December 31, 2013 Gar Smith / Environmentalist Against War
Every December, songwriter John McCutcheon approaches a microphone and announces a special song. Those who know the song grow silent. Those hearing it for the first time are soon nodding their heads in quiet affirmation. Some find themselves weeping. McCuthcheon's soul-wrenching "Christmas in the Trenches," retells a nearly forgotten incident from WW I that people in Europe still remember as the "Christmas Miracle."
Christmas in the Trenches -- written and performed by John McCutcheon
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.
Last December, songwriter John McCutcheon (the man the Oakland Tribune calls "the Bruce Springsteen of folk music") approached a microphone at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage and announced a special song. Those who knew the song grew silent. Those who were hearing it for the first time were soon nodding their heads in quiet affirmation. Some were openly sobbing.
McCuthcheon's soul-wrenching ballad, "Christmas in the Trenches," retells a nearly forgotten incident from WW I that people in Europe still remember as the "Christmas Miracle."
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
It was Christmas Eve, 1914. After only 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. The battlefield had collapsed into a mud-mired frontline with Belgian, German, French, British and Canadian troops dug-in so close that they could easily exchange shouts.
Michael Jürgs' book, Der Kleine Frieden im Grossen Krieg (The Small Peace in the Big War), based on rediscovered battlefield diaries, recounts how Lt. Kurt Zehmisch, a schoolteacher from Leipzig, was one of the German soldiers who blew a two-fingered whistle toward the British trenches on Christmas Eve.
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 British troops 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….
The next they sang was Stille Nacht, "'Tis Silent Night!" says I.
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way," 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 singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fidéles. And I thought, well, 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 mud-drenched trenches. They greeted each other in No Man's Land, wished each other a merry Christmas and agreed not to fire their rifles the next day.
"Afterwards," Zehmisch wrote, "we placed even more candles than before on our kilometer-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination -- the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping… It was a wonderful, if somewhat cold, night."
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.
We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well….
The soldiers exchanged handshakes, salutes and gifts of food. Some cut badges and buttons from their uniforms to exchange. Others passed around prized photos of their wives and children. Many exchanged addresses and promised to write after the war ended.
On that Christmas day, no bullets flew. Rifles lay at rest as soldiers from both sides swapped cigarettes and stories. 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 improvised with balls fashioned from lumps of bundled straw or simply booted empty jam boxes. Belgians, French, Brits 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, responded with shouts of "treason" and threats of courts martial. But their threats were ignored. (One British officer, Ian Calhoun, a Scot, was subsequently court-martialed for "consorting with the enemy." Only the intervention of King George V saved him from the gallows.)
Along some stretches of the Western Front, the truce lasted for 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 took care that 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.
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.
Christmas in the Trenches
A tribute to our troops at Christmas and a memorial of the Christmas Truce of 1914. A project for Mr. Cutler's grade 6 class.
John McCutcheon has recorded 24 albums and has received five Grammy nominations. "Christmas in the Trenches" appears on his 1984 album, "Winter Solstice." McCutheon's website is www.folkmusic.com.
Lyrics (c) John McCutcheon/Applesong Music. Reprinted by permission.