Saturday, December 19, 2009

8 Days to Christmas

Since peace was my topic yesterday, I thought, I should repeat the thought for one more day. Peace can always do with a repeat. At least, in this day and age when peace seems to be so elusive.

This song is not only about peace, but about its possibility in the midst of war. The First World War was one of the most brutal wars of the last century, and was billed to be 'the war to end all wars.' It didn't quite end up that way, and the 20th Century ultimately became one of the bloodiest periods in human history. Peace, as we know, needs more than just signatures on papers but a change in the heart for it to be effective and long lasting.

This story is deeply inspiring and poignant at the same time. It was also made into a movie -- Joyeux Noel, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. While the film captured other elements and weaved various other subplots, the song, on the other hand, focuses solely on what actually took place on that Christmas eve.

In a few years time, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and it should make us ponder on how badly we have squandered the sacrifices of those many young men who fought that 'war to end ALL wars'. The armed forces all over the world comprises some of the bravest, patriotic and self-less men and women, and even though I am a pacifist, I believe they deserve our respect and honour. Their commitment demands not just their obedience but life as well.

This story - and the song - shows their human side, which we should never forget. I do wish, however, that civilian political leaderships would ponder long and hard over the sacrifices these soldiers have to make, and not simply rush to declare war to demonstrate misplaced machismo or even score brownie points at some negotiating table. The soldiers deserve better.

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.

©1984 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)


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