Monday, December 25, 2017

As We Enter The 100th Anniversary Of The Last Year Of World War I- Francis Tolliver’s “Christmas In The Trenches”-A Comment

As We Enter The 100th Anniversary Of The Last Year Of World War I- Francis Tolliver’s “Christmas In The Trenches”-A Comment

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
It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen field 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 lyin' with my mess-mates 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 singin' bloddy 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 cloud rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war
As soon as they were finished 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 toungues one song filled up that sky
"There's someone commin' 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-mans-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 photgraphs 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 wonderous night
"whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
It was 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 ever more
My name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War One I've learned it's 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

-- John McCutcheon "Christmas in the trenches

By Alex Radley
Jim Anderson’s great-grandfather whom Jim just barely knew before he passed away was very proud of his military service in World War I with what he always called Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force. And for a long time, certainly as long as he lived Jim was on his knee proud too. Jim’s grandfather in his turn was proud, quietly proud not speaking much about his experiences in the Pacific war part of World War II as was common among that generation according to Jim’s father who told him very little when he questioned his father about the medals that were tucked in a family chest covered in a heavy clothe jacket. Jim’s father in his turn, also quiet about the specific of his service in Vietnam, would say that overall whatever the “damn,” his word when he mentioned that war, purpose of fighting that war was which still eluded him that he was proud of his service. But Jim remembered distinctly nights when he would hear his father being consoled by his mother when he woke up screaming with what must have been nightmares although like Jim said not much was spoken about the matter. And Jim for a long time, having no reason to doubt it, held all of this family pride in his person. As much as a person who did not serve could. Then his generation’s war, the Iraq war of 2003 came and although Jim had no inclination to join up to fight what his grandfather called “the heathens” he did have to think, or better rethink some stuff about war, and guts and glory, and about the horrible waste.              

All of this was aided by his then girlfriend, Susan, whom he called Susan of the Flowers since she had that retro-something out of the 1960s hippie look, and who was now his wife who was fervently against the Iraq war build-up and dragged him  along with her when they were students at Michigan. Peace, really pacifism, came easily to Susan since she had been brought up a Friend, a Quaker, although she was “lapsed” if you can be in such a society unlike Jim’s own Catholicism where he would make people laugh (not his parents though) by saying being lapsed was almost a sign of grace. Jim remembered the first time that she gave him a copy of Christmas in the Trenches he was shocked, great-grandfather- derived shocked that enemy soldiers, close quarter combatants  would call their own short haul “truce” in that World War I that he had been so proud of. That got Jim looking into the matter more closely especially when after all the protesting they had done (along with millions of others throughout the world) in the build-up to the Iraq War Bush II went ahead and blew the place apart for what turned out to be no reason at all. “Fake information” in today’s fevered newsprint world.        

World War I was an important watershed in the history of war because with the strategy of trench warfare on the ground killing would be done for the first time on an industrial scale (although for its day, especially at Cold Harbor, the American Civil War would give a gruesome preview of what was to come when things got out of hand. What had started out as something of a “jolly little show” quickly over by Christmas 1914 assumed by all sides including organizations like the international social democracy which had clamored for a decade or more before the guns started firing but who bowed to the nationalist fervor of their respective countries when the first shots rang out. And so Christmas in the trenches, several Christmases as it turned out. So that little soldierly truce story which  Susan would keep bringing to his attention each year when he needed an example of a small break from the madness down at the base, down where the guys fought the “damn” thing (this “damn” Jim’s).

After having completely failed to stop the Iraq war in 2003 Jim started what has now become a long if sporadic investigation of what could have made a difference, what could have stopped the madness in its tracks and that would always bring him back to those soldiers down at the base, down there in the killing fields of France. Not at the base of the Iraq war since there was very little dissension at the time in the ranks of the all-volunteer army and National Guard units sent to do the dirty work, the “walk-over.” Not the small action of the truce in in Christmas in the trenches but a little later, toward 1917 when all hell broke loose in Russia. A Russia whose armies were melting away on the Eastern Front. Melting away, and who knows to what extent before the February Revolution exposed the house of cards, with agitation from the Bolsheviks who Jim had believed in good family anti-communist from believed were the source of all evil in the world to hear his grandfather speak on the subject.   

Ideology aside, as hard as that is to dismiss in this kind of situation, the Bolsheviks had a hard and fast policy that their youth essentially would not volunteer to go in the Czar’s peasant-build Army but if drafted (dragooned really) they were to go and see what they could do in their units when and if a chance came up to break the stalemate. This was a very different policy from the individual acts of resistance, refusal to be drafted, that were epidemic during his father’s war which included many friends of Susan’s parents who were not Quakers but didn’t want to fight in an immoral war. Jim very carefully approached his father about what he thought of those draft resisters. His answer startled Jim when he said for a long time he held a very big grudge against the draft dodgers he called them but more recently he believed that they may have been right after all. Told Jim a story about a couple of guys in his unit in Pleiku who wanted the unit to refuse to go out on some half-baked mission. They quickly wound up in Long Binh Jail, LBJ, as it was called and the unit went out anyway and sustained heavy loses, got him wounded the first time. His father didn’t know what happened to those guys except he hoped they survived but even with them he said they probably were right. Maybe if a couple more guys had stuck with them something could have happened. Yes, Jim thought when he was thinking about it later, but that was music for some future. For now we have that little dust-up one Francis Tolliver Christmas.             

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