Words & Music by John McCutcheon, c. 1984, John McCutcheon / Appalsong
This song is based on a true story from the front lines of World War I that I’ve heard many times. Ian Calhoun, a Scot, was the commanding officer of the British forces involved in the story shown above. He was subsequently court-martialed for ‘consorting with the enemy’ and sentenced to death. Only George V spared him from that fate.
My name is Francis Toliver, 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 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.
Then 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 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 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 forevermore.
My name is Francis Toliver, 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.
Listen to the song above performed online here:
Read the story from which this song was written, also here at The Christmas Truce