Joyeux Noël – The Film & The Reality

“What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute ? ” 

— Winston Churchill to his wife, Clementine, November 23, 1914.

You need hands
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Inspired by the history of the 1914 fraternisation & Christmas Truce that took place in many areas along the seven hundred kilometre Western Front from Nieuport in Belgium to Belfort in France, Joyeux Noël is a French, Belgian, British, German, and Romanian co-production, the fruit of Christian Carion,  (film director and writer who drew his inspiration from Yves Buffetaut’s Batailles de Flandres et d’Artois 1914-1918) & supported by Marc Ferrro, (world-renowned specialist on The Great War, The Russian Revolution, and the history of cinema) of Malcolm Brown, (an independent historian and attaché to the Imperial War Museum in London), of Rémy Cazals, (a professor at l’Université Toulouse-Le Mirail), and of Olaf Mueller, (a German Literature researcher specializing in The Great War and the history of pacifists). 

The plot of the film focuses on four main characters—a Scottish priest (Palmer), a German tenor (Spink), his Danish soprano girlfriend (Anna), and a French lieutenant (Audebert) — who find themselves at the very heart of this Christmas 1914 fraternisation. To advertise a film as a “true story” is always a risk  because viewers wonder which parts are true and which ones are fiction. As is often the case, a “true-story” film indicates that the producer has taken artistic license to portray the facts in approximately two hours, even if the events have been changed or manipulated. The names of the characters as well as some of the events are either fictitious, or are post 1914, however, Carion’s purpose is not only to assist the viewers to connect to the soldiers’ circumstances and the their loved ones left behind, but also to advance the story towards its climax, and to leave the viewers with some idea of the truth about what happened one hundred and seven years ago. On the other hand, the film is “true” in that it captures the unplanned efforts of the low commanding officers and infantrymen to create an armistice that, some may argue, could have lasted, had it not been for the high commanders and politicians. Besides the rarity of the main theme, also unique among many, if not all war films, is the relevancy of the first release of Joyeux Noël  which coincided with the timing of the deaths of the last surviving veterans of The Great War.  According to Olivier Luminet, psychology professor at l ‘Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) and l’Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), the passing of the last witnesses represents a critical moment for its remembrance by the generations that follow. It is one of the great differences that now exists between the collective memory of two World Wars. The recent commemorations of the 1939-1945 conflict rendered reality to the difference all too well. For World War I, only the written words now remain, and they certainly lack the vigor of the living, collective memory.  Psychologists agree that the collective memory lasts approximately three generations, at best, & beyond that point, we are left with only a cultural memory. There is an additional problem with regard to The Great War in that many people either forget or do not know how the First World War began, but they possess a fairly clear understanding of the Second World War because it easily represents good against evil. Thus, there are many who automatically – but incorrectly – associate the Second World War as a carbon copy of the First One.

Carion’s opening scene focuses on colour photographs depicting the pre-war era, a time of peace: a family picnic, mothers with their children at the beach, a woman standing lakeside and holding a parasol, young girls in school courtyard, a little blond girl knitting on a bench on a summer’s day, two young boys dressed in French military uniforms, and a map of the French-German border with the Alsace-Lorraine region in black. Because the photo is pre-war, the one of children in uniform appears quite cute; however, little did that generation know that some of their thirteen-year-old schoolboys, including the Belgian Crown Prince Leopold, would soon find themselves in the trenches.  At first glance, these pictures depict a certain innocence; however, Carion portrays the effectiveness of the bellicose propagandists who convinced their nations to instill in their children hatred for the enemies, as seen with the school children delivering their hatred poems: fof sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites. irst, a French boy recites part of Pierre Gaillard’s “La France attend”—“Enfant, regarde sur ces cartes ce point noir qu’il faut effacer/De tes petits doigts tu l’écartes, en rouge il vaut mieux le tracer/…” then, a British boy delivers his hate speech—“To rid the map of every trace of Germany and of the Huns, we must exterminate that race, we must not leave a single one. Heed not their children’s cry. Slay them now, the women too. Or else, some day, they’ll rise, but dead they cannot do, …”; and a German boy concludes with part of Ernst Lissauer’s “Hassgesang gegen England” (“Hymn of Hatred Against England”)—“Wir wollen nicht lassen von unserem Haß, Wir haben alle nur einen Haß, Wir lieben vereint, wir hassen vereint, Wir alle haben nur einen Feind: ENGLAND!…” The British and the German articulate the same general message: destroy the enemy. (Ironically, the French boy does not express the desire to kill but rather the longing to reclaim the Alsace-Lorraine area, recently seized by the Prussians in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and an area over which the French and Germans have disputed since the Serments de Strasbourg of 842, a pledge of military allegiance between Charles le Chauve and his brother Louis le Germanique against their older brother, Lothaire, who had inherited Alsace-Lorraine from his grandfather, Charlemagne). Following the angelic schoolchildren reciting their propagandist death threats to the enemy, Carion introduces his supporting characters and focuses on their reaction to the declaration of war, first with William, ringing the village church bell in the Scottish Highlands and yelling to his brother Jonathan that they are going to war: “This is it! War has been declared! Well, li’l brother, . . . in two days, we’re all leavin’ for basic trainin’ in Glasgow. At last, somethin’ is happenin’ in our lives! Well, ya comin’?” The next characters introduced are the Danish soprano, Anna, and the German tenor, Sprink, who receives his call to duty from a German officer interrupting their recital performance to announce Kaisers Wilhelm’s 31 July declaration of war, “By His Majesty, our beloved Kaiser Wilhelm. These are grave times for Germany. Our country is under siege. The sword is being forced into our hand. I hope that, with the help of God, we will wield the sword in a manner that we can put it back into the scabbard with honour.” In these declaration-of-war scenes, Carion accurately conveys the propaganda-induced enthusiasm and sense of adventure with which the young men embrace the war. Millions on all sides volunteer, for they not only wish to defend their country but also fear the war will be over before they have the opportunity to play their role in it……..

Immediately following the declaration-of-war shots, Carion then introduces Lieutenant Audebert who, unable to stomach the horrors of this “Great War,” vomits minutes before going into the only battle scene of the film. Giving the orders to charge the Germans, whose trenches are only fifty metres away, Audebert tries to reassure his men, informing them that the allies’ artillery have been bombing the Germans for the past hour, that the Scots are supporting them and that, if they do what they must do, they will all be home for Christmas. He tells them to load their rifles and to set their bayonets, and then leads the charge. When the Scots follow, William, Jonathan’s brother, is shot in No Man’s Land.  It’s important to remember that at this time commanders gave Napoleonic-style orders to artilleryman and infantrymen who were using the latest twentieth-century weaponry: rifles accurate up to a thousand yards, machine guns firing up to five hundred rounds a minute, field artillery firing twenty shells a minute up to five miles in distance, and heavy artillery launching shells up to twenty-five miles. The soldiers quickly learned that to leave their trench and charge the enemy en masse in No Man’s Land is suicidal, but they willingly rushed the enemy for the honour of their battalion and its opinion of them. Given the focal point of the film is the Christmas truce, additional battle scenes would be superfluous and counterproductive. The one we see is fully sufficient. It is also at this moment that we get a close look at the soldiers’ uniforms as well as the conditions of the trenches, and both are amazingly clean and tidy.  Carion sought to show that the trenches in 1914 were in much better shape than they were in the following years which is logical; however, according to Malcolm Brown’s “Un Joyeux Entracte” (translated into French by Pierre Guglielmina) in Frères de tranchées (Trench Brothers), the trench conditions were terrible. The British first fought the Germans in Mons, Belgium, on 23 August 1914 and, within the first few months, nearly all of the original troops – the Old Contemptibles – have been killed. So violent are the ravages that their replacements – volunteer soldiers,originally full of a sense of adventure – have had a change of heart by November. “In war, truth is the first casualty,” says Aeschylus, and the tragedy begins. Brown references a letter dated 3 September 1914 where Major Herbert Trevor describes the war as rotten and nobody would be sorry to see it end. Brown cites another letter, dated 5 September 1914, in which Lieutenant Ralph Blewitt references that “the romantic dimension” is impossible for him to see. In fact, truth and the “romantic dimension” of this war that are the first “big casualties” in that they died almost as soon as the warfare commenced along the two parallel lines of trenches, sometimes full of waist-high water, between Nieuport and Belfort.  Another British officer writes to his family that he has come to the conclusion that this God-forsaken corner is a second Venice. It is no coincidence that this officer compares Flanders to Venice for, in October 1914, the Belgians opened the canal locks, flooding the land and trenches, in an effort to prevent the German advances. One reason Carion’s trenches and No Man’s Land do not resemble the flooded fields of Flanders as described in the British soldiers’ letters is that it was filmed in Romania. According to Carion, a French general did not give him permission to use French military space for his project. If Carion had filmed it in Ploegsteert, Belgium, a well-documented battle site about twenty miles north of Lens, it would have allowed for more authentic-looking topography for portraying life in the trenches and the truce in No Man’s Land. In his Silent Night, an Anglophone study of the Christmas truce, Stanley Weintraub cited the German Expressionist artist Otto Dix, who describes the landscape of fortified ditches as “lice, rats, barbed-wire, fleas, shells, underground caves, corpses, blood, liquor, mice, cats, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fire, steel: that’s what war is. It is the work of the devil” Even though Carion attempts to capture this misery, such as in a shot with Gordon playing a prank on a commanding officer by purposely leading him through the latrine portion of the trench to soil his boots and uniform, he fails miserably. The aspect of the trenches that Carion does succeed in portraying is the soldiers’ effort to echo home by naming the zigzagging trenches with their home villages’ road names and signs, such as “Froggie Land” to indicate the French location and “Fritz” to point to the Germans’.

After the Allies’ and Germans’ engagement in No Man’s Land, the director focuses on the Scots, particularly Palmer, the Anglican priest, who does his best to comfort the wounded: one disfigured, another holding an artery so he does not bleed to death, and Jonathan, suffering from shell shock and feeling guilty for abandoning his brother. Hearing a cry for help from a fallen soldier in No Man’s Land, Palmer disobeys orders and leaves his trench, an almost suicidal move, to tend to a wounded soldier, which prompts a German sharpshooter to fire. Following the scene of the wounded Scots is that of a secret, father-son liaison, where the old major general brates his son, Lieutenant Audebert. When Audebert says he lost a third of his men in five minutes, his father claims that his son gave up when he saw the Scots retreat. Following his natural paternal instincts to save his son, the major general encourages his son to take an artillery position, assuring him that he will quickly rise through the ranks. Audebert refuses the offer, saying that he belongs with his troops in the trenches, and tells his father to find another lieutenant. This shot is important two reasons: first, it explains that the artillerymen, because they were positioned well behind the front line, were saved of the face-to-face combat with the enemy, and second, it depicts just how physically and psychologically separated the high commanders were from the infantrymen and their horrific reality in the trenches.

Back in Berlin, Anna, wanting to be with Sprink on Christmas, plans a recital for the troops. She visits German high commanders as they are planning Christmas for the soldiers by sending a 100,000 Christmas trees to the front line. Aware of Anna’s feelings for Sprink, the officer grants her permission to give the recital, which will also permit her to see her man, Sprink, on Christmas Eve, which marks their five-year anniversary. This scene highlights how differently the commanders and politicians perceive time compared to the soldiers and their loved ones, for Anna says that time for the soldiers is something else than it is for the high commanders who are sitting in their luxurious offices, not in a front-line trench. This part is also significant because it illustrates the importance of Christmas spirit in German culture with the high commanders sending Christmas trees to the frontline, a major psychological factor for the Germans’ desire to cease fire on 24-25 December. This scene also portrays the confidence level of the Germans, for they confidently believed they would win the war within a year’s time.

Shoulders back, lovely lads
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Carion wastes no time fast forwarding his portrayal of the first five months of the war to focus on 23-26 December; however, in the process, the uninformed viewer is lead to believe that the Christmas truce happened spontaneously, when it did not. Despite France’s censorship, a few photographs and letters still exist and confirm fraternizing with the enemy in a similar but not identical fashion as the British. One difference between the British and the French deals with their location; the British troops were stationed along a thirty kilometre stretch of the Western Front in northern France and in Belgium while the French and Germans fought each other along the entire seven-hundred kilometre front. Near the British troops, just south of La Bassée, Louis Barthas of the 280th, François Guilhem of the 296th, and Gustave Berthier witness and participate in the fraternizing initiated by the Germans. Being only three of four metres from each other, the French and the German crawl out of their trenches, agree to a ceasefire, and sing songs together. Not only in the British sector of the front but also in other areas near Aisne and Argonne, French soldiers describe similar fraternizations. For example, Victorien Fournet, less trusting of the Germans, writes about a truce that lasted from December 12 to mid January, a time when the Germans did not fire, when the French and German met in No Man’s Land to shake hands, talk, sing, etc. Fournet wonders, though, if the German truce is a ruse or if they are just sick of the war.

Say cheese, chaps
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The film depicts German trenches lined with Christmas trees, whilst Sprink performs with Anna for the crown prince in a German-occupied, French, bourgeois home, and Audebert gets a haircut. After their recital for the crown prince, Sprink, disgusted at seeing “all these fat, sated men parading, swilling in champagne,” tells Anna that he must return to the front to sing for his comrades tonight. When he explains that he does not want to leave her but that he must sing for his fellow soldiers, Anna suggests accompanying him, especially since she has a pass from the Kaiser. In the French trenches, the soldiers are quietly enjoying their Christmas-Eve dinner — a lot of food and champagne. The Scots are celebrating their Christmas Eve in their trench with food, whisky, and laughter. Palmer starts playing his bagpipes, and the troops join in singing “I’m Dreaming of Home” (a song written specifically for Joyeux Noël). Well aware that the Scots are having fun, Sprink begins singing “Stille Nacht,” and Gordon accompanies him on his bagpipes. Sprink then climbs out of the trench to give his performance in No Man’s Land. When he finishes, the French applaud. Then, Gordon begins playing “Come all Yea Faithful,” and Sprink follows, holding a small tree and walking in No Man’s Land. When he finishes, a Scotsman says in German “Guten abend, Germans.” When Sprink says “Good evening, English,” a Scot replies laughingly, “We’re not English; we’re Scottish.” When Lieutenant Horstmayer, not at all happy with this fraternizing, reminds Sprink that this is not the German opera, Sprink replies, “This is better than Berlin.” Audebert, wondering what the hell is going on, climbs out of the French trench and ventures into No Man’s Land. They all salute each other and discuss a ceasefire for Christmas Eve with the logic that the war will not be decided tonight and that no one will criticize them for putting down their rifles for this night. To reassure Audebert of his being guilty of collaborating with the enemy, Horstmayer says, “Don’t worry, it is just for tonight.” Audebert returns to his trench to get a bottle of champagne, carries it back to No Man’s Land to share with Horstmayer, Gordon, and Sprink, and they all wish each other Merry Christmas in their mother tongue.With the ceasefire now official, the soldiers crawl peacefully out of their trenches, launch flares to light up the night sky, begin clapping and cheering, and exchange gifts—chocolate, champagne, cigarettes, etc. Additional exchanges include showing each other photos of their loved ones and sharing .With church bells ringing in the background and all the soldiers together in No Man’s Land, Palmer celebrates the most important mass of his life in Latin, a language familiar to all: “In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti. Amen.” Jonathan, too traumatized by the loss of his brother, prefers to keep his fallen sibling company instead of participating in the service. When a German soldier asks him to share a bottle of champagne, Jonathan slowly approaches the enemy with knife in hand. Preferring to celebrate than fight, the German retreats to the mass and to enjoy his champagne. As part of the service, Anna sings “Ave Maria” and, as Father Palmer ends his mass, bombs explode in the background, lighting the night sky and reminding all of their harsh reality : The Great War.  The lieutenants wish each other a good evening and, as they leave No Man’s Land, they all turn around to look at their newly made friends, sad that the war must continue. In the German trenches, the troops applaud Anna and Sprink for their performance. In the Scottish trenches, when Palmer asks Lieutenant Gordon what he wrote in his report for headquarters, he says “no hostilities on the German side tonight, 24 December 1914.” Palmer also comments on the fraternization: “Tonight, these men were drawn to that alter like it was a big fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves, maybe just to be together, maybe to forget about the war,” to which Lieutenant Audebert replies, “but the war won’t forget us.”

of sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites.

Once more for the camera
“2013_12_200017 – Christmas truce” by Gwydion M. Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On Christmas Day, the Germans awake to a thumping noise; they believe a Scot is planting mines, but it is Jonathan digging a grave for his fallen brother. Palmer, with a white flag raised and accompanied by Lieutenant Gordon, goes to Jonathan and begs him to return to the trench. Horstmayer and Audebert meet Gordon in No Man’s Land to propose extending the truce so everyone can bury their dead. “It makes sense to bury the dead on the day Christ was born” says Gordon. After burying the fallen, some soldiers play soccer, others play cards, whilst Johnathan, always distant from everyone and unable to come to terms with the death of his brother, writes to his mother, saying that William is the best shot in the whole platoon. In denial, he concludes it with “lots of love from both of us.” The Christmas truce of 1914 is, indeed, a unique moment in war history for several reasons and is the result of several culminating factors. For one, as early as October 1914, the infantrymen no longer believed the lies the propagandists fabricated about the enemy, and the fraternizing began on a small scale. Another factor was the terrible weather conditions, i.e., cold, fog, frost, freezing rain, flooded trenches, etc., which lasted from October until December 24; however, when the soldiers awakened on the morning of December 25, they saw a frozen, snow-covered ground instead of soft mud and the sun in a bright blue sky instead of low-hanging ominous clouds producing a perpetual rain. Another aspect about this truce that makes it unique is that it waof sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites. s a natural, spontaneous reaction of the infantrymen on the front-line; neither the Church nor the generals called for this moment of respite, and it did not happen in just one place—it happened in some form or fashion and in varying degrees along the seven hundred kilometre front. Another uniting factor was music. Albeit this was wartime, the soldiers, thinking of their families at home and feeling the Christmas spirit, began singing carols and playing their musical instruments, whether it be the bagpipes or the harmonica. With the few French soldiers’ letters dated December 1914, Cazals provides evidence of the French perspective of the truce. For example, in the Vosges, Captain Dubarle of the 68th battalion, describes a similar ceasefire where his unit, only a hundred-fifty metres from the German trenches, watched the Boches walk around, for there was a mutual understanding that nobody would fire while taking meals and working on the trenches. Unlike other letters, Dubarle’s does not reference fraternizing but rather a peaceful day in December. Another account comes from Argonne where the singer Kirchoff gave a recital to the 130th Wurtemberg and, upon hearing this tenor’s beautiful voice, the French climbed out of their trench to applaud, and he did an encore for them. Another example comes from Eugène Lemercier who, upon hearing an anonymous German tenor, described the moment as magical, when hymns reflected the aspiration for harmon and the demand for order in beauty. Elsewhere, Eugène Pic says the French take the initiative to celebrate Christmas by singing the “Minuit, chrétiens” and the Germans followed the French lead by singing “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!”

As we learn in Joyeux Noël, music and, in this case, particularly Christmas carols, contribute in unlatching and amplifying the innate human need to socialise – an element Stanley Kubrick masterfully utilizes in crafting the unforgettable closing tavern scene in his 1957 Paths of Glory where a young German woman, played by Christiane Harlan/Susanne Christian (soon to become Mrs. Kubrick in 1958), is forced to sing in front of Colonel Dax’s rowdy, war-weary soldiers. She quickly thinks of the German folk song “Der Treue Husar” (“The Faithful Hussar”), and “…though the soldiers cannot understand the words she sings, the simplicity of the melody and her vulnerability gradually moves them to tears, and they begin to hum and sing the tune with her…”In a like manner, Carion also portrays how powerful music can be, particularly in war, in that it unites enemies.  However, unlike language, its lingering effects are either too often ephemeral, mostly forgotten or, at best, remembered as a footnote to history. Similar to the fraternization between the British and the Germans, hundreds of French and Germans also met in No Man’s Land to exchange gifts, food, tobacco, beer, wine, etc.; however, all good things must come to an end. In one case, it was Lieutenant-Colonel Brenot who ended the Christmas 1914 truce in his unit by ordering the artillery to fire but not to kill or wound the of sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites. Germans. In his chapter, “Brother Boche” (translated from German into French by Alexandra Cade), Olaf Mueller chronicles the German perspective of the events that lead to the Christmas truce of 1914 that lasted until New Year’s Day. According to Mueller, the British in northern France initiated the truce to bury the dead; however, according to Brown’s accounts, it was the Germans who initiated the truce. Perhaps neither side wanted to admit to being the initiator of the truce for fear of being court martialed. To describe the German’s version of Christmas Day 1914, Mueller references Bernhard Lehnert, who reports that, as soon as the Germans began singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” the French, thinking that the Germans were attacking, started firing like mad; however, once they realized it was related to Christmas, they ceased firing and, when the Germans finished singing, the French began singing “La Marseillaise” On New Year’s Eve, Karl Aldag, an aspiring officer, recounts that an English officer left his trench with a white flag and requested a truce from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. in order to bury the soldiers who died just prior to Christmas. Aldag notes how agreeable it was not to see the dead on the ground and describes how the truce lasted longer than the originally planned. He recounts that the English met his men in No Man’s Land to exchange cigarettes, canned meat, and even photographs, that the British said they no longer wanted to shoot, and that everyone was calm and enjoyed walking around carefree. Knowing well that the truce could not last, Aldag says that, when the Germans told the French to return to their trenches because they were going to re-commence firing, the French officer replied that his that his trenches were full of water and that his mercenary soldiers were sick, were no longer following his orders, and were on strike for they no longer wanted to fight. Aldag concludes his note, saying that his trench was also full of water, that his men did not shoot, and that it was nice to be able to leave his shelter without risking his life. Mueller observes that there are two types of brief truces: the one that is negotiated by the officers can be viewed as acceptable because it does not challenge the military hierarchy, but one that is declared by the simple infantrymen is, as Aldag says, a strike, which is not tolerated by the officers, for it undermines their power. Aldag writes that the desire to maintain the truce was stronger with the British than the French, for he recalls an English officer informing the Germans that the Tommies were going to bomb them and inviting them to seek shelter in their trenches. The British, however, did not fire; it was the French artillery that unleashed a fierce bombing. It was, of course, in Aldag’s best interest to avoid referencing any German initiative on this peaceful arrangement. In another of Aldag’s entries, he describes the conclusion of the truce as taking place at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1914. During the hours before New Year’s Day, the Germans, sixty metres from the Allied trenches, sang songs and played the harmonica, and the Scots applauded; then the Scots played their bagpipes, and the Germans clapped. At midnight, the German artillery fired, lighting up the sky like a firework show, prepared grog, and toasted to the emperor and the New Year

of sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites. When the hostilities resume, Horstmayer pays a visit to Audebert to inform the allies that the Germans will bomb their trenches in ten minutes times and suggests that they seek refuge in the German trench. When the shelling stops, Gordon informs them that the Scots will retaliate by bombing the German trench and, to reciprocate Horstmayer’s kind gesture, Gordon invites the Germans to seek refuge in the allied camp.When the bombing ceases, Horstmayer, realizing that he can no longer be friends with the enemy, says his goodbye, that he was happy to have met them, and that, under different circumstances, they could have been . . . He didn’t have to say “friends” because Audebert understands and reciprocates the gesture by inviting Horstmayer to have a drink at his home when the war is over. Audebert, complimenting Horstmayer on his French, acknowledges that his German is not very good, and Horstmayer, not wanting to take full credit for being bilingual, says that he is married to a French woman and that Audebert’s German would be better if he were married to a German. To be able to stay together, Anna and Sprink surrender as prisoners to Audebert, who, not knowing how to explain their presence to his superiors, orders them to return to the German camp. Anna explains that, if they return, they will be separated, which is why she begs him to take them as prisoners. When Audebert accepts, Sprink hands him a big bundle of German letters and asks that he deliver it to the Red Cross so they can reach their destinations. Wartime has both its norms and its deviances. Far away from the front line trenches either at HQ or sometimes from their homeland, the powers that be try to destroy a nation by using many tactics, such as creating propaganda, causing blockades, ordering the bombings of cities and towns, etc. On the front line, however, in order to win a war soldiers must kill, wound, or capture the enemy, so the norm is for the commanders to give orders to their subordinates, to make sure those orders are followed, and to punish insubordinates. The further away the commanders are from the enemy, the less they know about the enemy, the easier it is for them to give orders to kill the enemy. For the soldiers on the front line, however, wartime is not so black and white. Because the enemy has a face, has a family, sometimes shares the same faith, and is also sick and tired of fighting, there are deviances to the norms on both sides, but the French powers did not expect such a magnitude of fraternization with the Germans during December 1914 until they read the soldiers’ letters. The high commanders’ censoring the letters explains why very little Franco-German evidence of the 1914 truce exists. Carion illustrates this censorship with a shot of several French bureaucrats at a table reading the soldiers’ letters before they are delivered to their destinations. One letter expresses a soldier’s hanging on to hope like a climber to his rope; another about his comrade dying between the lines, another about playing soccer with the German soldiers who admitted to being members of the German football club called Bayern; another about hearing a beautiful woman’s voice singing on Christmas Eve; another about a soldier opting to stay alone in his trench in peace and would rather die than drink and fraternize with the German bastards; another about a Scottish photographer promising to take pictures of the troops on New Year’s Day; another about a Bavarian giving him his address so they could visit each other once the war is over; another about accepting the Kraut’s truce invitation to spend New Year’s Eve together and to sing the song they had learned from the Scots; and yet another, read by Audebert’s father, saying they would drink to the health of all those bastards. Reading the soldiers’ letters with the purpose of getting a feel for their troops’ morale, the high commanders discover, to their great surprise, the Christmas truce, and prevent the these letters from reaching their destination, and decide to break this feeling of peace among the soldiers.

ChristmasTruce : By Unknown author – Unknown UK newspaper, Public Domain,

According to Murphy, more than a million soldiers had been killed and many more wounded by December 1914 and, as Carion illustrates, faith for many was also lost. Aware of the mass that Palmer gave to the allies and to the Germans on Christmas Eve, the bishop first chastises Palmer and then informs him that he is to be sent back to Scotland and that all those who heard his mass will be disbanded and sent to different front line units. Palmer humbly and respectfully responds to the bishop: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.” The other purpose behind the bishop’s visit is also to give a “sermon,” which is nothing more than a harangue to perpetuate propaganda and hatred against the enemies to the new soldiers who replace the ones who went “astray” because of Palmer’s influence. “Christ our Lord said, Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword. The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are nof sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites. ot, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again. The Lord be with you. May God almighty bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Amen.” Father Palmer removes his cross necklace, hangs it on a wooden rack in the make-shift hospital room, and walks out the door, suggesting that he, too, has lost his faith, particularly after hearing the Bishop’s propaganda mass to the new recruits. The scene is important for two reasons. First, the bishop vilifies the efforts of Palmer to bring the Gospel of Peace into this hell on earth and then provokes others to violence by dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second is that the bishop suggests that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not worthy to sit in the house of the Lord. According to Carion, the words are from a 1915 sermon preached by the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram in Westminster Abbey and reflect the malicious aspects of many spiritual leaders on all sides who justify killing in the name of religion. The film has come full circle from the opening images of schoolchildren reciting their hatred speeches about the enemy to the dénouement with the old bishop doing the same. Back in the Scottish trenches, the Major General, seeing a man in a German uniform walking across No Man’s Land, orders his men to shoot “the bloody Kraut.” Instead of aiming at him, they shoot in the air, indicating that they had, indeed, lost the desire to kill, to fight, and to continue this war. Again, he orders them to shoot him but, instead of shooting, they just look at each other, with the expression that says, “I don’t want to fire; do you?” All have this feeling, except Jonathan, who willingly shoots and kills. Then, the commander says, “Shame on you, Gordon,” for he no longer sees disciplined soldiers eager to kill the enemy but rather simple, innocent men who prefer to hold on to the Christmas spirit of peace on earth. Alone in private quarters, the angry Major General Audebert and his lieutenant son argue. Because fraternizing with the enemy is high treason, it is a crime punishable by death, but the only problem is the French army cannot execute two hundred men, so Audebert and his unit are spared the firing squad but will be transferred to fight on the Verdun front, which is in itself a death sentence. Lieutenant Audebert tells his father that his men feel no shame befriending the Germans, that the public would neither believe nor understand the fraternizing, and that France has no idea how her soldiers are suffering. He concludes his argument, saying he is closer to the Germans than the French who are stuffing their faces at their dinner table and screaming, “Kill the Krauts!” In addition, he tells his non-combatant father that they are not living the same war. Audebert confesses that his son is correct about one observation: he does not understand this war where enemies exchange addresses so they can meet after it is all over. He reminisces about his career in the cavalry and wishes his son had done the same.  As they part, Audebert tells his father that he is now a grandfather, that his grandson’s name is Henri. “Let’s try and survive this war for him,” says the new grandfather. In a train car about to leave France, Horstmayer and his men receive their orders that they will be sent to East Prussia to fight against the Russian army, which is also a death sentence for, if a soldier survived the bullets and bombs, he likely did not endure the cold. The high commander also informs them that, even though the train will cross the Fatherland, they will not be allowed to see their families. “Long live Kaiser Wilhelm!” says thof sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites. e commander as he crushes a soldier’s harmonica and leaves Horstmayer and the troops. The infantryman, without his harmonica, hums “I’m Dreaming of Home,” the tune he learned from the Scots, and all his comrades join him. Perhaps the best musical instrument in this film is neither the bagpipes nor the harmonica but rather the human voice.

Because hundreds of allies and Germans fraternized along the northwestern front does not mean that all the soldiers participated in this truce. Approaching the enemy trench had consequences, deadly for some. George Ashurst of the 2nd Lancashire Rifles writes about a German who was taken prisoner for having come too close to the British trench. Another story, more tragic, recounts how a British soldier was crossing No Man’s Land to give cigarettes to a friendly German regiment when he was shot dead by a sharp shooter from a nearby regiment. It was recorded that he died in combat—a combat that consisted of delivering cigarettes (Brown). British soldiers who recorded keeping their distance from the Germans include B.C. Myatt, whose unit played soccer with the French, not the Germans, on Christmas Day. Also, when 2nd lieutenant A.P. Sinkinson was returning to his trench, he remembers in his letter a phrase from Mr. Asquith that told the British not to re-sheath their sword until the enemy had been vanquished, and Sinkinson adds that, when a soldier is in the front-line trenches, it is impossible to hate without a respite (Brown). Perhaps one of the most poignant comments regarding this truce comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who described it as an “amazing show, an example of humanity in the midst of the horrors of war” (Brown). However wonderful this truce was, it was not strong enough, even in theory, possible. If the British and Germans along the Western Front had decided to end the war with the Christmas truce, the French and the Belgians had already lost too much blood and too much of their territory. Nothing could convince these two countries to stop the war in 1914. Despite some of the film’s minor “false notes,” such as the unusually tidy trenches and uniforms, the inaccurate depiction of the climactic conditions, and the love story between Anna and Sprink, Joyeux Noël accurately portrays the human condition of all those, Germans and allies alike, in the trenches and in No Man’s Land along the Western Front of Christmas 1914. Serenaded and brainwashed by propaganda and lies (e.g., schoolboys reciting propaganda poems), hundreds of thousands of innocent young men and boys enlist; immediately find themselves in the Dantesque-like Inferno along the seven hundred kilometre Western Front; quickly suss out the malicious lies of their belligerent high commanders, politicians, and clergymen. Unlike All Quiet on The Western Front, The Paths of Glory, A very Long Engagement, etc., Joyeux Noël does not limelight World War I’s infamous water-filled diof sorts as it was one of the deadliest battle sites. tches, rats, barbed-wires, shells, underground caves, corpses, blood, mice, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fire, and steel. Instead, this anti-war film is unique in that it solely focuses on fraternal peace shared between Germans and Allies 24-26 December 1914 — this message is one that audiences, both young and old, should share and contemplate, for the thousands of soldiers who exchanged Joyeux Noël, Frohe Weihnachten, and Merry Christmas wishes along the Western Front’s No Man’s Land of 1914 deserve to be remembered.

Of all the literature recounting the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914, Frederick Niven, a World War I correspondent, perhaps summarizes it best in his poem, “A Carol From Flanders”………………

”Their rifles all they set aside, One impulse to obey; ‘Twas just the men on either side, Just men — and Christmas Day.

They dug the grave for all their dead. And over them did pray: And Englishmen and Germans said:“How strange a Christmas Day!”

Between the trenches then they met, Shook hands, and e’en did play

At games on which their hearts were set, On happy Christmas Day.

Not all the emperors and kings, Financiers and they Who rule us, could prevent these things — For it was Christmas Day…

Insert “Khaki Chums” by amandabhslater is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


© DJM 2021