During World War I, on and around Christmas Day 1914, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding faded in a number of places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations in the trenches and gestures of goodwill between enemies.
Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.
An unidentified soldier in a trench during the Christmas Truce of 1914
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas
” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.
A quiet moment in German trenches during World War I
Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.
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Christmas Truce on WWI Battlefield Inspires Theater Show 94 Years Later
The cast of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
A 2008 national theater production, “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
,” was based on that historic moment, when an extraordinary night of camaraderie brought the spirit of the holidays even into the darkest of places. Written by Peter Rothstein, with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, the presentation features a cast of actors and vocalists who use letters, journals, official war documents, gravestone inscriptions and songs associated with the spontaneous truce to re-create a remarkable sequence of wartime events.
“Thousands of men put down their guns and left their trenches to meet their enemies in ‘No Man’s Land’,” said Rothstein, who traveled to museums and libraries in Belgium and London as part of a two- year effort to collect first-hand accounts of the truce. “They exchanged gifts of tobacco, rum and chocolates, even photographs of loved ones. They sang songs, played a game of soccer and buried each other’s dead. Upon orders from above, they eventually returned to their trenches and re-instigated a war that would last four more years.”
That tale, which remains as poignant today as 94 years ago, was re-told on Christmas Day, when “All is Calm” was broadcast to more than 400 public radio stations in the United States as well as on the BBC in Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand. The production featured members of the Minneapolis-based Cantus vocal ensemble and the Theater Latte Da acting troupe.
That these soldiers chose to honor the spirit of Christmas in the midst of chaos is a fitting reason to revisit their actions, Rothstein said, especially as conflicts continue to be waged across the globe.
“It is a story that should be heard, especially today,” he said. “A month before the Christmas Truce of 1914, Winston Churchill (who would go on to serve as British Prime Minister during World War II) stated, ‘What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike, and said some other method must be found of settling this dispute?’ I hope people leave the theater moved, enlightened and pondering Churchill’s prophetic statement.”
In 1914, World War I, the bloodiest war ever at that time in human history, was well under way. However on Christmas Eve, numerous sections of the Western Front called an informal, and unauthorized, truce where the various front-line soldiers of the conflict peacefully met each other in No Man’s Land to share a precious pause in the carnage with a fleeting brotherhood….
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