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."

See the previous installment or all entries.

Kit Harington Reveals Which Harry Potter Character He'd Want to Play in a Prequel

Kit Harington is clearly drawn to dark, brooding characters.

Winter is Coming reports that Harington, who is best known for his role as Jon Snow in the hard-hitting HBO series Game of Thrones, spoke on a panel at ACE Comic Con this past weekend. Though he was there to discuss his upcoming role as Dane Whitman, a.k.a. Black Knight, in the upcoming Marvel Studios film The Eternals, his involvement in—and love for—other franchises came up during the conversation.

The moderator of the panel surprised the audience by bringing up Harington’s love for the Harry Potter series, and, of course, asked him which Hogwarts house he aligns with. The 32-year-old actor responded, “I am a Gryffindor. I’ve thought very deeply about it.” Though Harington himself identifies with the lion-hearted, he does believe that Jon Snow would be a Hufflepuff because of his undying loyalty.

Harington was then asked which character he would want to play in a hypothetical Harry Potter prequel movie about the Marauders—a group of Gryffindors that included James Potter (Harry’s dad), Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew, who attended Hogwarts a generation before Harry and his friends. And who were often at odds with Slytherin Severus Snape.

Harington's response was immediate, and enthusiastic:

Severus Snape is the most tragic, wonderful, brilliant [character] ... He’s a character you hate, and then end up loving. He’s just phenomenal. I don’t think I’m right for him, so I’ll play Sirius. But, whoever gets to play Snape, that’s a great character.”

[h/t Winter Is Coming]

Disney's 10 Scariest Movies

Lynn-Holly Johnson, Bette Davis, and Kyle Richards in The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Lynn-Holly Johnson, Bette Davis, and Kyle Richards in The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Walt Disney Pictures

Disney: Known for catchy songs, cute animal sidekicks, brave Princesses … and occasionally scarring children for life. A lot of Disney’s more famously upsetting moments have to do with deathBambi’s mother and Mufasa’s father, for instance—but sometimes the studio goes plain horror movie with it. As Halloween approaches, here are 10 of Disney’s scariest movies.

1. Return to Oz (1985)

Return Oz establishes its “wait, what the hell am I watching?” cred early on, when Dorothy Gale—back in Kansas following her adventures in Oz—is shipped off to the doctor for a round of electroshock therapy to cure her insomnia and “delusions.” Dorothy is saved from her One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fate and whisked off to Oz again, where she finds that the Nome King and Princess Mombi—Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh, who also played the doctor and head nurse—have destroyed the Emerald City and turned most of its inhabitants to stone. Playing Dorothy in her first feature film role is Fairuza Balk, who would go on to star in perpetual Halloween favorite The Craft. Return to Oz is the only film directed by legendary editor Walter Murch, most famous for his work on Apocalypse Now.

2. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

The collected works of Ray Bradbury have been adapted into dozens of films, only a handful of which were written by the late author himself. The final feature film to be written by Bradbury is 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, which in its first act is a typical, sweet—if somewhat dark—drama about two young boys growing up in a small town in the Midwest. Then a carnival rolls into town, and things get real messed up. Running the carnival is Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), who grants the townspeople’s wishes in ways that … well, let’s just say they’re not very nice.

3. Mr. Boogedy (1986)

“Made-for-TV ‘80s movie about a gag gift salesman and his family” doesn’t scream terror, but Mr. Boogedy defies the odds to have some legitimately creepy moments. Granted, it’s not a subtle film: a family that moves into a dilapidated mansion in a town called called Lucifer Falls shouldn’t really expect to have an easy go of things. The mansion, believe it or not, is haunted by not one but three spirits: a widow, her child, and the eponymous Mr. Boogedy, who back in Colonial times sold his soul to Satan for a cloak that gives him magical powers. It’s Mr. Boogedy’s character design that gives the movie its biggest ick factor; the film’s makeup designer, Rick Stratton, would go on to win two Emmys. Mr. Boogedy’s cloak is eventually sucked into a possessed vacuum cleaner.

4. The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Director John Hough’s The Watcher in the Woods isn’t only scary because it gives Bette Davis and current Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star (and then-child actress) Kyle Richards a decent chunk of shared screen time. Based on a 1976 novel, the film—like Mr. Boogedy—follows a family that moves into a mysterious house haunted by some mysterious presence. In The Watcher in the Woods, that presence is thought to be Karen, the long-disappeared daughter of the house’s owner, played by a collecting-those-paychecks Davis. Spoiler alert: There are actually two presences. One is Karen. The other is an alien. The original ending of The Watcher in the Woods actually showed the alien, but the effects were so bad that the premiere audience broke out laughing, causing Hough to reshoot the climactic final scene with the aliens as a vague blur of light.

5. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Released in 1949, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is made up of two half-hour, kid-friendly literary adaptations, the first from The Wind in the Willows and the second from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Neither segment is particularly scary … up until the last few minutes of “Sleepy Hollow,” when the animators went all-out to make schoolteacher Ichabod Crane’s flight from the Headless Horseman a contender for Disney’s scariest scene. Clyde Geronimi, who with Jack Kinney directed the “Sleepy Hollow” sequence, would go on to co-direct Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians.

6. Pinocchio (1940)

Jiminy Cricket hopping around and The Blue Fairy singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” might be the most enduring images from Disney’s second-ever animated feature, but let’s not forget that Pinocchio could be scary when it needed to be. The film’s most potent bit of nightmare fuel comes in the scene where a bunch of children are magically transformed into terrified, crying donkeys so they could be sold away as slave labor. Looks like Disney had a taste for causing childhood trauma early on.

7. “The Skeleton Dance” (1929)

Spooky and cute: Why not both? The 1929 short “The Skeleton Dance” threads the needle deftly, with its depiction of a quartet of skeletons dancing around a graveyard maintaining the goofy tone that marks most of the early Disney shorts while still providing an ample dose of the shivers. “The Skeleton Dance” was drawn by Ub Iwerks, who several years earlier had designed Mickey Mouse.

8. Fantasia (1940)

Most of the segments in Disney’s Fantasia are markedly un-creepy—unless you consider ballet-dancing hippos disturbing, which makes a fair amount of sense—but with “Night on Bald Mountain,” Disney went full dark and stormy night. Set to the title song by composer Modest Mussorgsky, the film depicts the ancient Slavic deity Chernabog (whose name means “black god) calling all sorts of assorted demonic creatures to him before being driven away by the rising of the sun. Bela Lugosi served as a live-action reference for Chernabog, spending a day at Disney Studios striking a series of ominous poses. Nothing that Lugosi provided was ultimately used, as animator Bill Tylta was unimpressed by it.

9. The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Black Cauldron was an infamous failure for Disney, earning a mere $20 million domestically against a budget that made it, at the time, "the most expensive animated feature ever made.” With the film, Disney ditched the songs and lighthearted feel that marked its animated features up to that point in favor of a darker fantasy epic; notably, The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature to earn a PG rating. Though it’s notoriously regarded as a flop, there’s one area in which The Black Cauldron is quite successful: making its villain, the Horned King, absolutely terrifying. Even the way he dies is nightmare-inducing: The magical black cauldron that the Horned King hoped would give him power to take over the world with an undead army instead melts his flesh off. It’s a bit more gruesome than the typically death-by-falling most Disney villains get.

10. Hocus Pocus (1993)

Initially released in 1993 to middling box office returns (Disney made the odd choice to release this Halloween-themed movie in July), director Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus has gone on to achieve cult status. Omri Katz, since retired from acting, stars as Max Dennison, who with neighbor Allison and younger sister Dani must defeat the Sanderson sisters, a trio of witches who were hanged during the Salem witch trials. One of the witches was played by Sarah Jessica Parker, whose ancestor Esther Elwell was accused of being a witch in 17th-century Salem; she escaped execution when prosecution from witchcraft was done away with.

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