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Silent Night: The Christmas Truce of WWI


December 30, 2015
Gar Smith / Environmentalist Against War & John McCutcheon & Ron Paul / The Ron Paul Institute for Peace & Prosperity

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."

Environmentalists Against War

Christmas in the Trenches -- written and performed by John McCutcheon


Silent Night: The Christmas Truce of WWI
Gar Smith / Environmentalist Against War

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.


(December 31, 2013) -- 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 Jargs' 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 Noel 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 Fideles'. 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.



The Real Meaning of the 1914 Christmas Truce
Ron Paul / The Ron Paul Institute for Peace & Prosperity & AntiWar.com

(December 28, 2014) -- One hundred years ago last week, on Christmas Eve, 1914, German and British soldiers emerged from the horrors of World War One trench warfare to greet each other, exchange food and gifts, and to wish each other a Merry Christmas. What we remember now as the "Christmas Truce" began with soldiers singing Christmas carols together from in the trenches.

Eventually the two sides climbed out of the trenches and met in person. In the course of this two day truce, which lasted until December 26, 1914, the two sides also exchanged prisoners, buried their dead, and even played soccer with each other.

How amazing to think that the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace could bring a brief pause in one of the most destructive wars in history. How sad that it was not to last.
The Christmas Truce showed that given the choice, people do not want to be out fighting and killing each other.

It is incredibly damaging to most participants in war to face the task of killing their fellow man. That is one reason we see today an epidemic of PTSD and suicides among US soldiers sent overseas on multiple deployments.

The Christmas Truce in 1914 was joyous for the soldiers, but it was dangerous for the political leadership on both sides. Such fraternization with the "enemy" could not be tolerated by the war-makers.

Never again was the Christmas Truce repeated on such a scale, as the governments of both sides explicitly prohibited any repeat of such a meeting. Those who had been greeting each other had to go back to killing each other on orders from those well out of harm’s way.

As much as governments would like to stamp out such humanization of the "enemy," it is still the case today that soldiers on the ground will meet and share thoughts with those they are meant to be killing.

Earlier this month, soldiers from opposing sides of the Ukraine civil war met in eastern Ukraine to facilitate the transfer of supplies and the rotation of troops. They shook hands and wished that the war would be over.

One army battalion commander was quoted as saying at the meeting, "I think it's a war between brothers that nobody wants. The top brass should sort things out. And us? We are soldiers, we do what we're told."

I am sure these same sentiments exist in many of the ongoing conflicts that are pushed by the governments involved -- and in many cases by third party governments seeking to benefit from the conflict.

The encouraging message we should take from the Christmas Truce of 100 years ago is that given the opportunity, most humans do not wish to kill each other. As Nazi leader Hermann Goring said during the Nuremberg war crimes trials, "naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany."

But, as he added, "the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

The Ron Paul Institute for Peace & Prosperity

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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