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A song to end all wars

John McCutcheon remembers "Christmas in the Trenches"

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Tjaden reappears. He is still quite excited and again joins the conversation, wondering just how a war gets started.

“Mostly by one country badly offending another,” answers Albert with a slight air of superiority.

The Tjaden pretends to be obtuse. “A country? I don’t follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.”

“Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg?” growls Kropp, “I don’t mean that at all. One people offends the other—”

“Then I haven’t any business here at all,” replies Tjaden. “I don’t feel myself offended.”
—From All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

There are anti-war books and then there are anti-war books. There are anti-war songs and then there are anti-war songs. Not to devalue the admirable sentiment that steers even the most clichéd of them, but let’s face it: pretty much anybody can pick up a guitar, rhyme “war” with “[no] more” and “dying” with “lying” and call it an anti-war song. But not everyone writes a “Sloth” like Fairport Convention or a “With God on Our Side” like Bob Dylan or an “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” like Country Joe and the Fish. Or, for that matter, a metallic elegy like Metallica’s “One,” inspired by the armless, legless, sightless, helpless protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Some might even argue that all subsequent anti-war songs were rendered redundant after Edwin Starr got right to the point with such no-dicking-around authority in his ’70s soul stomper, simply titled “War”: “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” He’ll say it again, too.

Anti-war songs have a kind of evergreen topicality, even if a particular conflict or war in general is alluded to only obliquely in otherwise “personal” lyrics. It’s also no coincidence that a lot of them strike a note of impotence and helplessness even while they’re intended to inspire and empower. After all, the people who sing them in coffeeshops and the people who listen generally don’t count themselves among the powers-that-be—rather among the powers-that-should-be: the people. They’re usually preaching to the choir.

Still, rare is the anti-war song that derives its dramatic animus from a specific event within a war. Which makes John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” something truly special, and all the more so because McCutcheon’s song (available on the 1989 Rounder Records release, Water from Another Time) deals with an unusual outbreak of peace within a war. Through its musical protagonist, a Liverpudlian soldier named Francis Tolliver, “Christmas in the Trenches” follows the events leading up to a spontaneous Christmas cease-fire observed by British and German soldiers during World War I. It starts like this:

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 songs were sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

The song is based on actual events that took place in Decembers 1914 and 1915, the first two holiday seasons of the war. On Christmas Eve in 1914, French, British and German soldiers on either side of the Western Front put down their weapons to talk, sing together and exchange souvenirs. The second of the Christmas truces, in 1915, was even more remarkable. Bertie Felstead, the last surviving British veteran to take part in the truce recalled before his death in 2001 how the 1915 cease-fire began in his sector of the front with German soldiers unexpectedly breaking into “All Through the Night,” a beloved Welsh tune. Felstead’s regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, responded with “Good King Wenceslas,” and then both sides joined in singing “Silent Night,” in two different languages, their voices drifting out of the trenches to mingle in No Man’s Land. On Christmas morning, the two sides approached each other warily between the trenches to talk, exchange gifts and barter for souvenirs. There was even an impromptu soccer game—although, as Felstead recalled several decades later, “It wasn’t a game as such—more of a kick-around and free-for-all. There could have been fifty on each side for all I know. No one was keeping score.”

The cease-fire in Felstead’s sector ended when a British NCO broke up the game, angrily remonstrating the men to the effect that they “came out to fight the Huns, not make friends with them.” The 1915 truce would prove to be the last of the war, which dragged on for two more Christmases and millions more bodies on both sides. As the “war to end all wars” changed the nature of conflict, it also changed the nature of peace. Impromptu truces between combatants are not unheard-of since WWI, but none of them illustrate as remarkably as the 1915 Christmas truce the willingness—perhaps even eagerness—of fighting men to simply leave it aside for awhile. Incidentally, another British soldier at the time emphatically stated that once the cease-fire was over it was right back to business. “Not for a moment,” Bruce Bairnsfather explained, “was the will to win the war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.”

Through the eyes of Francis Tolliver, McCutcheon’s spare acoustic “Christmas in the Trenches” recounts many of the real-life events of the 1915 truce. Somewhat inaccurately, but as faithfully as you can fairly expect from a songwriter willing to take on the death-defying topical sestina of retelling historical events in a song without making it way too top-heavy. It’s a wonderful, wonderful song, all the more so because it assumes such a burden of absorbing history into lyric without becoming either too maudlin or, at the other extreme, too matter-of-fact about it:

I was lying with my mess-mate 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 rang out so clear.

“He’s singin’ 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 the 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.

McCutcheon holds off on opening up with the big anti-war guns, as it were, until the very end of the song, a clever reprise of Francis Tolliver’s introduction of himself in the first verse:

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.

Now that’s an anti-war song. From All Quiet on the Western Front:

“Then I can be going home right away,” retorts Tjaden, and we all laugh.

“Ach, man! he means the people as a whole, the State—” exclaims Müller.

“State, State”—Tjaden snaps his fingers contemptuously, “Gendarmes, police, taxes, that’s your State;—if that’s what you are talking about, no, thank you.”

“That’s right,” says Kat, “You’ve said something for once, Tjaden. State and home-country, there’s a big difference.”

“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home country.”

“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about us any more than we were.”

“Then what exactly is a war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.

“Not you, nor anybody else here.”

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