The Christmas Truce of 1914:  Separating Fact from Sentiment

At Christmas time WW1-related FB groups are abuzz with people seeking the best sources of information on the Christmas Truce.  Seekers are often referred to numerous television documentaries and/or the fictionalized account given in the international film, “Joyeux Noel.”  This blog post is being written on New Year’s Day 2021.  For those who are still looking for “the truth” of the Christmas Truce of 1914, I will list my favorite sources below—two books, one docu-musical and one documentary. 

First, 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 Germans, in some places between the Belgians and Germans, in some places between the French and Germans…”  (Taff Gillingham, The Remarkable Story of the Christmas Truce.)  It is not a single event, and each individual event lasted different lengths of time, depending largely on the local/regional situation.

Book 1:  In 2001 American author Stanley Weintraub published his “Silent Night:  The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.”  (The Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.)  His book captures Taff Gillingham’s comment (above), as he uses personal accounts, war-time periodicals and unit histories from multiple nationalities to tell the stories.  My one complaint, having read it cover to cover some years ago, is that the same incidents are described in multiple chapters, because the chapters are themed by time or subject, not by location.  Nevertheless, in my opinion it is the most comprehensive book covering the topic in English.

Book 2:  In 2003 German author Michael Juergs wrote “Der kleine Frieden im Grossen Krieg:  Westfront 1914—Als Deutsche, Franzosen und Briten gemeinsam Weihnachten feierten.”  (C. Bertelsmann Verlag, Munich, Germany)  Mr. Juerg’s book is similarly as comprehensive, but unfortunately the German text rules it out for most of my blog post readers.  That said, there are some excellent photographs from private collections in the book that one does not find elsewhere.  I have not read the entire book, but I have read significant portions, and am likewise impressed by its thoroughness.  In an ideal world, it would be interesting to compare which events are covered by each book, in order to see overlaps and omissions; but I have not done that yet.

Docu-musical 1:  Peter Rothstein, founding artistic director of Theater Latte Da in Minneapolis, Minnesota spent two years researching his “All is Calm:  The Christmas Truce of 1914;” and the first live broadcast was on Minnesota Public Radio in December 2007.  I first saw it the off-broadway production in New York City in 2018.  Finally, in late 2020 PBS stations across the U.S. aired and streamed the production nationally at  Using a cast of only ten actors / singers, it mixes period-correct a capella 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.

Documentary 1:  In late 2020 British historian and television presenter Dan Snow produced “The Remarkable Story of the Christmas Truce.”  It can be viewed on YouTube on Dan’s Timeline—World History Documentaries Channel.  The documentary flashes between interviews with British historians Taff Gillingham and Peter Hart, German Historian Robin Schaefer, and scenes of reenactors.  The documentary discusses numerous topics that are not often discussed; such as the novelty / development of trench lines in the first months of the war and the professional British Army of 1914.  The historians interviewed also have strong pedigrees.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 represented a very unique time in the history of WW1; but one must be careful to separate the fact from the fiction; unless one just wants a sentimentalized version of the story. Perhaps then one should just listen to Snoopy’s Christmas.

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