Joyeux Noёl: The Beginnings of WWI and the Christmas Truce of 1914


Editor’s note: Christmas is a special time of year, and over the years TOO has posted some classic articles that bear on the season. This article by F. Roger Devlin was originally posted in December, 2013. It is an important reminder of the disastrous intra-racial wars of the twentieth century—wars that may yet deal a death blow to our people and culture given the processes that they set in motion. 

With the hindsight offered by ninety-nine years, it is obvious that the outbreak of the World War I marked not merely the beginning of the most destructive war in history up to that time, but a fundamental civilizational watershed. While the fighting was going on, nearly all participants assumed they had been forced into the struggle by naked aggression from the other side. It took historians years to unravel what had actually happened.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German Army was the best in Europe, capable of defeating any individual rival. Yet Germany had no natural borders, and was vulnerable to a joint attack on two fronts: by France and Britain in the West and the Russian Empire in the East. A German defeat was considered virtually inevitable in such a scenario.

The Franco-Russian alliance of 1894, which became the Triple Entente when Britain joined in 1907, realized Germany’s worst fears.

However, there were important differences between Germany’s Western and Eastern rivals: France and Britain were modern, compact, efficiently-organized countries capable of rapid mobilization, while sprawling Russia with its thinly spread population and economic backwardness was expected to require up to 110 days for full mobilization. Taking advantage of this asymmetry, the German High Command developed the Schlieffen plan: upon the outbreak of hostilities, close to ninety percent of Germany’s effective troops would launch a lightning attack in the West; this campaign was to be completed within forty days, while lumbering Russia was still mobilizing. With the Western powers out of the way, massive troop transfers to the Eastern front were expected to arrive in time for Germany to face down Russia. Speed—of mobilization, of offensive operations, and of troop transfer—was critical to the success of this plan.

The assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Arch-Duke by a Serb nationalist in June, 1914, is the perfect example of an event which occasioned events which followed, but did not cause them; the men of Europe’s great powers did not slaughter one another for four years over a political assassination in the Balkans. Rather, the assassination occurred in the context of Russian guarantees to Serbia and German guarantees to Austria, which inevitably brought the Triple Entente into play. A diplomatic game of ‘chicken’ ensued, in which no side was willing to be the first to back down.

When Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28th, the Russian Tsar, conscious of his Empire’s military backwardness, ordered a partial mobilization. This action was intended merely as a precaution in case of a war that still seemed unlikely. But for the Germans, with their Schlieffen plan requiring utmost speed, the Tsar’s order had the effect of an electric shock. Germany felt it had to mobilize as well. Russia responded two days later by ordering full mobilization. Germany gave Russia an ultimatum; and the Tsar, unwilling to knuckle under, allowed the deadline to pass. Within hours, everyone was involved in a war that none of the parties had originally wanted or intended.

German historians call such a series of events a Betriebsunfall: a quasi-mechanical accident such as might occur in the machinery of a factory. Men were drawn into the gear work and crushed when no one was able to throw the emergency switch in time. It was a tragedy in the fullest sense of the word—a disaster brought on by well-intentioned but flawed men acting rationally under conditions of imperfect knowledge. The consequences are well-known: ten million dead, twenty-eight million more wounded or missing, Communism established in Russia, the Balfour Declaration setting the stage for today’s ongoing Middle East conflict, and the whole crowned by a shameful ‘peace’ treaty that all but guaranteed a future war of German revenge.

Yet, as we can see from newsreel footage of August 1st, the popular reaction to the outbreak was war fever on a scale not seen since the crusades. Europe had been enjoying forty-three years of peace and unprecedented material prosperity, and the young greeted the war as a romantic adventure.

The planned rapid German advance through the Low Countries into Northeast France was unexpectedly halted  in early September—the “Miracle of the Marne”—foiling the Schlieffen plan. On the 13th, the German Army responded by attempting a flanking action around the French lines; the French then rapidly extended their own defensive lines in what became known as the “race to the sea.” Since neither side could dislodge the other, and neither was willing to retreat, soldiers began digging themselves in to their positions—the beginning of trench warfare. By the time winter set in, the pattern of the next four years had been clearly established: a war of attrition involving trivial advances and retreats across a few acres of mud.

But as Christmas approached that year, something unexpected began unfolding. On the frontline sector south of Ypres, Belgium, German troops began decorating the area around their trenches for Christmas Eve. As Wikipedia describes it:

The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint [religious] services were held.

The ceasefire spread to other sectors of the front, with as many as 100,000 men eventually participating. In some areas, soccer games between the belligerents replaced combat.


By December 26th, it was over. The authorities got word of the breakdown in discipline and intervened vigorously.

In 2005, an international consortium from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Romania produced a film about the Christmas Truce: Joyeux Noёl. The film opens with scenes of children in French, British and German grade schools reciting rhymed curses they had been taught against the opposing side: the British child’s curse calls for the complete extermination of Germans.

The scene switches to Scotland, where an enthusiastic young man, William, rushes into his local Catholic church breathlessly to announce to his younger brother Jonathan that war has been declared; they are to begin basic training in two days. “At last, something’s happening in our lives,” he rejoices. The priest, Fr. Palmer, looks notably less enthusiastic.

At the Berlin Opera, a performance is interrupted by an officer walking on stage to announce that war has been declared. The lead tenor, Sprink, is quickly called up.

In a French trench, Lieutenant Audebert wistfully looks at a photograph of his pregnant wife moments before being called to lead an assault on the German lines. In the ensuing action, Scottish William is mortally wounded; his brother Jonathan is forced to leave him behind, a psychological trauma from which he never recovers. Audebert’s men pour into a German trench, but as they turn a corner, some one-third of them are mown down by a German machine gun.

Meanwhile, Sprink’s lover, the Danish soprano Anna, receives permission to sing before the Crown Prince of Prussia. Sprink is called back from the front to perform with her, and is impressed with the luxurious comfort in which the German commanders are living. When he returns to the front, Anna insists on accompanying him, determined to sing for the ordinary frontline soldiers as well as the officers at headquarters. (The presence of a woman at the front is poetic license on the filmmakers’ part.)

The German soldiers begin setting up Christmas trees along their trenches, to the bewildered suspicion of the French soldiery. After the singers conclude their first number, a cheer goes up from the Scottish trenches. Fr. Palmer plays the first few bars of another Christmas song on the bagpipes, and Sprink responds by performing the song, climbing out into No Man’s Land. Lieutenant Audebert motions to his men to hold fire. Soon, men are pouring out of the trenches on both sides, sharing food and drinks. Fr. Palmer holds a Christmas Eve Mass for all the men.

On Christmas morning, the officers renew the truce and arrange for exchanging their dead. Dozens of men are buried between the lines. A soccer match ensues. The officers realize the situation is untenable and attempt to restore discipline, but by this time the men are refusing to fire upon each other.

A bundle of soldiers’ letters is intercepted by the French authorities, alerting them to the situation. Fearful of having their war spoiled, they dissolve the division and repost its members to various unaffected sectors of the front. The Germans are transferred to the Eastern front to face the Russians. Fr. Palmer is replaced by a Bishop who preaches a sermon urging new recruits to exterminate German men, women and children.

A major theme of the film is music. Sprink’s superior officer begins by telling him that, being a singer, he is useless as a soldier. Then it is the incongruous presence of music that leads to the unplanned ceasefire. At the end, as the Crown Prince of Prussia informs his men of their punishment, he catches sight of a harmonica. He snatches it away and crushes it beneath his boot heel.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 did not change the course of the war very much. In future years, commanders were successful in suppressing similar occurrences. As the war progressed and especially after poison gas was introduced, soldiers gradually came to see their enemies as less than human, as was the intention of the higher officers on all sides. But it has continued to spark the popular imagination in the near-century since it took place. A Canadian historian has written:

It [was] the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman. The ones who survived, who lived to see other Christmases in the war, themselves expressed amazement that this had occurred. The emotions had changed to such a degree that the sort of humanity seen in Christmas 1914 seemed inconceivable.

Joyeux Noёl lost money at the box office, and critics have complained of its “sentimentality.” I suggest seeing it for oneself this Christmas season.

8 replies
    • TJ
      TJ says:

      I was looking at the garbage pickup schedule card on the refrigerator [Waste Management]-

      copyright 2015 WM Intellectual Property Holdings, LLC
      The Recycle Often. Recycle Right. (SM) [meaning Service Mark]



  1. Edward Harris
    Edward Harris says:

    We never hear about:
    The Indian Princes offered 10 mlillion troops to the London Government in 1915, but the offer was refused. Edith Cavell saw American Ships giving meat, in occupied Belgium, to the German Arny.(1 million tons in 1915 alone)The British Government told the Germans to shoot her because she was writing to the Times. Humanitarian Aid from America! Before the Balfour Declaration, ships from Dixie supplied the Central Powers through Spain, the islands and the then neutral Italy. Yankee ships supplied Germany through Scandanavia, Holland and Belgium.
    The European Empires were bled to death with American loans
    The European Empires were being dismanteld. In 1900 Canada, Australia and New Zealand were given Dominion Status.
    The UK was working on India, South Africa(!) and Ireland.This was stopped by the Convert Jews creating WW1. According to Trotsky’s family, one of the reasons the Convert Jews created WW1 was to stop the World becoming Christian.

    • milan
      milan says:

      @ E Harris

      to stop the World becoming Christian.

      I often wonder if could it be possible that with todays amazing hi-tech weaponry there will be some who will think that taking on even God or what purports to be God by way of aliens which is all the rage today is a solution to their continued political power?

      I mean really consider the words:

      They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.” Rev. 17:14

      Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. Rev. 19:19

      I find it distressing that their are those who think that a third world war is needed to bring about some new powerful rebbi in Jerusalem called by Christ incidentally as the Abomination of Desolation.

  2. milan
    milan says:

    It is an important reminder of the disastrous intra-racial wars of the twentieth century—wars that may yet deal a death blow to our people and culture given the processes that they set in motion.

    I’m starting to think give them what they want really? They are going to take it anyway. If they are the kind of people who really think nothing of sacrificing the entire world to the god of war for their deluded beliefs let them have what they want really. I say this only because I know what the final outcome will actually be their demise at the hands of God anyway. Don’t believe me? Just do a study about the destruction of the third temple 70 AD and that earthquake that struck in the year AD 363 which is just another form of Divine Communication. Events which are only a precursor to yet more punishment from on high. The book of Zechariah also teaches this which is uncannily similar to the book of Revelation.
    So give them what they want but warn them solemnly as Samuel did himself about their desire for a king and all that entailed for them. That I think is really the only way. If God Himself realized it thousands of years ago under Samuel then Jesus why would any of us choose to do differently? St. Paul was right to wasn’t he they are contrary to all peoples period! They have got it in their heads they are the chosen and they will listen to no one not even God Himself!

  3. pterodactyl
    pterodactyl says:

    There were two essential prerequisites for the two world Wars to proceed, and for WWI to continue after the Christmas truce, when it could have ended there with both sides just going home.

    1. The warrior instincts of the people were activated, the buttons were pressed, and the people were willing participants. The people were initially keen for WWI ( *1 below) and WWII. However, certainly in WWI, the point came when the men would have liked to call it all off and just go home, as the story above demonstrates, but even when this stage was reached it could not be done due to 2 below:

    2. The white countries chose military leaders based on a willingness to take huge casualties in order to win. The types who were not traumatised or badly affected by the deaths of huge numbers of their own best men – the magnitude of this loss did not affect or disturb them, just as a 10 year old boy can watch a war film and be totally unaffected by soldiers being shot.

    This is what allowed these ’brother wars’, ‘1’ and ‘2’ above – they are our own fault, or rather the fault of those generations. The Jews can be blamed for helping to guide us on this path of mutual self-destruction. They might gladly finance it and make a fortune out of it, but nevertheless they were facilitators only and did not have enough control to force the people to go to war, just as they did not even have enough control to change the immigration laws in the US until the 60s.

    The descendants of the WWI generation today refer to WWI as ‘lions led by donkeys’, but in reality it was (a) people who wanted war being led by (b) leaders who wanted war, and (c) encouraged and financed in all this by the Js & banks – and once the people in (a) reached the stage where they had had enough, the leaders (b) and backers (c) kept it going.

    I am not sure at what point the descendants of the WWI generation decided that WWI was a terrible waste and a mistake after all, but whatever decade this conclusion was reached, it arrived in the end, and now no-one refers to it a glorious or worth the cost

    The descendants of the WWII generation still refer to WWII as ‘good against evil’. Surely such a ridiculous notion (we help Stalin and communism to expand for start) will also be reviewed at some point and when this moment arrives, just as it did for WWI, the demonisation of the Germans for wanting to be … horror of horrors: German and white … surely this demonisation will cease, and the H industry will collapse.

    I would like to touch on one or two things of which I have heard little, if any thinglk at all. Why did everyone rush off to war so eagerly? In no way was it a reluctant war as was WWII when the musket was so reluctantly picked up. Everyone it seemed was spoiling for a fight.

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