The Christmas Truce of 1914: Myth and History

The Christmas Truce of 1914: Myth and History December 6, 2016

My soundtrack this time of year invariably includes the heavenly sounds of the King’s College Choir, whose Festival of Nine Lessons and Readings dates back to Christmas Eve, 1918. Reflecting its origins in the aftermath of the Great War, the 2014 service included a letter from a Scottish soldier named Cunningham. It described a remarkable truce that took place exactly one hundred years before: (skip to 13:00 in the video below)

“We had a most interesting day,” concluded Private Cunningham of December 24-25, 1914. Starting with a nighttime exchange of carols from the trenches (the choir follows the reading with “Silent Night” in German) and continuing with daytime celebrations in No Man’s Land, participants in the worst war to that point in history observed the birth of the Prince of Peace.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has been dramatized in numerous ways, from the 2005 feature film Joyeux Noël to the music video for Paul McCartney’s 1983 song, “Pipes of Peace.” In recent years it’s been the subject of a kind of Christmas musical at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, All is Calm. Members of the male chorus Cantus sing everything from “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrangements of familiar carols, while three actors from Theatre Latté Da recite excerpts from a wide variety of primary sources. Winston Churchill and Pope Benedict XV make cameos, but mostly we hear from the common soldiers who participated in the truce.

It’s a moving piece. But the bright light of the war’s centenary has also shown the truce to be more complicated than what it may seem on the stage and screen.

For example, in 2014 the British grocery chain Sainsbury’s adapted the story for its annual Christmas advert, sparking a debate about the appropriateness of using such a sacred moment for commercial purposes. One overheated critic even suggested that it was morally equivalent to setting an ad in Auschwitz!

But beyond the commercial use of the past, the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 also demonstrates a truism of historian Peter Hoffer:

“History is impossible but necessary.”

To illustrate, let’s talk about footballsoccer.

Soccer memorial for the Christmas Truce in Belgium
A temporary memorial erected near Ploegsteert, Belgium on the 85th anniversary of the Truce. A few hundred yards behind this cross, Adolf Hitler served in the German army. A few hundred yards on the other side, Winston Churchill briefly served in the front lines in 1916 – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)

British and German soldiers playing soccer in No Man’s Land features in all four dramatizations mentioned above. For the centenary, Europe’s governing body for the sport unveiled a new permanent memorial near the same site as the one shown to the right. “I pay tribute,” said UEFA’s president, “to the soldiers who, one hundred years ago, showed their humanity by playing football together, opening an important chapter in European unity and providing a lasting example to young people.”

But the story is more complicated than it would seem. Virtually no historians seem to think that anything like a full soccer match took place — or could have, given the moon-like terrain of No Man’s Land. According to Chris Baker, author of a book on the Truce, the notion of “Fritz” winning a 3-2 match originated with a 1962 short story by war poet Robert Graves. McCartney’s 1983 video solidified the myth in our collective memory.

In an article in The Guardian, Baker acknowledged that there are references to soccer from British sources stationed near the villages of Messines, “but nothing from the Germans. If somebody one day found a letter from a German soldier who was in that area, then we would have something credible.”

But in All Is Calm, writer-director Peter Rothstein does quote a German account of soccer being played. Half a century after the war, an officer named Johannes Niemann confirmed the claim in his Saxon regiment’s official history of a Christmas Day match:

…a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee.  A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.

While he points out discrepancies in Niemann’s account, Baker concedes that it — and another German source — do “suggest that something may have taken place, albeit far short of the mythology of football as the driver and centrepiece of truce.”

So why does soccer in the Christmas Truce matter?

Hoffer, The Historian's ParadoxFirst, it underscores that history is “impossible.”

That is, the nature of the historical discipline means that we are inevitably working with a scarcity of evidence — and much of it contradictory. We can’t revisit the Western Front on December 24-25, 1914 to see what actually happened; all we have are eyewitness accounts of debatable reliability. I dare say that most 21st century historians are less optimistic than 19th century predecessors like Leopold von Ranke that we could ever know “the past as it actually was” with anything like scientific certainty. (Hoffer notes that “the first seminar room in the first graduate program in American history at the Johns Hopkins University in 1880 was designed to look like a laboratory.”) Despite our best efforts, we will never fully recover the story of the Christmas Truce.

But for all its limitations, history remains necessary. “It is easy to demolish the very idea of historical knowing,” continues Hoffer, “but impossible to demolish the importance of historical knowing.” No matter what historians think about the reliability of their evidence, non-historians will use the past for their own purposes. So “the value of owning history increases at the same time as our confidence in history as a way of knowing crumbles” (The Historian’s Paradox, p. ix).

And we wind up with something more like Baker’s “mythology” than Ranke’s “history.”

That’s abundantly clear in the case of the Christmas Truce. Sainsbury’s used this piece of the past to enhance its brand in a time of disruptive competition. Simultaneously, its partners in the Royal British Legion — by giving their stamp of approval to the ad and an associated fundraising campaign — buttressed their standing as the guardians of the memory of soldiers like Private Cunningham. With the creation of the soccer memorial at Plogsteert, UEFA used the past to solidify the symbolic importance of their sport.

And the makers of All Is Calm use it…

Well, it would be beyond cynical to accuse them of simply trying to make money. (Though the marketing of the musical as a “new holiday tradition” makes it sound a bit too much like something you’d see at the Macy’s around the corner.) Whatever else it is, All Is Calm is saturated with idealism — and infused with a certain vision of what should have been, if not what actually happened.

Peter Rothstein frames his play as recovering a noble but inconvenient truth that had been hidden in the history he learned years earlier: (I’m quoting from the program printed the last time I saw the musical, in 2014)

I studied World War I in high school and college, but I don’t remember reading about the Christmas Truce in any of my textbooks. If I had, I certainly would have remembered….

So why did I not learn of this remarkable event? The propaganda machine of war is powerful, and news of soldiers fraternizing across enemy lines humanizes the Germans and readily undermines public support for the war. The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks — the young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic — those who acted with great courage to put down their guns, overcoming a fear that placed a gun in their hands in the first place. Their story puts a human face on war, and that’s the story I hope to tell.

It’s hard to credit Rothstein’s memory, since the truce has featured prominently in most academic and popular accounts about the first year of the war. But it’s easy to share his empathy for the soldiers. And to share his regret that perhaps the war could have ended that winter, had only the soldiers — and not the generals and prime ministers — been the decision makers.

Still, what he presents in All Is Calm is more myth than history. It’s telling that Rothstein’s version of the story doesn’t have actual characters, just anonymous readers and singers. The humans whose stories he wants to tell come to life as proof-texts.

Uprooted from context and stripped of complexity, they exist to teach a moral.

By contrast, see how historian Peter Hart, author of a revisionist history of the British Expeditionary Force’s experience in 1914, interpreted the truce in a post for his publisher’s blog:

Hart, Fire and MovementFor the vast majority of the participants, the truce was a matter of convenience and maudlin sentiment. It did not mark some deep flowering of the human spirit, or signify political anti-war emotions taking root amongst the ranks. The truce simply enabled them to celebrate Christmas in a freer, more jovial, and, above all, safer environment, while satisfying their rampant curiosity about their enemies.

The truce could not last: it was a break from reality, not the dawn of a peaceful world….

War regained its grip on the whole of the British sector. When it came to it, the troops went back to war willingly enough. Many would indeed have rejoiced at the end of the war, but they were still willing to accept orders, still willing to kill Germans. Nothing had changed.

Or as Private Cunningham wrote home: “When darkness came we both went back to our trenches, and the great European war was on again.”

Adapted from an earlier post at The Pietist SchoolmanFor a more hopeful interpretation of the Christmas Truce, see this 2014 Anxious Bench guest-post by Bradley Strait.

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