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How France has forgotten the Christmas truce soldiers

Christmas truce Image copyright other
Image caption Reproduced with kind permission of John Krijnen

The Artois region in France still carries the scars of bitter fighting and loss from the trenches of World War One. So why shouldn't one moment of camaraderie between enemies be celebrated and remembered, asks Christian Carion.

Memories of World War One can be seen everywhere in the quiet part of the Artois region in northern France where I was born. The war left a trail of cemeteries with well-tended lawns in the midst of fields. Crops now grow around the edges of these spaces where 20-year-old kids from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain and other countries lie.

Forty nations buried their sons in the earth of my homeland. While still a kid, I learnt the names and flags of these countries. I was able to revise my geography while learning about the history of this war.

Every autumn, my father and I collected artillery shells which had been brought to the surface by ploughing. We carried them in our arms and laid them down at the entrance to our fields. A Renault 4 from the Prefecture came to load them up like potatoes and spirit them away. Researchers have estimated that the earth will continue to give its own unique account of the Great War for a further seven centuries.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption A World War One trench in the Artois region of France

Every year, kids still try to unscrew these shells covered in dirt and rust to see what is inside. As a result, they lose a hand, their eyesight or even their lives. The survivors of these unplanned explosions are treated as "war casualties" and receive a pension based on 1914 rates and converted into today's euros.

Every 11 November, my schoolmates and I sang the Marseillaise under the icy stare of a statue infantryman perched on a column engraved with names, each of which we had to read out loud.

None of the houses we inhabited were built before the 1920s and none of our furniture pre-dated that decade. Our grandmothers' wardrobes were no more.

Sometimes, one of these houses would subside as it was built over an old tunnel dug by soldiers. These incidents were treated as war damage and the family was granted government compensation.

1914-1918 was more than just a date written in my school exercise book. It provided the backdrop to my childhood.

I later realised that this war was the most important event of the 20th Century. It carried the seeds of the next war while heralding the Soviet era and American hegemony since Europe had pressed the self-destruct button.

In 1992, I learned from Yves Buffetaut's book, Battles of Flanders and Artois, that enemy soldiers on opposing sides fraternised with each other over the Christmas period of 1914. I read that some French soldiers applauded a Bavarian tenor, their enemy a German, on Christmas Eve while others played football with the Germans the next day.

Find out more

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Christian Carion was born in January 1963 in Cambrai, France
  • Films include Joyeux Noel (Happy Christmas), 2005, The Girl from Paris, 2001 and Farewell, 2009
  • You can listen to The Essay on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 29 December at 22:45 GMT or catch up afterwards on iPlayer - it was recorded in Paris as part of a global year-long partnership between the British Council, BBC World Service and BBC Radio 3 called The War That Changed the World

Joint burials also took place in no man's land with Masses read in Latin. Soldiers visited each others' trenches to compare working conditions. Some evenings when the Scotch whisky had been flowing, soldiers fell asleep in the opposite trench and left the following day, apologising to those who "lived" there.

I neither wanted nor was able to believe any of that. This was so contrary to the war I had learnt about at school, full of suffering, selflessness, and courage in the face of the enemy.

I met with the author of the book to ask him for evidence. He took me to the Imperial War Museum in London and showed me British soldiers' letters, sketches and photos - yes photos. They show smiling faces, comrades standing arm-in-arm and a real sense of joie de vivre. I felt the tears welling up. What a shock.

Perhaps the Tommies were able to relax in this way because they were not fighting on their own land to win back lost provinces.

Any remaining doubts disappeared when I visited the French army archives at the Chateau de Vincennes. Thanks to Yves Buffetaut, I was able to access accounts by French soldiers who were involved in fraternisation. I should point out that this was no easy task back then.

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Media captionColonel Scott Shepherd: "The war for that moment came to a standstill"

Without the historian's knowledge of the habits and customs of such facilities placed under military authority, I am sure I would never have been able to read these reports and accounts.

To obtain, for example, the archives from the month of December 1914 where one can find the accounts of the fraternisations, it was necessary to justify the request on the pretext of working on the French attack of 17 December.

I rounded off my research in the World War One German Army archives in the Bibliotheque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC) in Nanterre.

Germany must be given back a memory which belongs to it.

The documents I consulted expressed the same desire to meet up, sing songs on Christmas Eve and swap addresses with the intention of meeting after the war.

When I returned home, several things dawned on me. A large number of soldiers of all nationalities in various locations along the front were involved in fraternisation over Christmas 1914. As one British officer wrote, "No man's land became everyman's land."

More from the Magazine

Image copyright AP

The UK may be busy commemorating the Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers on the WW1 front line briefly made friends with the enemy, but few Germans have heard of it - and most would be startled to see it dramatised in a TV ad, writes Sebastian Borger of Berliner Zeitung.

These "overspills" took the top brass by surprise. They attempted to restore order by moving "contaminated" units, as one senior officer described them at the time. Some Scottish volunteers were sent home after two weeks of drinking tea and playing football with the Germans.

No-one faced the firing squad for fraternisation as too many men had been involved.

However, fraternisation and particularly its memory, from a French perspective, had to be broken. Had an entire population not been raised to surrender its young to the "field of honour" when the time came? All this work had been undone in the space of an evening by singing from the opposite trench, the sound of a harmonica or bagpipes, or a candle lit to guide those walking unarmed through no man's land.

It made no sense that these men who set out on 3 August would simply forget about Christmas.

The newspapers in Great Britain and Germany gave accounts of the phenomenon of fraternisation. Photographs were posted by the press on the banks of the Thames.

Image copyright ALAMY

In France, not a word was written on the subject. The newspapers had become tools enabling the army and authorities to spread propaganda.

In the country that had given the world human rights, the press was no longer free.

There was no question of fraternisation being covered in newspapers which were in the pay of a government run by Raymond Poincare whose home town was acquired by Germany in 1870.

But why did no-one talk about it after the war? There are no books or research on the subject.

I felt this silence was a second punishment for the men of Christmas 1914.

This feeling of injustice stirred a profound desire in me to make the film Joyeux Noel (Happy Christmas) in 2004. I set about recreating, in relative terms, situations which had occurred back then. A minority in the French army denied me access to a military site where I planned to reproduce the battlefield.

The army could not be seen to be "involved in a film about rebels", I was told.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption A scene from the film Joyeux Noel, directed by Christian Carion

Rebels...

The same word appears in accounts from 1914.

With heavy hearts, we went into exile, shooting the film in Romania despite everything that had happened. This was achieved thanks to the energy of the actors, technicians and everyone else involved. We were all passionate about resuscitating the memory of the fraternisations.

When the film was released, a number of historians took me to task, feeling that they were being targeted when I said I did not understand the lack of research on the subject. I was accused of overplaying an anecdote. Apparently, only two soldiers shook hands and my film was about their story.

A few months after the film was released, I was asked to produce a documentary to authenticate the facts regarding fraternisation which were presented in the film. I wanted to return to the military archives to film the evidence. In Vincennes, I was greeted by the young civilian who had prepared the files I had consulted, albeit with a certain degree of difficulty, 13 years previously. He asked me if I wanted to see anything else and proceeded to show me the archives of the Second Bureau, France's military intelligence agency.

I was shocked to discover that the general staff had dispatched military intelligence officers to places where soldiers were fraternising in order to ascertain and understand what was going on.

Their reports were detailed, concise, enlightening and wonderful.

I remember a note written by German soldiers which reached the French trench and was reported by a Second Bureau officer.

This message, written in rudimentary French, warned French soldiers that a colonel was due to visit their trench and they would have to open fire at about 2pm. So it would be a good idea to duck at about that time. However, it would definitely not prevent them from having a drink as planned at 5pm. It was signed: "Your fond German comrades."


A Christmas kickabout?

Image copyright IWM

We are now in the midst of commemorations to mark the centenary of World War One. We must remember Lorette, Vimy, Verdun, Passchendaele and so many other places where blood was spilled. These names are part of the historical DNA of the 40 nations which were caught up in the whirlwind of the Great War.

Are we once again going to forget these men who enjoyed each other's company over Christmas 1914?

I do not see them as heroes.

I should add that I don't believe in heroes.

This "superhuman" vision of the individual seems wrong and even dangerous to me. "Heroes" are always a facade for propaganda and therefore manipulation.

As everyone knows, history is written by the victors who need icons and therefore heroes to keep the legend alive.

Heroes are characters in popular literature, history books and films. They encourage people to believe in the legend of victory.

No, I don't like the word "hero".

I prefer the word "courage". This is a quality which enables people like you and me to achieve exceptional things in equally exceptional circumstances. And because of their acts, they are no longer people quite like you and me.

I believe it took a great deal of courage for those men of Christmas 1914 to walk unarmed through no man's land at night to meet their counterparts in the opposite trench.

And yes, it takes a huge amount of courage to offer your hand and venture a fraternal gesture.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Detail from a resin sculpture of a Christmas Truce handshake in Liverpool, UK

One of these men left us an extraordinary account of the spirit of this fraternisation. His name is Louis Barthas, a cooper in Aude departement before the war and a corporal during the four years of the conflict, which he survived.

Barthas wrote: "Shared suffering brings hearts together, dissolves hatred and prompts sympathy among indifferent people and even enemies. Those who deny this understand nothing of human psychology. French and German soldiers looked at one another and saw that they were all equal as men."

He went on to make a wish from the depths of his trench near Arras: "Maybe one day in this part of Artois region, they will erect a monument to commemorate this surge of brotherly feeling among men who hated war and who were forced to kill each other against their will."

Louis Barthas is a spokesman for all those whose acts, stories and memory have been denied. We want to grant his wish and erect a monument for men who were brave enough to make this brotherly gesture.

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