Christmas in the Trenches

December 24th, 2010 - by admin

Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War – 2010-12-24 22:03:30

The EAW Website will be taking a break for the Holidays. We will return to full-time postings on January 1, 2011.

Although religion has been responsible for many wars and many deaths over the course of human history, there was one time when religion actually did bring “Peace on Earth.” That event, during WWI, is still known as “The Christmas Miracle.”
Happy Holidays.

The Christmas Truce
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

On a cold December night, songwriter John McCutcheon slowly approached a microphone at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage and announced a special song. Those who knew the song grew silent. Those who heard it for the first time were soon nodding their heads in quiet affirmation. Some wept.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.

Two years ago, the war was waiting for me after school.

To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here,

I fought for King and country I love dear.

McCutcheon’s wrenching ballad, “Christmas in the Trenches,” celebrates a nearly forgotten incident from WW I — the “Christmas Miracle.”

It was Christmas Eve, 1914. After four months of fighting, more than a million men had perished in bloody conflict. The bodies of dead soldiers were scattered between the trenches of Europe, frozen in the snow. Belgian, German, French, British and Canadian troops were dug-in so close that they could easily exchange shouts.

Lt. Kurt Zehmisch, a German soldier who had been a schoolteacher in Leipzig, blew a two-fingered whistle toward the British trenches. To the delight of Zehmisch’s Saxon regiment, the Brits whistled back. Some of the Germans who had worked in England before the war shouted greetings across the battlefield in English.

On the Allied side, the Brits watched in amazement as candle-lit Christmas trees began to appear atop German trenches. The glowing trees soon appeared along the length of the German front.

Henry Williamson, a young soldier with the London Regiment wrote in his diary: “From the German parapet, a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a song I remembered my German nurse singing to me…. The grave and tender voice rose out of the frozen mist. It was all so strange… like being in another world — to which one had come through a nightmare.”

The cannon rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more,

As Christmas brought us respite from the war….

“They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate,” another British soldier wrote, “So we sang The First Noël and when we finished, they all began clapping. And they struck up O Tannebaum and on it went… until we started up O Come All Ye Faithful [and] the Germans immediately joined in …. this was really a most extraordinary thing — two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

“There’s someone coming towards us!” the front-line sentry cried.

All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.

His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright

As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.

Soldiers rose from their trenches and greeted each other in No Man’s Land. They wished each other a Merry Christmas and agreed not to fire their rifles the next day. The spontaneous cease-fire eventually embraced the entire 500-mile stretch of the Western Front, from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. On Christmas day, more than a million soldiers put down their guns, left their trenches and celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace among the bodies of their dead.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land.

With neither gun nor bayonet, we met there hand to hand.

The soldiers exchanged handshakes and food. Some cut badges and buttons from their uniforms to exchange. Others shared prized photos of wives and children. Many exchanged addresses and promised to write after the war ended.

The German troops rolled out barrels of dark beer and the men from Liverpool and London reciprocated with offerings of British plum pudding. Some soldiers produced soccer balls, while others fashioned balls from sacks of bundled straw and empty jam boxes. Belgians, French, Britons and Germans kicked their way across the icy fields for hours as fellow soldiers shouted encouragement.

Officers on both sides, aghast at the spectacle of peace breaking out between the lower ranks, exploded with shouts of “treason” and threats of courts martial. Their threats were ignored.

Along some stretches of the Front, the truce lasted several weeks. But, slowly, under threats from their officers, the troops returned to the trenches and rifles once more began to bark. (But many soldiers aimed so their bullets flew well above the heads of the “enemy.”)

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.

With sad farewells, we each prepared to settle back to war.

But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night:

“Whose family have I fixed within my sight?”

WW I lasted another two years. In that time, another 4.4 million men would die — an average of 6,000 each day. In all, 8.5 million soldiers perished.

It’s Christmas Eve and John McCutcheon’s voice echoes in the room:

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.

Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lesson well:

That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame,

And on each end of the rifle, we’re the same.

Lyrics © John McCutcheon/Appleseed Music. Reprinted by permission.

John McCutcheon has recorded 30 albums and has received five Grammy nominations. “Christmas in the Trenches” appears on his 1984 album, “Winter Solstice.” McCutcheon’s website is www.folkmusic.com.

Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.


Christmas in the Trenches

THIS SONG is based on a true story from the frontlines of World War I France. Ian Calhoun, a Scot, was the commanding officer of the British forces involved in the story. He was subsequently court-martialed for “consorting with the enemy” and sentenced to death. Only George V spared him from that fate.
— John McCutcheon

My name is Francis Toliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago, the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany, to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.

‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day:
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.

“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more,
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was Stille Nacht, “‘Tis Silent Night, says I.
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

“There’s someone coming towards us!” the front-line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land.
With neither gun nor bayonet, we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ’em hell.

We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home.
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeeze-box and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells, we each prepared to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night:
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”

‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

My name is Francis Toliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well:
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

Words & Music by John McCutcheon.
© 1984 by John McCutcheon / Appalsong