The Gospel Truth

A Silent Night on the Western Front | December 17, 2014

In early December my wife and I attended the musical play All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.   This musical play marked the 100th anniversary of  what is arguably the second most ironic event in the history of the world.   In what would amount to the bloodiest war in recorded history, where 16 million human beings perished, thousands of soldiers found it in their hearts and souls to recognize the approaching birth of the Prince of Peace.  When it was over they returned to their savage crucifixion of each other on a cross of pride and greed.

The Mustard Seed Theater’s rendition at Fontbonne University was a marvelous 65 minutes of a capella musical entertainment and history that documents a true and all too brief period of time during the First World War on Christmas Eve.

At dawn, only months into the war, after hearing and trading carols across the trenches, a German soldier crossed the lines of the Western front into no-man’s-land wishing a Merry Christmas in native tongues.  Seeing that he was unarmed, British and French soldiers eventually did the same.  They ended up meeting in the middle where they exchanged gifts of puddings and cigarettes, sang songs, played a little soccer, and together buried their dead.

According to the MST summary the script is based on the actual letters of men from various regiments, brigades and infantrymen who lived it.  Along with commentary on the incredible events of that Christmas Eve in 1914, the letters also describe, in vivid detail, the enthusiasm of the young soldiers as they leave for the war, evocative descriptions of their surroundings, the thrill of receiving parcels from home, the devastating loss of friends, and the making of new ones across enemy lines — if only for a short time.

The songs that range from ballads, traditional folk songs, patriotic songs and Christmas carols include, Will Ye Go to Flanders?, a Scottish folk song, Pack up you Troubles, The Old Barbed Wire, an English traditional song, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, a 12th century chant, “Wassail”, and over a dozen more.  Twenty-three songs in all are beautifully presented in an intermission 60 minutes that fly by.

My favorite Christmas hymn, which they sang in three different languages, has always been Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) It was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria.

The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village on the Salzach river. Both performed the carol during the mass on the night of December 24.

The Christmas truce (Weihnachtsfrieden; Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread but unofficial cease fires along the Western Front around Christmas 1914. In the week leading up to the holiday, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing.

Men played games of football (soccer) with one another, giving one of the most enduring images of the truce. However, the peaceful behaviour was not ubiquitous; fighting continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies.

In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed To the Women of Germany and Austria, signed by a group of 101 British women suffragettes at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached.

On 7 December 1914, Pope Benedict XV had begged the combatants for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang. This attempt was officially rebuffed.

The Germans placed 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 services were held.

Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) is a 2005 French film about the World War I Christmas truce of December 1914, depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers. It was written and directed by Christian Carion. It was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.  I have seen it twice and it is a very powerful rendition of this short-lived anomaly where martial soldiers put aside their animosities and relished in the peaceful reverie of universal brotherhood where their similarities and common humanity displaced their ethnic and political differences

That Christmas Eve was a brief lesson for all human beings.

For me the moment of truth in the movie revolved around the drafted German soldier, a famous opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink and his Danish wife, soprano, Anna Sørensen. The unofficial truce begins when the Scots begin to sing festive songs and songs from home, accompanied by bagpipes. Sprink and Sørensen 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 at the risk of snipers, 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 cease-fire for the evening.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday cease fires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.

The truce was short-lived the high officials and generals wanted the killing to recommence. War was their business and death was their product. The slaughter resumed and did not stop until 16 millions human beings had perished in its bloody wake.

I said that this was only the second most ironic event in world history. This begs the question as to what was the first most ironic event. The answer has to be Good Friday that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death on Calvary.

According to the Christian faith mankind had executed the Prince of Peace. According to the Gospels Jesus had come into the world, not to live but to die and in doing so, assume the sins of the world and expiate mankind from its original guilt. His death completed the circle of life–moments of peace and joy amidst years of blood and violence–that the silent night alluded to in 1914.  The undying hope for all mankind is that. as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had written, there can be no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday.



  1. I get your point Bill. But those who hate us don’t give a crap about Jesus or his birth and death.So if your looking for some miracle where those who want to kill us or anyone who is not Muslim, you are kidding yourself. Merry CHRISTmas.

    Comment by Mike Ellington — December 19, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

  2. A wonderful foreshadowing of what awaits us.

    Comment by Jeff Stoll — December 22, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at







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