On Christmas Eve 1914 German soldiers around Ypres, trying desperately to recreate something of their distant homes, were decorating their trenches with candles and singing carols. A few hundred yards away in the British trenches similarly homesick and weary men joined in the singing.
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours”, recalled Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, “when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war”
Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian Regiment remembered “I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted ‘No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously!”
“We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years” wrote John Ferguson of the Second Seaforth Highlanders. “We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans – Fritz and I in the center talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators…What a sight – little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs”
100,000 men from the British, French and German armies took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914. The truce lasted into the following day when joint memorial services were held for the dead and football matches were played in no mans land.
Christian Carion’s powerful 2005 film ‘Joyeux Noel’ captures something of this moment. Carion depicts the truce as the last fleeting prospect that the horror of the next four years could be avoided. By this fourth month of the war the economies and societies of Europe, with the exception of Germany, had not yet given themselves over to total war, the mobilisation of all the states resources toward conflict. The historian Herbert Butterfield had written “(total war) heralds Armageddon, the giant conflict for justice and right between angered populations, each of which thinks it is the righteous one. So a new kind of warfare is born – the modern counter part of the old conflicts of religion” To mobilise a whole population the aims of total war must be millennial, the enemy must be dehumanised. Playing football or praying with him jeopardises that.
But the real tragedy of ‘Joyeux Noel’ and the truce itself is that even by this early stage it was probably too late. Contrary to AJP Taylor’s ‘war by timetable’ thesis World War One was not an accident but the predictable result of two decades of the aggressive and incompetent foreign policy of the idiotic Kaiser. This had hardened attitudes even before 1914. A British soldier, Bruce Bairnsfather, wrote “on our side, not for a moment 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”. Robert Graves asserted that the truce was “no emotional hiatus, this, but a commonplace of military tradition—an exchange of courtesies between officers of opposing armies”
‘Joyeux Noel’ has faults. The presence of a Danish opera star (Diane Kruger) in the trenches stretches credulity and towards the end the film works too hard to build a narrative out of these spontaneous events. But it does invite you to share what an unknown British soldier described in his a letter to his mother as “the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend”
This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine