We are on the cusp of the hundredth anniversary of the first world war and the British ruling class and its scribes in the media will be releasing a nauseating avalanche of jingoistic propaganda to hide the true realities of the war. This is a good time to revisit Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), a 2005 semi-factual film about the 1914 Christmas truce depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers. It is a small antidote to the misinformation we will read and see on our screens during 2014.
The film centres mainly on six characters: Gordon, an officer in the Royal Scots Fusiliers; Audebert, a reluctant French officer who is also the son, and grandson, of members of the French general staff; Horstmayer, a Jewish German officer; Palmer, a Scottish priest working as a stretcher-bearer; and a German opera singer who is a soldier and his Danish lover who is also an opera singer. The Scottish actor who plays the priest, Father Palmer, is Gary Lewis, who played the striking miner father of ‘Billy Elliot’. Before he became an actor, he was a member of Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party Scotland, and was heavily involved in the 1984 miners’ strike and the other class battles of the 1980s.
On 28 June 1914, a Serbian nationalist student assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, during a state visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Five weeks later, starting 4 August, Austria, Russia, Germany, France and Britain were at war, with all the belligerent countries’ capitalist politicians and their kept press saying it will be over by Christmas. Instead it persisted, with an estimated figure of ten million dying during the following four-year long industrialised bloodbath.
Reasons for war?
The actual trigger, the assassination of the archduke, was almost inconsequential. The real reason for the war was economic: the struggle for raw materials, colonies and markets in Asia, Africa and elsewhere by Britain, Germany, France and even ‘little Belgium’. That, combined with the growth of capitalist development in eastern and south-eastern Europe, raising the question of the national self-determination of the Balkan peoples into national states, made for an explosive situation by 1914.
Every belligerent country wrapped itself in patriotic colours and Joyeux Noel begins with scenes of schoolboys reciting patriotic speeches that both praise their respective countries and condemn their enemies. In Scotland, two young brothers join up to fight, followed by their priest, Father Palmer. In Germany, an opera singer is interrupted during a performance by a German officer announcing a reserve call-up. The French officer is looking at a photograph of his pregnant wife whom he has had to leave behind in the German occupied part of France.
By Christmas the war had solidified to an ‘iron curtain’ of trenches extending 350 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea. A few days before Christmas, the Scots and French troops in Joyeux Noel lead a combined assault on the German trenches in France. The attack causes heavy casualties on both sides, but it does not break the stalemate of trench warfare. One of the Scottish brothers is mortally wounded during the attack and his brother, Jonathan, is forced to abandon him in no-man’s-land as they retreat. The French officer loses his wallet, with the photograph of his wife, in the German trench in the confusion.
Meanwhile, because the Danish opera singer, Anna, is well known to the upper circles of the German ruling class, she gets permission to perform a Christmas recital for Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia. Her German lover, Private Sprink, is taken from the front and allowed to accompany her in the recital. They spend a night together and then perform. Afterward, Sprink expresses bitterness at the comfort of the generals at their headquarters, and resolves to return to the front to sing for the troops. Sprink is initially against Anna’s decision to go with him, but he agrees shortly afterward. This is where the director and writer, Christian Carion, used artistic license because there seems to be no records of female civilians being at the front in 1914.
The unofficial truce is instigated when the Scots begin to sing festive songs and songs from home, accompanied by bagpipes, led by Father Palmer. The opera singers arrive in the German front-line and Sprink sings for his comrades. As Sprink sings Silent Night he is accompanied by a piper in the Scottish front-line. Sprink responds to the piper and exits his trench with a small Christmas tree singing Adeste Fideles.
Following Sprink’s lead the French, German and Scottish officers meet in no-man’s-land and agree on a ceasefire for the evening. The various soldiers meet and wish each other ‘Joyeux Noël’, ‘Frohe Weihnachten’, and ‘Merry Christmas’. They exchange chocolate, champagne and photographs of loved ones and connect over pre-war memories. Palmer and the Scots celebrate a brief mass for the soldiers (in Latin as was the practice in the Catholic church) and the soldiers retire deeply moved. However, Jonathan remains totally unmoved by the events around him, grieving for his brother.
On Christmas day the officers have coffee together and decide to bury their dead. Later, the two sides play a football match against each other – an event which actually took place on that day. The following day, after sheltering each other during artillery barrages on both sides, the commanders decide it is time for all of them to go their own way. The French, Scottish and German soldiers now must face the inevitable consequences from their superiors. As the Germans return to their own trenches after the Allied barrage, the opera singers, Sprink and Anna, quietly remain with the French and ask the French officer to take them prisoner, so they can remain together.
In the film, as in real life, the soldiers from the trenches wrote letters back to their loved ones in their respective homelands, and the military and political elite of each country had a crackdown. One letter from a soldier from the Gordon Highlanders to his parents said that the Germans were as fed up of the war as they were and that the German soldiers told him they had been hoodwinked by the kaiser about the reasons for the war. Another soldier from the Seaforth Highlanders told his parents that they had a three-day ceasefire over Christmas with Bavarian soldiers who told them they were tired of the war and that it would not benefit them in any way as they were socialists.
The general staffs of all nations saw great dangers in fraternisation and directives from them came down to the front. General Forrestier-Walker of the British army issued an edict forbidding fraternisation because "it discourages initiatives in commanders, and destroys offensive spirit in all ranks… Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited".
Father Palmer is to be sent back to his own parish and his battalion disbanded as a mark of shame. Despite emphasising the humanity and goodwill of the truce, he is rebuked by his Scottish bishop, who then preaches an anti-German sermon to new recruits, in which he describes the Germans as evil and commands the recruits to kill every one of them. Father Palmer overhears the sermon and takes off his Christian cross necklace as he leaves.
Disgust for political and military commanders
Back in the trenches, the Scots are ordered by a furious major angered by the truce to shoot a German soldier who is entering no-man’s-land and crossing towards French lines. The soldiers refuse to kill him and shoot a warning shot above the German soldier’s head. Again, many of the letters sent home spoke of this type of action on both sides of the barbed wire. However, the vengeful Jonathan shoots the German, mortally wounding him.
The punishment for the French officer, Audebert, is to be sent to Verdun, and he receives a dressing down from his father, a general. In a culminating outburst, young Audebert upbraids his father, expressing no remorse at the fraternisation at the front, and also his disgust for the political and military commanders who talk of sacrifice but know nothing of the struggle in the trenches.
Horstmayer and his troops, who are confined in a train, are informed by the crown prince that they are a disgrace to the German army and that they are to be shipped to the eastern front, without permission to see their families as they pass through Germany. He then stomps on Jörg’s harmonica, and implies that Horstmayer does not deserve his Iron Cross. As the train departs, the Germans start humming a Scottish carol they learned from the Scots, L’Hymne des Fraternisés/I’m Dreaming of Home. It tugged at my heart strings and brought a tear to the eye.
Let’s leave the last word with Vladimir Lenin, one of the leaders of the Marxist Bolshevik party and co-leader of the Russian revolution in October 1917. When he heard about the Christmas truce he commented that, if there were workers’ organisations prepared to fight for such a policy among the soldiers of all the belligerent nations, there might be a quick end to the war in favour of the working class and poor. He wrote: "Try to imagine Hyndman, Guesde, Vandervelde, Plekhanov, Kautsky and the rest [leaders of the social democratic and workers’ parties that supported the war] – instead of aiding the bourgeoisie (something they are now engaged in) – forming an international committee to agitate for fraternisation and attempts to establish friendly relations between the socialists of the belligerent countries, both in the trenches and among the troops in general. What would the results be several months from now?"
Joyeux Noel, Directed by Christian Carion, 2005, 116 mins - available on DVD