Joyeux Noel

28 November 2013

This month I contributed to a three-hour festive marathon; Channel 5’s ‘Greatest Ever Christmas Movies’, to be shown on Christmas Eve. As I went in to the studios, Aled Jones came out. My specialist subject was war films. War may not typically be associated with the Christmas film feel-good factor, but it led to some merriment in our house as we tried to work out whether Christmas had featured in The Eagle Has LandedDownfall or The Hurt Locker. In the end it turned out there was only one war film among Channel 5’s festive top 40 list: Christian Carion’s very beautiful French film Joyeux Noel from 2005, about the Christmas truces down the Western Front in 1914.

The Joyeux Noel poster (2005)

Joyeux Noel is a visually stunning film, with wonderful music – not least the singing of ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘Ave Maria’ between the trenches. However it does rather romanticize this most powerful moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent episodes in modern history, the First World War. When it was released, the New York Times film critic, Stephen Holden, neatly declared that the film was ‘as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth’. But while it is tempting to write off Joyeux Noel as purely Christmas feel-good, with a narrow focus that does little to help widen our understanding of this remarkable moment in the war, the film does prick interest in the truly extraordinary story of the 1914 Christmas truces.

Joyeux Noel is pegged around a rather feeble love story. A handsome and feted German opera singer has been drafted to the front. His beautiful wife, who hails from the same trade, has negotiated his return from the trenches for the night of Christmas Eve so that they can duet at the officers’ party. Our hero then forgoes a night of peaceful romance to dutifully return to the front, prompting his wife to follow. As far as I am aware, there are no reports of female opera singers performing at the Christmas truces, but the premise certainly provides lots of powerful cinematic and surround-sound opportunities. However, despite this, and a few other historical inaccuracies, the fundamental premise of the film, the most apparently unbelievable thing of all, is entirely true – there were a series of unofficial ceasefires down the length of the Western Front, during which the men who had been killing each other one day put down their arms, climbed out of their opposing trenches, and met in no man’s land for a day of shared Christmas peace.

German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment with men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in no man’s land, Christmas 1914

At the start of the Great War, as it was then known, there were several localized cease-fires and some fairly accepted codes of conduct among soldiers of both sides. In late 1914, the first winter of the war, 101 British women wrote an ‘Open Christmas Letter’ to the women of Austria and Germany, hoping to promote peace. Pope Benedict XV followed their lead, calling for an official Christmas truce, sadly without success.

Nevertheless, on 24 and 25 December 1914, around 100,000 troops stopped fighting along the length of the Western Front. As in the film, along some stretches of the trenches, German soldiers set up small Christmas trees, lit with candles. Carols were sung collectively by the men of both armies, and some later met to exchange uniform buttons, photographs and gifts of wine and Christmas puddings. Over the following days the fallen were retrieved and buried in peace, religious services were held and, if not refereed football matches, there were at least informal kick-arounds.

The ceasefires were not official policy, and they were not ubiquitous. In some places the peace lasted just one night, in others several days. Some soldiers were shot under cover of the truce, and along much of the front there was no cessation of hostilities at all. Most commanders opposed the truces as did, famously, one young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry called Adolf Hitler. But the truces did take place, as hundreds of letters from both sides of the front testify.

Letter from Major Hawksley, Warwick Regiment, 27 December 1914

‘The Germans were quite friendly with us’ Lance Corporal Cooper of the 2nd Northampton’s wrote home. ‘They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return.’ ‘Fancy shaking hands with the enemy!’ scribbled Private B Calder of the 6th Gordons, ‘I suppose you will hardly believe this, but it is the truth’. Despite attempts at censorship the British press were quick to cover the story, some more sentimentally than others, and many quoted the soldiers’ letters. The Times endorsed the men’s lack of malice, and The Mirror regretted that the ‘absurdity and tragedy would begin again’. 

The Daily Mirror: ‘A Historic Group; British and German soldiers photographed together’

Like most of those articles, Joyeux Noel is a film with an intimate focus. It does not consider the political or military causes, or wider morality, of the First World War. At most, it hints at the later public swell of feeling to never let such an atrocity happen again, which led to the establishment of, among other organisations, the League of Nations, the Save the Children Fund, and the German Youth Hostel Association, the latter founded by a returning soldier who had taken part in the Christmas truces. There is also a poignant reference to the failure of this movement, when the Iron-Cross holding German commanding officer mentions that he is Jewish.

Essentially however, Joyeux Noel is a statement about the insanity of war, the shared horror of trench warfare and, above all, about the men who found humanity in this least human of situations. Its message, that war is dehumanising, and that even our soldiers must not be made to demonise their enemies, is sadly still relevant today. With its sentimental romance, it might not make a list of top war films, but it does Channel 5credit to include it in their Christmas list. Films about snowmen can be beautiful and important, but war, and peace, should be remembered at Christmas too.