Saturday, January 03, 2009

Christmas in the Trenches

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

~ John McCutcheon

Men of the London Rifle Brigade meet the enemy in no man's land, Christmas Day, 1914 - the Christmas truce between German and British soldiers. 


Willow’s blog post today centers on story of Christmas Eve of 1914. That story has haunted me ever since I first heard it some 40 or so years ago. That war could stop—enemies come together in No Man’s Land—play soccer—join their voices in Christmas carols—is amazing. The saddest part of the story (other than they began killing one another, of course) is that the Allies high command issued an order before Christmas 1915 that any solder observed trying to contact or fraternize with Germans was to be immediately executed.

Christmas in the Trenches

[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


  1. I think that is one of the saddest poems, but it also shows that the ordinary soldier didn't want to fight but was ordered to by the greedy generals and governments...they just became cannon fodder to appease over inflated egos.

    Sorry, Nick, I loathe war and I get carried away having lost family members in conflict. That poem proves that there could be peace in the world, though, don't you think?

  2. Puss-in-Boots : Thank you, Robyn. I totally agree. To me, the Christmas Truce was but a very, very small light in the overwhelming darkness of World War I. And since then I don’t believe that there has been even such a very, very small light in the evil of war.

    There is another song/poem about the First World War entitled The Green Fields of France, also know as No Man’s Land that I have previously posted. It’s ending lines speak as persuasively against war as does Christmas in the Trenches :

    And I can't help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
    Do all those who lie here know why they died?
    Did you really believe them when they told you "The Cause?"
    Did you really believe that this war would end wars?

    Well the suffering, the sorrow, the gory, the shame
    The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
    For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
    And again, and again, and again, and again.

    My prayer remains that someday war will not happen again.

  3. You have left me pert near speechless with this post Nick. It stirs so many emotions especially this time of year. Our middle son Alex (great name YES!) was so fond of that song at a very young age. We got to see John McCutheon on a hot summer night, on a village green in Leesburg, Virginia. Our Alex made a special request to hear that song, and John M granted that wish! The connections and links woven here in blogland continue to amaze me. Thank you for touching our hearts again today. Guess I did OK for almost being speechless :)
    Sending Peace * Love * Light To All oxo

  4. I do keep imagining, Nick.
    Your blog posts always give me pause.
    Sad and haunting this is.....and yet I know we can achieve peace. I have to believe it.

    I just noticed The Zen Teaching of Jesus in your sidebar. That looks fascinating.

    Happy New Year. May God's blessings be yours.