One christmas past I was listening to christmas music on the radio. There were the usually well loved hynms and old standards. When all of a sudden a song came up about a most particular event that happened during the great war to end all wars. This beautiful song really struck me as a song that truly illustrates the true meaning and spirit of christmas more than any other song I have heard. The song was written bt John McCutcheon in 1984 and is called "The Christmas Truce"; about a truce on the western front during the first yule time of the war.
The First World War can be considered one of the most terrible in history. The full industrial might of the European powers were used against each other, with horrific results. A generation of young men were lost due to the terrible effects of the machine gun, quick firing artillery, and gas. The dominant feature of this war was the trench. Due to these new terrible weapons, the men had to dig a series of trenches to protect themselves. In western Europe the trench line ran from Switzerland north to the english channel. These trenches were mainly glorified ditches which were filled with water and crawling with rats. The troops had to endure living in these ditches for 4 bloody years. Also the effect of modern arillery turned the green fields of France and Belgium into lifless moonscapes full of unburied corpses and mud. All these elements added together made this war literally hell on earth.
Out of this terrible war of blood and mud, there were some stories of the intrisic goodness of mankind and hope. In the first year of the war, the intial battles were fought over wide open fields with fast moving armies, but already the troops began to take note of the terrible killing power of modern weapons. So as a result by that winter they have already began to seek refuge in trenches, which would be the main tactical element forthe rest of the war.
This spontaneous christmas truce; mainly happened in the British sector of the Ypres salient, which was basically a bulge into the Germans lines. According to eryewitness accounts, mainly British ones. On the night of December 25, there was all kinds of noise and movement along the German trench lines. Germans were standing up in their trenches with no free of getting shot and christmas trees with candles were being put up over the parapet. Also they could hear the beautiful German hymn "Stille Nacht, Heilge Nacht" (Silent Night, Holy Night) wafting over from the Fritz's lines, the brits replied with some of their traditional carols and songs. Soon men from both sides were seen moving out into no-man's land towards each others's trenches. In some sectors notes of peace and good tidings were tied around rocks or grenades and tossed at the enemy's trenches. Soon caution gave way to the spirit of the night and the trenches began to empty of men and they began to meet as comrades in no-man's- land. There they exchanged food and drink, tobacco, talked and sang, and in one report there was a friendlly football game between the Brits and germans, illuminated by flares. Some of the men also exchanged home address so they could write to each other after the war. They also showed pictures of loved ones to each other and talked of their homes and families.
The truce went on for a few more days, until the higher ups began to find out about this unauthorised fraternisation and forbide them from meeting each other. You can not win a war by humanizing the enemy, lets get back to the great old european tradition of butchering each other, for king and kaiser and all that. The next christmas of 1915 orders were given so as not to have a repeat and artillery barrages were ordered on the nights around christmas.
There was a telling incident in the sector occupied by the London Scottish during this event. They were across the way from a saxon regiment and it seems that they got on famously. It seems that the Saxons were expecting some staff officers to show up around midnight on one of the days of the truce. So they seen a message to the Scots tellingt them that around midnight on that particular night they would be firing their machine gfuns to impresss these higher ups. They added in thier message that they would be firing high above thier heads so as not to hit anyone, nice chaps what?
You must think the old pryvett is getting soft in the head, but no. I have always loved this song and I just found the lyrices to it and i always wanted to share it with other people. It gives one hope in the intrisic goodness of us all, that there is a chance that we may someday get our act together and come together as one, and get on making this world truly a better place. I know I am starting to sound like John Lennon, but just imagine. If these fellows who were just hours before were trying to literally rip each others guts out can come together in such warmth and fellowship, I think there is hope for us.
Also this great event has me asking What if? What if this truce spread along the lines and everyone realizes the that we are all the same underneath with mothers, fathers,brothers, sisters, wifes, and children and they dropped there arms and went home. That they told all the kings, princes, prime ministers, and generals to get stuffed and fight their own war, would history be different. would the 20th centuary be one of the bloodest in history? Would World War I be truly the war to end all wars: I don't know, but the question does haunt me. Speaking of families one of the ironic facts of this war was most of the european royal families were related. They were all connected by Queen Victoria of great Britian whoes children married into the royal houses of Europe. The German Kaiser was her grandson. What a family squabble, too bad they could not keep it behind closed doors, and not drag millions of others into it.
Well below is the lyrices to this great song. One small quibble I have with the song is the authors makes reference to gas in it. The problem with that is gas was not used on the western front until the second battle of Ypres in april of 1915. Well It is used to good efect, because gas is one of the terrible iconic weapons of this war and he makes an artistic point with it.
Christmas in the Trenches
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.
'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 toward us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown 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 we 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 squeezebox 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 wonderous 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 Tolliver, 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
© 1984 John McCutcheon - All rights reserved
Here is a link to a video fo the song with John McCutheon;