Saturday, 10 March 2007

Joyeux Noël

Tonight I watched a film entitled Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas).

Now it may seem to be the wrong time of year to be watching a film by that name but I don't think so. While it is certainly not a great film it is, without doubt, a memorable film. Based on real events of 24th December 1914 it is a film that, although not portraying the horror of war, it does show the futility and duplicity of war. What it does show is that the person you think of as your enemy is just as human as you or I. In my (humble) opinion whoever produced and directed this film did a marvellous job because they did not turn it into a Hollywood flag waving blockbuster with big star names but instead kept it low key with mostly unknown actors (there was one actor I recognised Gary Lewis who is not well known but an excellent actor) and showed the humanity of the people involved in the war and the dilemma they faced after confronting 'the enemy' on social/friendly terms.

While the actual events may have been turned into a modern day fairy tale there are still lessons to be learnt from the events on that day.

The Christmas Truce has often been characterized as the last "twitch" of the nineteenth century: the last moment when, in war, two sides would meet each other in proper and mutual respect; when they would greet each other with kindness to show that — in spite of the horrible turn of events that had unfolded — they were still honorable and respectful soldiers of war. Wikipedia:

On November 7, 2006, singer Chris de Burgh paid £14,400 at Bonhams auction house for an original 10 page letter from an unknown British soldier that records events and incidents with the Germans on that night describing "the most memorable Christmas I've ever spent".

The letter begins:

This will be the most memorable Christmas I've ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don't think theres been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us — wishing us a Happy Christmas etc. They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations. Some of our chaps went to over to their lines. I think theyve all come back bar one from 'E' Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir. In spite of our fires etc. it was terribly cold and a job to sleep between look out duties, which are two hours in every six.

First thing this morning it was very foggy. So we stood to arms a little longer than usual. A few of us that were lucky could go to Holy Communion early this morning. It was celebrated in a ruined farm about 500 yds behind us. I unfortunately couldn't go. There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as to day we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down. We had breakfast about 8.0 which went down alright especially some cocoa we made. We also had some of the post this morning. I had a parcel from B. G's Lace Dept containing a sweater, smokes, under clothes etc. We also had a card from the Queen, which I am sending back to you to look after please. After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We've had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about a 100 yds from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him.

About 10.30 we had a short church parade the morning service etc. held in the trench. How we did sing. 'O come all ye faithful. And While shepherds watched their flocks by night' were the hymns we had. At present we are cooking our Christmas Dinner! so will finish this letter later.

Dinner is over! and well we enjoyed it. Our dinner party started off with fried bacon and dip-bread: followed by hot Xmas Pudding. I had a mascot in my piece. Next item on the menu was muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate etc followed by cocoa and smokes. You can guess we thought of the dinners at home. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I've also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won't fire tomorrow if we don't so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday — perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.

We can hardly believe that we've been firing at them for the last week or two — it all seems so strange. At present its freezing hard and everything is covered with ice…

The letter ends:

There are plenty of huge shell holes in front of our trenches, also pieces of shrapnel to be found. I never expected to shake hands with Germans between the firing lines on Christmas Day and I don't suppose you thought of us doing so. So after a fashion we've enjoyed? our Christmas. Hoping you spend a happy time also George Boy as well. How we thought of England during the day. Kind regards to all the neighbours. With much love from Boy.

... and from

In the public's mind the facts have become irrevocably mythologized, and perhaps this is the most important legacy of the Christmas Truce today. In our age of uncertainty, it comforting to believe, regardless of the real reasoning and motives, that soldiers and officers told to hate, loathe and kill, could still lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.

Most fascinating as corroboration of the truce are the letters posted home, before censorship closed such opportunities, by both sides. Many from the British side can still be read, because families eagerly sent them to their hometown newspapers, from the Exeter Argus to the South Wales Echo and Belfast Evening Telegraph, which through January 1915 described details of what otherwise would indeed have seemed a fairy tale.

Read also The day the fighting stopped. and CHRISTMAS TRUCE: THE LETTERS

During the following Christmases of the Great War the Military Authorities were to ensure that these unique events were never repeated.