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The WWI Christmas Truce of 1914

December 24-26, 1914: The Christmas Truce

In December 1914 the world was reeling from the trauma of five months of horrifying bloodshed, which spread death and sowed hatred on a scale almost beyond comprehension. As a particularly fierce winter blanketed Europe in snow and ice, civilians on the home front found their worries compounded by the first shortages of food and fuel. Worst of all, most people now realized that there was no end in sight: the war would probably go on for years.

But in the midst of all this misery humanity still somehow prevailed, if only for a moment, creating one of the most powerful cultural memories and moral examples of the Great War.

The famous Christmas Truce of 1914, when exhausted foes put down their guns to enjoy a brief evening of peace and camaraderie, began with music. It started on Christmas Eve, when British and German soldiers huddling in the cold, damp trenches tried to cheer themselves up by singing Christmas carols and songs from home – then were amazed to hear their enemies applauding and responding with songs of their own. William Robinson, an American volunteer in the British Army, recalled the strange scene:

"During the evening the Germans started singing, and I heard some of the most beautiful music I ever listened to in my life. The song might start just opposite us, and it would be taken up all along the line, and soon it would seem as if all the Germans in Belgium were singing. When they had finished we would applaud with all our might, and then we would give them a song in return… The men were getting along well with it, when someone in the German trenches joined in singing in just as good English as any of us could speak."

There were many talented musicians on both sides, who now paid tribute to their foes by playing their national songs, showing that the national hatreds were far from universal even among men on the frontline, who had the most reason to embrace them. Phil Rader, an American volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, described one such exchange:

"After dinner we heard a blast of music that thrilled us. A little German band had crept into the trenches and announced itself with a grand chord. Then came the unexpected chords of the 'Marseillaise.' The Frenchmen were almost frantic with delight. George Ullard, our Negro cook, who came from Galveston, got out his mouth organ and almost burst his lungs playing 'Die Wacht am Rhein.'"

The exchange of songs across no-man’s-land built trust and encouraged curiosity, leading to shouted verbal exchanges, followed by men poking their heads over the parapets – normally a suicidal move – only to find their erstwhile enemies looking back at them, waving and beckoning. When it became clear that neither side was going to shoot, in a matter of minutes soldiers were climbing out of the trenches and crossing no-man’s-land to meet the men who had been shooting at them a few hours before (top, British and German troops fraternize).

They shook hands, embraced, and tried to communicate as best they could, helped by informal translators, who in many cases had lived in the enemy’s country before the war. One British junior officer, Edward Hulse, met a German counterpart who had lived in Britain for years and lost everything he loved when the war started:

"He came from Suffolk where he had left his best girl and a 3 ½ h.p. motor-bike! He told me that he could not get a letter to the girl, and wanted to send one through me. I made him write out a postcard in front of me, in English, and I sent it off that night. I told him that she probably would not be a bit keen to see him again… They protested that they had no feeling of enmity towards us at all, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers they had to obey…"

The truce continued into the next day, as junior officers took advantage of the break in hostilities to get some important tasks done – above all, burying the dead. Victor Chapman, an American in the Foreign Legion who would later become the first American pilot killed in the war, recalled:

"Christmas morning a Russian up the line who spoke good German, wished them the greetings of the season, to which the Boches responded that instead of nice wishes they would be very grateful to the French if the latter buried their compatriot who had lain before their trenches for the last two months… The burying funeral performed, a German Colonel distributed cigars and cigarettes and another German officer took a picture of the group."

Indeed, as it was Christmas, it was only natural to exchange presents, which not only demonstrated goodwill but allowed men on both sides to get things they lacked. Edward Roe, a British corporal, recalled:  “They gave us bottles of wine and cigars; we gave them tins of jam, bully [beef], mufflers, tobacco etc. I annexed a tin of raspberry from the sergeant’s dugout and gave it to a stodgy and bespectacled Saxon. In return he gave me a leather case containing five cigars… The line was all confusion [with] no sentries and no one in possession of arms.”

In some places the truce continued into December 26, “Boxing Day,” and even as late as December 27 – but inevitably it was bound to come to an end. Senior officers on both sides were livid when they heard about the informal ceasefire, which they believed threatened to undermine morale and discipline; after all, as some German soldiers told members of 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers: “We don’t want to kill you, and you don’t want to kill us. So why shoot?” British war correspondent Philip Gibbs summed up the contradiction in simple, damning terms: “The war had become the most tragic farce in the world. The frightful senselessness of it was apparent when the enemies of two nations fighting to the death stood in the grey mist together and liked each other. It became so apparent that army orders had to be issued stopping such truces.”

It’s worth noting, however, that the truce wasn’t universal. According to British eyewitnesses, German troops from Saxony were often eager to fraternize, perhaps because of their shared ethnic heritage with the Anglo-Saxons, whereas Prussian troops were much less likely to make any friendly gestures, if only because they were under the stern supervision of committed Prussian officers. Meanwhile, on the Allied side, French troops were understandably also less inclined to fraternize with invaders occupying their own homeland – indeed, in some cases, their own homes. And regardless of nationality, some individuals simply seemed unable to put aside their personal hatred of the enemy. A Bavarian dispatch runner, Adolf Hitler, voiced strong disapproval of the truce, according to one of his fellow dispatch runners, who later recounted: “He said, ‘Something like this should not even be up for discussion during wartime.’”

Although some men held back, the Christmas Truce still delivered an unambiguous message to the world that the ideal of a universal humanity, along with basic values like human kindness, had not yet fallen victim to the war. The war would continue, but that declaration would not be effaced, lasting until the present day. Back in the trenches Roe captured the wrenching sense of sadness among soldiers who would have to continue fighting, knowing neither they nor their enemy wanted to:

"Would the Spirit of Christmas be maintained?... Would ambitious Statesmen and Warlords, who only think of the Regimental officer and common soldier in terms of mathematics, cast aside their ambitions, stupidity, pride and hatred and allow the angel of peace, instead of the angel of death, to spread his wings over stricken and bleeding humanity. I, or any of my comrades, as far as I can ascertain, bear no malice or hatred against the German soldier. He has got to do as he is told, and so have we… I’m afraid I’m a damn bad soldier. I’m preaching peace in the spirit of Christmas."

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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