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December 14, 2012: Christmas in the Trenches

December 14, 2012

Joyeux NoelI’m a big fan of a number of movies that have to do with Christmas. All are wonderful stories of how the season can affect people. There is one film that is unique in that is based on a real historical event, an event  that one may argue represents a true miracle of how the spirit of the season can change even the worst of human behavior…that of our ability to wage war.

At Christmas Eve, 1914, in the heart of the first World War, up and down the front line, men from warring nations met in “no man’s land” the plain between the trenches that separated the two sides, to call a cease to hostilities. I was first introduced to this amazing story through the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. In reality, there were many stories of this behavior during WWI, much as the army leaders of Germany, France and England wanted to cover it up at the time. Truces of this sort were spontaneously called by soldiers even up to the Christmas of 1916. This is one variation of the story:

The Christmas 1914 Truce
On Christmas Eve, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm asked an opera tenor by the name of Walter Kirchoff to entertain the German troops at the front line trenches. Kirchoff was singing “Stille  Nacht” (Silent Night) which was recognizable by the Scottish and French troops sequestered in their own trenches across no man’s land and they could not resist chiming in their own languages. One song, in three tongues mixed across the battlefield. One of the French officers who had seen Kirchoff perform, recognized his voice and called out to him. In an impromptu gesture of peace (and courage) Kirchoff snatched up a small Christmas tree that the Germans had sent to their men at the front and carried it across the battlefield. Soon, men left the safety of their trenches to meet other men, who earlier were their enemy. A temporary truce was declared. The soldiers of three nations gave and accepted gifts of brandy, cigarettes, chocolate, and sundry foods to each other. They shared photos of loved ones and more songs. At midnight, a mass was said in Latin (a language common to all three nations.) The next day…Christmas day, they arranged to have their dead returned and all participated in the burials, helping one another. After, a soccer game was held. The Germans won that one, 3-2.

O Come all Ye FaithfullThe French film, “Joyeux Noel” (“Merry Christmas” 2005) does a very good job piecing together the varied stories of the WWI Christmas truces into a single, coherent tale. It traces back and rounds out the story just before and just after the actual event. “Joyeux Noel” begins with a message of hate, presented almost obscenely as it comes from propaganda spoken by children from France, England and Germany. This capacity for adults being able to sow our hatred in our children, like salt in fertile field, is particularly upsetting. A hard scene to begin a movie devoted to the message of peace, but it sets the idea of how far the extremes that a nation’s propaganda in wartime will go.

joyeuxnoel“Joyeux Noel” does not shy away from the horrors of this particularly nasty and costly World War, from its toll on the hearts and minds of the men participating. Particularly sad is the Scottish soldier who has lost his brother. Clearly, this loss is preying on his mind as he believes he has abandoned the brother at his end,  yet he continues to write his mother of how well they are both doing.

joyeux-noel_9As always, even in the harshest conditions, innate human humor can leak through. The underplayed signs in the background of the trenches are brilliant. One, in the Scottish trench points to “Froggyland 5 Feet” while the French have a similar “Rosebif Land” (Roast Beef Land) pointing out the Scottish trench. A lot of the humor revolves around the troops being unable to communicate well with one another. The neighborhood cat, freely ignoring boundaries of each nation, is adopted by all, and as each side has named it, there is a tussle over the “correct” name for the cat.

truce_tinyAfter, asked by the chaplain what he could possibly put into his report to HQ, the Scottish lieutenant says, “Well, I wrote, ‘December 24, 1914: No hostilities on the German side tonight.'”

But no good turn is left unpunished and the peace is short-lived as the agenda of the military will not be fobbed off by an obscure report. Near the end of the film, the message of hate began by the children is bookended by similar messages from unlikely sources, including censors and condemnations of the participants of the truce from their government and even religious leaders.

imagesA wonderful theme of “Joyeux Noel” is the power and irrepressible nature of the human voice. It is the tenor’s wonderful voice that brings them all out of the trenches. It is his wife’s song in Latin, during the mass, that unites them all. It is the Scottish song “I’m Dreaming of Home” that even the Germans bring with them to voice their opposition when finally the powers of state censor their actions of peace. It is most appropriate that this song is sung by children during the credits. In the end, perhaps…just perhaps, the seed of hate need not endure.

“…This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand…forever
I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home”

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