All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Next month my colleague Sam Mulberry and I are again taking a group of Bethel University students on a three-week trip to Europe to study the history of World War I. I’m especially excited to be in Europe during the first year of the war’s ongoing centenary, and will try to find a way to share updates as we go. (I’m thinking of doing more via Twitter this time… Stay tuned.)

We had our final check-in with the entire class last Wednesday, then five of them took us up on an offer to spend the following night at Minneapolis’ Pantages Theatre, where we took in a show of All Is Calm, a kind of WWI musical that has become a local holiday fixture in recent years.

In truth, “WWI musical” probably isn’t the best way to categorize All Is Calm. Instead, writer-director Peter Rothstein (in his production notes) likens it to “radio musical drama,” anachronistic for the period but more apropos than “musical.” Most of the cast consists of the male chorus Cantus, singing in English, German, and French: everything from patriotic songs to Ralph Vaughan Williams arrangements of Christmas carols. (With “Silent Night” giving the production its title.) Then three actors tell the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 by reciting excerpts from a wide variety of primary sources. Winston Churchill and Pope Benedict XV make cameos, but mostly we hear from the enlisted men and officers on both sides of the Western Front, their impressions of the war and the truce that briefly interrupted it preserved via letters and diary entries.

It’s a moving piece, and an appropriately sober preview of our trip for students. (The cast even reenacts the “Last Post” ritual that we’ll participate in during our night in Ypres.) 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 in song.

I’ve already discussed one truce-related quarrel: over the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s using the truce as the setting for its rather elaborate — and, to critics, inappropriate and manipulative — Christmas ad, produced in conjunction with Britain’s leading veterans organization. (I wrote a somewhat different post on the same topic for our department blog, asking our alumni and students what they thought of such a use of history, and who has the authority to rule on its appropriateness.)

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 soccer.

Christmas Truce Soccer Memorial
Erected near Ploegsteert, Belgium on the 85th anniversary of the Truce (“Lest We Forget”). 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 at Ypres.

That British and German soldiers played soccer in No Man’s Land is a central element of the Christmas Truce story, appearing in both the Sainsbury’s ad and All Is Calm. Last week Europe’s governing body for the sport unveiled a new permanent memorial near the same site as the one shown above. “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 this fall I got an e-mail from an acquaintance at the Minnesota Historical Society, wondering if I could confirm whether soccer actually was part of the truce. It didn’t take much digging to realize that this question is more complicated than it would seem. Virtually no historians seem to think that anything like a full match took place — or could have, given the moon-like terrain of No Man’s Land. According to Chris Baker, author of a new book on the Truce, the notion of “Fritz” winning a 3-2 match originated with a 1962 short story by war poet Robert Graves, and was solidified by the 1983 Paul McCartney music video that I mentioned in my Sainsbury’s post.

But Baker goes further, claiming that there’s little evidence of any soccer being played. In an article in The Guardian, he acknowledged that there are references 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.”

Photo of British and German soldiers during the truce
Photo of German and British soldiers during the Christmas Truce of 1914 – Imperial War Museum

But Peter Rothstein, like others before him, did quote a German account of soccer being played. In a 1960s interview 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.

Baker acknowledges this in his book, and while he points out discrepancies in Niemann’s account, he 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 is this important?

First, it underscores that history is “impossible.” That is, the nature of our 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 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.”) The story of the Christmas Truce, and the place of soccer within it, is unlikely to be fully recovered, despite our best efforts.

Hoffer, The Historian's ParadoxBut second, history — despite its limitations — remains “necessary.” As Peter Hoffer puts it, “It is easy to demolish the very idea of historical knowing but impossible to demolish the importance of historical knowing” (The Historian’s Paradox, p. ix, italics original). No matter what historians think about the reliability of their evidence, others will use the past for their purposes. So, writes Hoffer, “the value of owning history increases at the same time as our confidence in history as a way of knowing crumbles.” And we wind up with something more like Baker’s “mythology” than Ranke’s “history.”

That’s abundantly clear with the Christmas Truce. Sainsbury’s uses 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 — buttress their standing as the owners of the veterans’ past. With the creation of the memorial at Plogsteert, UEFA uses history 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 labeling of the play as a “new holiday tradition” makes it sound a bit more commercial, like something you’d see at the Macy’s outlet we walked past on our way to the theatre.) Whatever else it is, All Is Calm is saturated with idealism — and infused with a certain vision of what could or should have been, if not what actually happened.

Peter Rothstein frames his work as recovering a noble but inconvenient truth that had been hidden in the history he learned years earlier:

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 — certainly in the last fifty years, 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.

Hart, Fire and MovementStill, what he’s presenting is more fable than history. It’s telling that Rothstein’s version of the story doesn’t have actual characters. 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 new history of the British Expeditionary Force’s experience in 1914, interpreted the Truce in a recent post for his publisher’s blog:

For 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.

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