CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES
“Christmas in the Trenches” is a ballad from John McCutcheon’s 1984 Album Winter Solstice. It tells the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce between the British and German lines on the Western Front during the Great War from the perspective of a fictional British soldier. Although Francis Tolliver is a fictional character, the event depicted in the ballad is true. John McCutcheon met some of the German soldiers involved in this Christmas story when he toured in Denmark.
The ballad is a first person narrative by Francis Tolliver, a fictional British soldier from Liverpool. He is relating the events that happened two years prior, while he was a soldier in the trenches of the Great War. He and his fellow soldiers are dug in to their trench, where, as Tolliver relates, “the frost so bitter hung,” while their German enemies occupy the trench at the opposite end of No Man’s Land. The scene is one of quiet and cold; “the frozen fields of France were still; no songs of peace were sung.” The men are reflecting on how their families back in England are making “their brave and glorious lads so far away” the subject of their Christmas toasts, when from the German lines they suddenly hear a young German voice singing out clearly. He is soon joined by his comrades, and the sound of their carol fills the empty fields devastated by war. When they finish, some of the British soldiers from Kent sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” after which the Germans sing “Stille Nacht.” The British soldiers accompany them, singing in English, “and in two tongues one song filled up the sky.” The British troops are startled when their front line sentry cries out that a lone German figure has left their trench and is marching alone across No Man’s Land, unarmed and with a truce flag. Though all of the men aim their rifles at him, nobody fires, and soon all of the men on both sides are leaving their trenches and meeting their enemies unarmed in No Man’s Land. There, they trade chocolate and cigarettes and exchange photographs of their families back home, at which all of the men are struck by how similar their enemy is to themselves. One of the Germans plays his violin while a British soldier plays his squeezebox, and the men launch flares to light up the field in order to play a game of football. Later, with the first signs of daylight, Tolliver relates that “France was France once more; With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.” But, McCutcheon sings, “the question haunted every man who lived that wondrous night; ‘whose family have I fixed within my sight?'” It ends with the fictional Tolliver’s lessons gleaned from the experience; 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.”
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 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 coming 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 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 squeeze box 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 began 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 for evermore.
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.