On Christmas Day, 1914, only 5 months into World War I, German, British, and French soldiers, already sick and tired of the senseless killing, disobeyed their superiors and fraternized with "the enemy" along two-thirds of the Western Front (in times of war, a crime punishable by death). German troops held Christmas trees up out of the trenches with signs, "Merry Christmas." "You no shoot, we no shoot." Thousands of troops streamed across a no-man's land strewn with rotting corpses. They sang Christmas carols, exchanged photographs of loved ones back home, shared rations, played football, even roasted some pigs. Soldiers embraced men they had been trying to kill a few short hours before. They agreed to warn each other if the top brass forced them to fire their weapons, and to aim high.
A shudder ran through the high command on either side. Here was disaster in the making: soldiers declaring their brotherhood with each other and refusing to fight. Generals on both sides declared this spontaneous peacemaking to be treasonous and subject to court martial. By March, 1915 the fraternization movement had been eradicated and the killing machine put back in full operation. By the time of the armistice in 1918, fifteen million would be slaughtered.
Not many people have heard the story of the Christmas Truce. Military leaders have not gone out of their way to publicize it. On Christmas Day, 1988, a story in the Boston Globe mentioned that a local FM radiohost played "Christmas in the Trenches," a ballad about the Christmas Truce, several times and was startled by the effect. The song [given below] became the most requested recording during the holidays in Boston on several FM stations.
"Even more startling than the number of requests I get is the reaction to the ballad afterward by callers who hadn't heard it before," said the radiohost. "They telephone me deeply moved, sometimes in tears, asking, `What the hell did I just hear?'"
I think I know why the callers were in tears. The Christmas Truce story goes against most of what we have been taught about people. It gives us a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be and says, "This really happened once." It reminds us of those thoughts we keep hidden away, out of range of the TV and newspaper stories that tell us how trivial and mean human life is. It is like hearing that our deepest wishes really are true: the world really could be different.
Excerpted from David G. Stratman, We CAN Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life (New Democracy Books, 1991). Available for $3.00 from New Democracy Books, P.O. Box 427, Boston, MA 02130.
Christmas in The Trenches
Words & Music by John McCutcheon
c. 1984 John McCutcheon / Appalsong
This song is based on a true story from the front lines of World War I France that I've heard many times. According to a recent source, 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 an 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 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 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.
Thank You Phil for sharing this. It gives some of us something to hope for. My family is among the lucky ones this year. My youngest brother will be home from Iraq on Christmas eve. But we still have many, many, young men and women over there. Doing thier duty to god and country. And proud to do so. Please everyone remember our men and women in service to our country. Weather you think the war is right or wrong. The fact is there are so many young people in the war. Fighting and dieing. Please keep them in your prayers and thoughts. In my family, we always set a extra place at the dinner table. It's a simbalic (sp?) gesture, as a welcome to weary travelers. Last Christmas My son (11) suggested that we should set 2 extra places. One for our traveler and one for a soldier.