EspañolOn Christmas Eve, 100 years ago, one of the most amazing stories of World War I took place: the Christmas Truce. A spark of generosity led to an unofficial ceasefire between German and British forces on the Western Front in Belgium.
On several battlefields, the shooting ceased when the troops heard their enemies sing Christmas carols. Soldiers came out of their trenches and put their rifles aside. In some places, what became known as the Christmas Truce lasted only that Christmas Eve. In others, it continued until January 1915.
Where the ceasefire lasted several days, soldiers greeted each other, exchanged gifts (whiskey, chocolates, cigarettes), buried the dead, played soccer, prayed, and simply enjoyed the holidays with men who mere hours before were their deadly enemies.
This heartbreaking episode is portrayed in Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), which received an Oscar nomination in 2005 for best foreign film. Produced in France, its alternates between three languages: English, French, and German, as it takes viewers to World War I’s battlefields.
Through the eyes of fictional soldiers of the German, British, and French armies — though the French were not part of the real truce — the movie recounts the curious tale.
Joyeux Noël begins with the first days of World War I, when German tenor Nikolaus Sprink is sent to the front-lines and bids farewell to his wife.
The injection of music then, the universal language and the most sublime of human creations, sees the story unfold. On Christmas Eve, the British play carols with their bagpipes, to the pleasure of the German and French soldiers on the other side.
Sprink responds by singing “Stille Nacht” (O Holy Night), and he walks out of the trench holding a Christmas tree as a peace gesture. When he stops, the British came out of their trenches singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful) and the tenor can’t help but sing along again, marking the beginning of the peaceful days to come.
Soldiers then come to know each other, their shared desires of an end to the war, their hopes of seeing their families again and carrying on with their lives, and even of meeting their new friends when the war was over.
Profound human pain is all over the movie, as well as the ever-present opportunity for kindness between people, no matter how at odds they may think themselves to be. Sharing the same grief from being away from their homes and mourning friends lost in battle, soldiers of three nationalities find support and comfort in a solemn religious service improvised on the battlefield.
Letters, Evidence of the Christmas Truce
We have come to know about the unofficial Christmas Truce thanks to the photographs taken during those joyful days, and through the stories told in letters the soldiers later sent to their families. Soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw their rivals reach out to propose a ceasefire, with the surprise, and happiness that came along with their shared peace in the midst of extreme suffering.
“There I found an extraordinary state of affairs — this a.m. A German shouted out that they wanted a day’s truce. would one come out if he did; so very cautiously one of our men lifted himself above the parapet & saw a German doing the same,” recounts the letter British General Walter Congreve — who survived the war — sent to his wife.
World War I went on to last almost four more years. It was a cruel battle that did not end the European disputes that started it, and it laid the foundation for the even more catastrophic World War II to occur 21 years later.
Unfortunately, the Christmas Truce did not have any lasting military effect. The violence resumed, and the friends from previous days starting shooting each other again.
— The Guardian (@guardian) December 22, 2014
The photographs of military foes playing soccer or cards demonstrate that even in the midst of absurd evil, human love can arise. When you listen to “O Holy Night” this Christmas, remember that the sublime beauty of music too turned enemies, in the heart of the war, into brothers.
Edited by Fergus Hodgson and Daniel Duarte.