about?

Ralf replied that “… It is not a letter of a German soldier, but the handwritten text of an old German Anti-War song….”  A song?  That was a surprise twist!  “…The text of the ‘letter’ differs slightly from the ‘official’ version of the song. I think that this document is part of war propaganda to increase the war-weariness of German soldiers. Maybe the Allied troops found the ‘letter’ (the handwritten copy of the song) on a dead German soldier and later they used it for their propaganda? …

Ralf found a YouTube version of the original song, which you can listen to here…

He went on to explain that “…This song was published in 1870 and came from the German Socialist labour movement which was part of the German and international labour movement at that time….

Ralf’s investigation brought up two interesting points.  The poem was based on an actual German song, and his suggestion that it was used for war propaganda seemed valid as it was a published leaflet.  Two key questions remained…. Was it taken from an actual diary of a German soldier?  If it was war propaganda, who distributed it…. the Germans or the Allies?

The German Embassy in Ottawa joins the investigation

At this point, the document was sent to the German Embassy in Ottawa, where Chief Warrant Officer (German Army) Patrick Butzlaff, Assistant to the Defence Attaché, delved into this mystery.

Mr Butzlaff agreed that “…. the version of the poem printed on the letter is not entirely identical to the original.  It seems that the writer once heard it and independently recomposed the parts of the text that he could not remember 100%….

Like Ralf, Mr Butzlaff noted the date of the poem, but had more information about it.  “…The original poem dates from 1870 in the Kingdom of Saxony (an ally of Prussia) and was written at the time of the 2nd Franco-German War…

I’d never heard about this war, so was happy that he went on to explain that “… France declared war on Prussia because of claims to the throne which the Hohenzollern wanted to register in Spain. France felt surrounded by Hohenzollern here, when their claim to power now also reached their own country’s borders in the south.

The Germans successfully repelled a French attack and were able to win the war relatively quickly. Apparently this was not enough for the Prussian king, however, so he ordered an attack on France, thus triggering the 2nd Franco-German War.

The workers’ movement, which was growing stronger and stronger in all parts of Europe back then, protested against this war and tried to influence events by writing protest letters and distributing anti-war poems to soldiers going to the battlefields….

Mr Butzlaff explained that “…the motto of this movement was ‘Proletarians of all countries unite’, which can also be read between the lines of the poem...

What does the poem say?

So what did the poem in the leaflet that WW1 soldier Earle Davison saved actually say?  Identifying all the words in the handwriting was problematic.  While Ralf was able to transcribe most of the text, a few phrases defeated him.

Mr Butzlaff came to the rescue. “…The poem is written in ‘Suetterlin’, the old German handwriting. I asked a friend of my late grandmother, who is now 96 years old, to take a look at the text and solve the riddle of the unclear words.  She replied that the writer seems to have written quickly, which means that the letters do not always look as they should…

By now, I was very eager to know what the poem said.  A translation, prepared by one of his colleagues, was provided by Mr. Butzlaff: Translation of German Anti-War Poem

Who distributed the leaflet?   German or Allied Forces?

We now had a translation of the poem and an explanation of the origin of the poem.  Where did the leaflet come from? Ralf found a reference to the poem in a 1936 book by Hermann Wanderschreck entitled ‘Weltkrieg und Propaganda’ (World War I and Propaganda).

Hermann Wanderschreck (1907-1971) was an editor and lecturer in the National Socialist Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, theatre critic, and a playwright. His dissertation (1934) and book mention that British troops dropped leaflets with the title ‘Eine Stimme vom Grab’ (A Voice From The Grave) from aeroplanes, over the front in Western Europe as propaganda.

I suspect that neither the British propagandists during the First World War (1914-1918) nor Wanderschreck knew that the text under the title ‘A Voice from the Grave’ was originally from a song of the German Socialist labour movement…

A translation Ralf provided from Wanderschreck’s book added more clarity. “The English dropped leaflets in varying sizes. Often, poems taken from the diaries of German soldiers were released. Once, under the title ‘A Voice From The Grave’, the accusation of what was purported to be a dead man from the grave was reproduced…

This likely explains how Earle Davison came into possession of the leaflet.  It dropped from the sky, and perhaps someone explained the context of the leaflet, which he wrote down in English.  It also seems clear that the handwritten portion of the leaflet was taken from a diary of a German soldier.

As a theology student, Earle Davison would most probably have agreed with the anti-war sentiments, as was suggested by Mr. Butzlaff.  “Perhaps the soldier was aware of the meaning of the poem and agreed in his conviction of the senselessness of war.  There were many soldiers on both sides in WW1 who took part in it because they had to, but were inwardly opposed to it….

Thank you to Earle and Irene Davison for sharing the leaflet with us. Uncovering the amazing story about the leaflet’s history and translation of the contents was only possible due to the diligent research and help of Berlin historian Ralf Gräfenstein and Chief Warrant Officer (German Army) Patrick Butzlaff, Assistant to the Defence Attaché at the Germany Embassy in Ottawa.  A huge thank you goes to them for the time and effort they put into this piece of WW1 history.

If you have effects from a WW1 soldier, take a look and see if you have a copy of this leaflet!  If you do, please email us at dariadv@yahoo.ca, comment on the blog, or send a tweet to @researchmemori1.

Screenshot_2021-02-27 On The War Memorial Trail With Pieter Valkenburg

You can subscribe to: On The War Memorial Trail With Pieter Valkenburg: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJ591TyjSheOR-Cb_Gs_5Kw

© Daria Valkenburg

On The War Memorial Trail….. Remembering WW1 Soldier William Earle Davison


November 8, 2020.  If you have a family member who lost his life in war, this is a poignant time of year of remembrance.  Recently Earle Davison of Kensington wrote us that “….As November 11 comes around, I start to think about my uncle, William Earle Davison, who was killed in the First World War.  He was attending Mount Allison University and he enlisted in St John, New Brunswick. He was with the Sixth Canadian Siege Battery in France and Belgium…

Coloured photo Davison

William Earle ‘Davy’ Davison.  (Photo courtesy of Earle Davison & Family. Photo restoration and colourization by Pieter Valkenburg)

Earle explained that “…My father always kept a box about the size of a chocolate box in one of his desk drawers.  It contained the last possessions of Earle, most of it must have been sent back from Europe.  Every fall getting near November 11th he would take it out and we would look through it….

The original box is long gone, but it’s a tradition that Earle and his wife Irene keep up with a replacement box.

CIMG4858 Oct 28 2020 Irene & Earle Davison

Irene and Earle Davison with a chocolate box containing mementos of his uncle, WW1 soldier William Earle Davison. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

According to his attestation document, William Earle DAVISON was born March 7, 1897 in Kensington, the son of Joseph and Annie Davison. Before enlisting on May 3, 1916 as a gunner with the No. 7 Overseas Siege Battery Artillery in St. John, he was a theology student at Mount Allison.

Earle Davison explained that he had a group photo from the No. 7 Siege Battery and wondered why, as he had only known his uncle to be in the 6th Siege Battery.  This was explained by a series of changes in designation.  ‘No. 7 “Overseas” Battery Siege Artillery, CEF’ was re-designated as ‘167th (Canadian) Siege Battery’ on 10 June 1916, and as ‘No. 6 Canadian Siege Battery, CEF’ on 24 January 1917. (For more information, see https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/military-history/history-heritage/official-military-history-lineages/lineages/artillery-regiments/3rd-field-artillery-regiment.html)

CIMG4792 Oct 28 2020 Pieter & Earl Davison with group photo No 7 Siege Battery

Earle Davison shows Pieter the group photo of the No 7 Siege Battery that was taken May 23, 1916.  (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

From St. John, Davison was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  With his Battery he left for Britain on September 18, 1916, arriving in Bristol on September 26, 1916.  A day later they were in France to provide siege artillery support as part of the 2nd Brigade, CGA, CEF in France and Flanders until the end of the war.  (NOTE: CGA refers to Canadian Garrison Artillery, and CEF refers to Canadian Expeditionary Force.)

On September 18, 1918, he was wounded in an early afternoon bombardment while they were in the area of Villers-lès-Cagnicourt, 24.1 km southeast of Arras.  A letter written by Fred KILLEN of St. John to Davison’s father on September 19, 1918 from France explained what happened to his friend, known as ‘Davy’: … There were five of us went up to the forward section to run the telephone exchange. There was Davy, Fowler, Simpson, Bomb Yeomans, and myself….”  The additional men mentioned in Killen’s letter were H. E. FOWLER of St. John, H. L. SIMPSON of Springhill, and H. L. YEOMANS of St. John.

Killen then explained that “…Davy, Fowler, Simpson, and I all lived together like 4 brothers. We always had a dugout of our own and got along well.  But we all went forward to do our exchange work under Bomb Yeomans. We had been up there for about 6 days and we were going to be relieved the next morning….

While waiting to be relieved they had a bit of time to relax, as Killen wrote “.… on the afternoon of the casualties we were all playing crib at the time….” Crib refers to the game of cribbage.

Then the shelling by the Germans, referred to as Fritz by Killen, began.  “…Fritz started to put a few shells around. The first one went about 100 yards from us.  We did not mind it.  About five minutes later another one came and lit about 20 yards behind us….

At first the men thought they were under a gas attack.  “… It did not make much noise when it exploded and we all thought it was gas. So we started to look for our gas masks.  The place was small and it was pretty well crowded when we all got in there.  Fowler handed me mine and I got outside the door to look at the explosion of the last one…. when all of a sudden I heard an explosion and jumped clear of the dugout…

Killen was the only one outside at the time of the third explosion.  “… The other four were inside at the time, and Davy got a slight wound in the side of the head, Fowler got it in the back, and Yeomans got it in the leg and hand and a bruised shoulder, and Simpson got a few burns about his face. I fell as soon as I jumped and when I got up I saw Davy and Yeomans running….

Killen relates what happened next.  “…We dressed them up and sent them all to a Field Ambulance. They told us then they were all right and need not to worry.  They are all clean cuts and they should all make Blighty on them….”  Blighty referred to being sent back to England.

No 22 General Hopsital Camiers

Glass lantern slide of interior of ward at No. 22 General Hospital, Camiers. (Source: Photographer unknown, “Interior of ward at No. 22 General Hospital” OnView: Digital Collections & Exhibits, https://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/items/show/17961)

It seems clear that no one was aware that the injury to Davison would prove fatal, as he was treated for a gunshot wound at a field hospital, No. 22 General Hospital in Camiers, France.  He was not sent to England.  “… Davy was in the best of spirits after he was hit, although it was paining him a bit.  But he stuck it well. I will only be too glad to let you know of any further particulars that we receive here.  But likely you will hear from Davy yourself. But I thought I would drop you these few lines so as you won’t worry too much about him as I know how Mothers and Fathers worry about their boys.  Hoping you have received good news by the time this letter reaches you. And hoping he will recover soon…

On September 23, 1918 Davison’s service record recorded him as being ‘dangerously ill’ and on October 5, 1918 he ‘died of wounds’.  He was buried in Étaples, France. This is located near Boulogne on the north-west coast of France.

Earle Davison noted that of the men in the 6th Siege Battery killed in action, his uncle was the only Islander. The other men who were wounded with him on September 18, 1918 survived the war.

Among the mementos in the chocolate box were photos and a pipe.  One of the photos was of a group of men, likely taken in France. The back of the photo had most of the men thoughtfully identified!

CIMG4821 group photo

Photo of men from the 6th Siege Battery, identified as 1: D. Daley (killed in action), 2: Sgt W. A. McLaggan, 3: Sgt unknown, 4: Gunner E. O. Jennings, 5: Gunner R. A. Redmond, 6: Gunner William Earle Davison. Photo courtesy of Earle Davison & Family.

Thank you to Earle and Irene Davison for sharing information about Earle’s uncle, William Earle Davison, and how they ensure his memory is never forgotten.  If you have information to share about him, or any of the other men mentioned, please contact Pieter at dariadv@yahoo.ca or comment on the blog.

© Daria Valkenburg