Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas in the Trenches

I have posted here before about the amazing tale of the Christmas Truce of 1914.

And this Christmas day I thought it would be good to remind us all of that sentiment, as our own Troops occupy Afghanistan and Haiti.

Something grand of the solidarity and brotherhood of man despite being forced to aim the bosses guns at each other.

I just heard
John McCutcheon's wonderful song Christmas in the Trenches , from his Winter Solstice Album, on the radio so it inspired me to add this reminder of that amazing event. The link above for the album gives a short sample of the song.

It is one of two of my favorite anti-war songs, the other being And the Band Played Waltzing Matilida.

The Christmas truce of 1914 was early in the war, when everyone thought it would be over soon. Had the solidiers mutinied as their officers, on all sides, feared, the war would have been over. Unfortunately it lasted another four years. And was the source of the greatest Revolution of the 20th Century, when the Russian troops left the front and stormed the Winter Palace.

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

Last survivor of 'Christmas truce' tells of his sorrow

The First World War's horrors still move us but one man recalls his moment of peace amid the bloodshed

The words drifted across the frozen battlefield: 'Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht'. To the ears of the British troops peering over their trench, the lyrics may have been unfamiliar but the haunting tune was unmistakable. After the last note a lone German infantryman appeared holding a small tree glowing with light. 'Merry Christmas. We not shoot, you not shoot.'

It was just after dawn on a bitingly cold Christmas Day in 1914, 90 years ago on Saturday, and one of the most extraordinary incidents of the Great War was about to unfold.

Weary men climbed hesitantly at first out of trenches and stumbled into no man's land. They shook hands, sang carols, lit each other's cigarettes, swapped tunic buttons and addresses and, most famously, played football, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using their caps or steel helmets as goalposts. The unauthorised Christmas truce spread across much of the 500-mile Western Front where more than a million men were encamped.

Christmas Truce in the Trenches

By 1915 the war had expanded from the German French front to the Russian Turkish front. While Canadian and British troops fought in the trenches in France, Russians, Brits and Australians assaulted the Turks at Gallipoli.

It is this assault that inspired the movie, and inspired the song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle.

His website includes a his song and his explanation for writing it including an excellent audio recording of the whole song. He also wrote No Mans Land
(THE GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE), the version here is bilingual English and German, again in memory of the great Christmas Truce., and the recording is excellent.

Like Canada, Australia came of age in WWI. For the first time ever both colonial countries had our own officers. Unfortunately both of our countries also suffered the indignity of being colonial troops, canon fodder for the English ruling class officers. For Canadians it was Ypres and Vimy Ridge. For the Australians it was the murderous assault on Gallopoli.

Thus Bogles song of how the Austrlian Johnny, got his gun.
And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said, "Son,
It's time you stop ramblin', there's work to be done."
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
As the ship pulled away from the quay,
And amidst all the cheers, the flag waving, and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.
And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water;
And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk, he was waitin', he primed himself well;
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell --
And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell,
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.
But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
When we stopped to bury our slain,
Well, we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.
And those that were left, well, we tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead --
Never knew there was worse things than dying.
For I'll go no more "Waltzing Matilda,"
All around the green bush far and free --
To hump tents and pegs, a man needs both legs,
No more "Waltzing Matilda" for me.
So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,
And they shipped us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship sailed into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve, to mourn and to pity.
But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
As they carried us down the gangway,
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
Then they turned all their faces away.
And so now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory,
And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask meself the same question.
But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong,
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?

The great Wobbly poet and song writer Joe Hill wrote this poignant Anti War song in 1915, as the IWW denounced the War and were thrown in jail for sedition.

As the War Amps say; Never Again.

They are one of the few Veterans associations that is Anti-War. And one of the few to recgonize the unsung heros of the Spanish Civil War, the Canadian Veterans of the International Brigades. They have sponsored an album of Anti-War Songs including these above sung by the great Canadian tenor John McDermot.

The Green Fields of France

(Performed by John McDermott)

Well how do you do, young Willie McBride, do you
mind if I sit here down by your graveside. And rest for a
while 'neath the warm summer sun. I've been walking all day and
I'm nearly done. I see by your gravestone you were
only nineteen when you joined the great fallen in nineteen-sixteen.
I hope you died well and I hope you died
clean. Or young Willie McBride, was it slow and unseen.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly,
did they sound the dead-march as they lowered you down.
Did the band play the Last post and chorus.
Did the pipes play the 'Flowers of the forest'.

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined
Although you died back in nineteen sixteen
In that faithful heart are you forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Enclosed then forever behind the glass frame
In a old photograph, torn, battered and stained
And fade to yellow in a brown leather frame.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly,
did they sound the dead-march as they lowered you down.
Did the band play the Last post and chorus.
Did the pipes play the 'Flowers of the forest'.

The sun now it shines on the green fields of France
There's a warm summer breeze. it makes the red poppies dance
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There's no gas, no barbed wire, there's no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard it's still no-man's-land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly,
did they sound the dead-march as they lowered you down.
Did the band play the Last post and chorus.
Did the pipes play the 'Flowers of the forest'.

I am Willie McBride I can't help but wonder why
Did all those who lie here know why did they die
And did they believe when they answered the call
Did they really believe that this war would end war
For the sorrows, the suffering, the glory. the pain
The killing and dying was all done in vain
For young Willie McBride it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Merry Christmas!

Make War No More!


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