Monday, December 15, 2014

Ypres 1914: The Christmas Truce



A hundred years ago, peace broke out in No Man’s Land.

It happened in Belgium, where the fighting had long been stalemated, and the trenches were so close together, the combatants could hear the enemy sneeze. 

It seems to have started with music—soldiers singing.  The German’s began with Deutschland Uber Alles.  The Brits responded by singing in English and in harmony.  Given the season, both sides were soon singing carols

The Germans put up a Christmas tree with candles.





Eventually, according to Brigadier-General Walter Congreve, one unarmed British Infantryman stood up.  The Germans decided not to shoot.  Then, one of them stood up, too.  Before they knew it, they were out of the trenches and exchanging tobacco, cakes, chocolate, rum and schnapps!  Many of the German troops had lived in England during the decade leading up to the war, so communication was easy. 



They used the peaceful moment to collect and bury the dead who lay frozen in the space between the trenches.

No less than Pope Gregory had called for such a thing to happen, asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”  The British officially rebuffed his entreaty.  Officers on both sides tried to stop such fraternization, including the Young Charles de Gaulle, who called it “lamentable.”  General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien forbade it.  Corporal Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry declared his opposition.



But the grunts, somewhere around 100,000 of them on both sides, prevailed and had their moment of peace, sang their carols, and played a little football.  Some exchanged souvenirs—buttons off their uniforms, helmets.  Led by the Scots, they sang Auld Lang Syne.

And they wrote home about it.  The world press kept mum at first, but then on December 31, The New York Times printed the story and then word was circulated by newspapers in Britain and France.



This past Saturday, I saw a play about the Christmas truce —All is Calm—performed by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at the Church of St. Mary’s in the Highlands in Cold Spring New York.  The words were all taken from letters and poems of men writing from the trenches.  The actors spoke them in the accents of the men who wrote them.  A male chorus accompanied the performance.  It made me weep.  You can learn more about the play here:  All is Calm   including hearing one of the poems.


A rehearsal shot of the performers


This year, in honor of the centennial of World War I, Sainsbury’s made a commercial reenacting the Christmas truce.  Watch it here:



If you think the little film is overly romanticized , I give you a quote from a letter written by Captain Sir Edward Hulse: “It was absolutely astonishing, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn that it was faked.”  If the brief re-enactlemnt was not enough for you, watch this marvelous film:



In the play All is Calm, one of the actors recites the words of a letter written about the events of that Christmas.  The soldier writing wonders what would happen if the men on both sides just went on strike.  He says he doesn’t think it possible but allows as how, “It’s a thought.”

Indeed.

I wish you peace.


Annamaria - Monday

17 comments:

  1. This is very touching. Thank you for sharing it - --- T.J. Straw

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  2. Thank you, Thelma. I think the appeal comes from the deep-seated desire for peace that resides in souls of most of us. It's part of what makes Christmastime beautiful to us and war such a horror.

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  4. Along these same lines I just started Higher Call yesterday. Life is struggle enough without being forced or coerced into war.

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    1. Juno, Higher Call seems like it must a a compelling and revering story. My dad was a WWII combat Marine in the Pacific. He came home a pacifist and made me one too. He said, "War is the stupidest way to answer a question that mankind could ever have invented." Words to that effect were in the letters recited by the actors in the play I saw.

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    2. Your father was a wise man.

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    3. Very true, Jono. And best combination of traits: brave and gentle.

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  5. Thanks for the reminder of this great story, AmA!

    It's been a long time since I've listened to John McCutcheon's "Christmas in the Trenches," one of the greatest "Christmas" songs of all times (really a "folk song," but it certainly qualifies as a Christmas song, and one of the few Christmas songs I'm not sick to the gills of hearing over and over for so many decades... :-). It can still bring me to the verge of tears.

    I saw John in concert a couple of times about 20 years ago, and he's a wonderful performer and a great story teller, one of the great folk musicians. If you've never heard his music, his album "Live at Wolf Trap" from 1991 is the perfect place to start. For a taste, here's "Christmas in the Trenches" on YouTube with a 'story' up front, although the sound on the song itself isn't the best:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EghujaSynnM

    This one is better quality on the song, but minus the live video and the lead-in story:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0LgjBauf70

    If you enjoy folk music (of the liberal variety, what other variety is there? :-) I can't strongly enough recommend to you the "Live at Wolf Trap" album! The MP3 version of the album is on Amazon at:

    http://www.amazon.com/Live-Wolf-Trap-John-McCutcheon/dp/B0056D50BU/ref=tmm_msc_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1418663990

    Another great song on that album, that is even more appropriate today than it was 20-some years ago, is "Going, Going, Gone" about the auctioning off of the White House and Congress. Both hilarious and terrifyingly sad at the same time.

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    1. Thanks so much for this, EvKa. I listened to Christmas in the Trenches and loved it. I will check out the Wolf Trap concert as well. Another saying of my pacifist father: "I was in battle only a few days before I realized that the guys I was shooting at were probably just like me, some poor sons of bitches who were sent there by someone who had never had to do what we were doing. Otherwise, he would never have thought it was a good idea for people to behave like that."

      On another note, McCutcheon and I have something else in common--a fictional character named Tolliver!!!!

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  6. Nice of you to remember this event. It is important to remember it. One little correction. The Germany soldiers sang Christmas carols, not "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles." I doubt the British soldiers would have harmonized with the German national anthem.

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    1. Thank you, Michael. I am sorry to say I was not clear in what I wrote. My research tells me that the Germans did sing "Deutschland Uber Alles." The Brits then answered with other songs. I did not mean to imply that the Brits sang the German anthem. That sentence needed a couple of more words.

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  7. I have recently, after several years of trying, acquired OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR - the movie of the musical. Thanks to Adrian Muller of Crimefest fame for that. I watched it hen a teenager, I think, and was blown away by the contrasting humour and bitterness - that talked to me because I have always been a pacifist. Now I have to find time to watch it.

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    1. Stan, I wish I had known. I would have had it here from Neflix when you visited. I just put it at the top of my queue.

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  8. Lovely blog, Annamaria, and great pictures. I've seen the Sainsbury's advert, and had mixed feelings about it. It's a wonderful image to get across, but might have been better as an indie short movie rather than as a method of selling us supermarket goods?

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  9. I agree with your meaning very well, Zoe, but I also think that if there were no commercial aspect of it, it would never had been made. I hope, all in all, the peaceable lesson, at least, got to more minds than it otherwise would have. It's a tough choice.

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  10. This was a terrific post, Annamaria, one that's led me to go on to all the connected video and audio clips (Thanks, EvKa, too). I remember seeing a film several years back in which the Christmas Eve Truce played a pivotal role, but for the life of me I can't remember the title. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you, my bro. The only movie that I know of would be the one shown--Joyeux Noel. The title doesn't tell us much, but I loved it when it first came out. I'll be watching it from Netflix this week.

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