STEPHEN E. SMITH: World War I Tale Retold by Songwriter
Last year, the cover art on an issue of The New Yorker depicted an American soldier in T-shirt, camouflage pants, and combat boots, sitting on a pipe bunk, reading a Christmas card.
On the mud hut wall beside him he's marked off each day he's spent in Iraq or Afghanistan, his tabulation forming a Christmas tree. He's staring at the card with a mixture of longing and bemusement.
It's Christmas and again American service men and women are far from home serving in wars.
My thoughts go out to them and to their families and friends this season. I wish they were here to enjoy the holidays with us.
"Christmas in the Trenches" is by John McCutcheon, a singer-songwriter who recently performed in Southern Pines.
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 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 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
Stephen E. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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