During the holidays references to the Christmas truces of 1914 are plentiful in newspaper articles and on television and radio. Many history buffs watch “Joyeux Noel,” the 2005 fictionalized account of a Christmas truce. Songs such as “Christmas 1915” by Celtic Thunder and the old classic, “Snoopy’s Christmas,” by The Royal Guardsmen are played on the radio. Yet all of these are fictitious accounts of the actual events of December 1914; much as the 1997 box office smash “Titanic” is a fictionalized account of the ship’s last voyage. (No Irish immigrant in steerage would ever have made it into the most luxurious cabin on the ship and had a relationship with its occupant.) The serious history buff must ask, “why fictionalize an event when there are so many high-quality real stories that could be told about an event?” In this article, I hope to give you a few good sources of information on the Christmas truces to satisfy your historical curiosity over the holidays. If, as a result, you are ready to get knee deep into history on a battlefield tour, so much the better!
One must understand that “The Christmas Truce is a collection of individual incidents that happened spontaneously all along the front line; mostly between the British and the Germans, in some places between the Belgians and the Germans, in some places between the French and the Germans…” (Historian Taff Gillingham, “Silent Night: The Story of the Christmas Truce.”) Thus, it is not a single event. Each individual truce started and happened for different reasons, such as the need to bury the dead; and each lasted for different lengths of time, depending largely on the local or regional commanders and circumstances.
An excellent source on the subject in English is Stanley Weintraub’s 2001 book, “Silent Night; The Story of the World War 1 Christmas Truce.” (ISBN 0-684-87281-1) In this book he has done a thorough job of finding references to Christmas truces in English, German and French and telling the stories of those events. My primary criticism of the book is that it is organized by themed chapters (Christmas Eve, The Dead, How it Ended, etc.) rather than by geography and units involved. Thus, one individual truce story is often conveyed over numerous chapters rather than telling each story individually. Nevertheless, his work is probably the most comprehensive English-language work on the subject.
In 2020 British historian Dan Snow produced “Silent Night: The Story of the Christmas Truce.” This documentary features input from UK historians, Peter Hart and Taff Gillingham, and German Historian, Robin Schäfer, as well as high-quality reenactor scenes. It talks about the collective Christmas truce in all its subtleties.
“All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” is a docu-muscial produced by Peter Rothstein, founding artistic director of Theater Latte Da in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was first broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio in December 2007, and the production has traveled to many theaters nationally. Finally, in late 2020 PBS stations broadcast it. Using a cast of only ten actors / singers, it mixes period-correct acapella songs with actual first-hand accounts to tell the story of the Christmas truces. The actors are dressed in black; allowing them to switch freely between German, British and French roles and songs.
Finally, during the 2014 Centennial, UK supermarket giant Sainsbury’s featured the 1914 Truce in its annual Christmas commercial. The company went to great lengths to involve historical advisors and reenactors in the filming and the story line, working with the Royal British Legion and historical consultant Taff Gillingham. Here’s a link to Sainsbury’s advertisement and a link to a video regarding the commercial’s filming.
The historians in Dan Snow’s documentary are quick to point out that truces happen in all wars for a variety of reasons: The first several months of fighting in 1914 resulted in tremendous casualties. Trench systems were just starting to be developed in late 1914 after neither enemy was able to outflank the other. The British Expeditionary Forces launched a serious of costly, but unsuccessful, attacks in mid-December, with the dead scattered across No Man’s Land. For the troops on both sides who had been assured of a quick victory, the Christmas truces brought a bit of welcomed relief, before getting back to the ugly business of winning the war.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief look at a very interesting phenomenon in late December 1914. During our Flanders Field and the Somme Tour we visit a few places related to the Christmas truces. Our full schedule of WW1 and WW2 battlefield tours can be found on our website, https://kneedeepintohistory.com.
|After decades of personal battlefield tours, Randy Gaulke quit his job as a financial analyst in Manhattan and spent eight months in France in 2017-18 as a freelance guide during the World War I Centennial.
He subsequently founded Knee Deep Into History, with a philosophy of getting clients into the field on a small-group tour designed for the military history enthusiast. Equally important is the attempt to tell both sides of the story and to help Americans bridge cultures. Most tours are led jointly with European guides, including retired Bundeswehr officer and historian Markus Klauer. The groups enjoy family-owned European hotels and restaurants.
Experience a military history tour that brings the battlefield to life! Learn more at www.kneedeepintohistory.com
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.