Last December, songwriter John McCutcheon (the man the Oakland Tribune calls “the Bruce Springsteen of folk music”) slowly approached a microphone at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage and announced a special song. Those who knew the song grew silent. Those who heard it for the first time were soon nodding their heads in quiet affirmation. Some wept.
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.
McCutcheon’s wrenching ballad, “Christmas in the Trenches,” celebrates a nearly forgotten incident from WW I—the “Christmas Miracle.”
It was Christmas Eve, 1914. After 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. Belgian, German, French, British and Canadian troops were dug-in so close that they could easily exchange shouts.
Lt. Kurt Zehmisch, a German soldier who had been a schoolteacher in Leipzig, blew a two-fingered whistle toward the British trenches. 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 Brits 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....
“They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate,” 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 .... 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 trenches and greeted each other in No Man’s Land. They wished each other a Merry Christmas and agreed not to fire their rifles the next day. 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.
The soldiers exchanged handshakes and food. Some cut badges and buttons from their uniforms to exchange. Others shared prized photos of wives and children. Many exchanged addresses and promised to write after the war ended.
The 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 fashioned balls from sacks of bundled straw and empty jam boxes. Belgians, French, Britons 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, exploded with shouts of “treason” and threats of courts martial. Their threats were ignored.
Along some stretches of the Front, the truce lasted 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 aimed so 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. In all, 8.5 million soldiers perished.
It’s Christmas Eve and John McCutcheon’s voice echoes in the room:
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.
John McCutcheon has recorded 30 albums and has received five Grammy nominations. “Christmas in the Trenches” appears on his 1984 album, “Winter Solstice.” McCutcheon’s website is http://www.folkmusic.com. © John McCutcheon/Appleseed Music. Reprinted by permission.
Gar Smith is associate editor of Common Ground magazine, where a version of this essay first appeared.