For most of us, the most vivid images of World War I are the trenches on the Western front. Men dug into positions on either side of a no-man’s land of craters and burned out buildings. Barbed wire and sandbags provided little protection from enemy shelling or snipers; they provided no protection from rats, lice, flooding, or the dreaded “trench foot”. The battlefields were noxious with the smell of rotting corpses, overflowing latrines and poison gas fumes.
Trench warfare was hell. It also made possible one of the most extraordinary events of the war: the unofficial Christmas armistice of 1914. The truce began when some German troops decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and sang carols. British troops responded with carols of their own. On Christmas Day, some groups ventured into “no-man’s land” to share food, sing carols, hold joint services for their dead and play soccer matches.
One German soldier, Josef Wenzel, described the scene in a letter to his parents:
One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads. The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. It was a very moving moment–hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.
It is estimated that 100,000 men took part in the Christmas truce. In some places, the truce lasted only through Christmas day. In others, it lasted until New Year’s Day. In some sectors, the war continued unabated.
The Christmas truce did not recur in 1915. Both the British and the German high commands were appalled at the blatant fraternization with the enemy and gave strict orders against future incidents. After all, how do you fight a war if the men at the front decide not to fight?
Peace on earth, good will to men.
My friend Nancy Friesen brought this lovely version of the story to my attention:
If you’re in Chicago between now and January 22, or are close enough that you can get here with no difficulty, I strongly recommend you get tickets to Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Elizabeth Rex by Canadian playwright Timothy Findley. *
Findley builds his story on three historical facts:
- The Earl of Essex, a court favorite and rumored to be Elizabeth I’s lover, was beheaded for treason on Elizabeth’s order
- The day before he was beheaded, Elizabeth attended one of Shakespeare’s plays
- Men played women’s roles on the Elizabethan stage.
The result in a breathtaking riff on gender, power, love, poetry, and history. And it has a bear.
What are you waiting for?
* If you can’t make it to Chicago, track down the DVD of the 2004 television adaptation. Diane D’Aquila plays Elizabeth in both productions.
At first the Fourth Crusade looked like all the other Crusades. In 1198, Pope Innocent III called for Christian knights to sail to the Holy Lands and re-capture Jerusalem, which Saladin had taken back from crusaders in 1187. In response to his call, thousands signed up, eager to fight Muslims in the Holy Lands and maybe accumulate a little plunder along the way. * Same song, fourth verse.
In fact, the Fourth Crusade took a wrong turn before it even began.** The leaders of the Fourth Crusade had negotiated with the Doge of Venice for enough ships to transport some thirty thousand crusaders at a cost of two marks per man and four marks per horse. The army that showed up in Venice in the summer of 1202 was one-third the size its leaders had prepared for. The crusaders were thirty-four thousand marks short of the agreed price..
The Venetians made an offer that the crusade leaders couldn’t refuse. Venice was having trouble with Zara, a rebellious Venetian outpost on the Dalmatian coast. If the crusaders helped subdue Zara on the way to the Middle East, they could pay their debt from captured booty. It was a perfect solution, if the crusaders were willing to ignore the fact that Zara was a Christian city under the protection of the King of Hungary, who was one of the crusaders.
From a crusading perspective, the attack on Zara was a disaster. (Why this came as a surprise to anyone is not clear.) The spoils of war found their way into the treasuries of individual lords instead of paying off the debt to the Venetians. And an outraged Pope Innocent excommunicated everyone involved.
Things got worse.
On January 1, 1203, ambassadors from Philip of Swabia contacted the crusade leaders with a proposal that would solve all their problems. If the crusaders would help a young Byzantine nobleman named Alexius Angelus regain the Byzantine throne, from which his father had been deposed, he would bring the Orthodox church back into the papal fold, pay the crusaders 200,000 silver marks and join the Crusade with ten thousand soldiers of his own. Putting Alexius Angelus on the throne would be a piece of crusader cake. His supporters would throw open the gates to their liberators.
Evidently the crusader leaders had never heard the phrase “if it seems too good to be true….” The Fourth Crusade headed to Constantinople, prepared to sack the seat of Orthodox Christianity in the name of Christianity, pay off the Venetians. and make peace with the pope. *** The discovery that Alexius Angelus had no supporters worth the name changed nothing. Faced with a rising tide of anti-western feeling in the city, the crusaders decided to take the city for themselves. In April, 1204, after three days of rape, pillage, and desecration, Constantinople was in the hands of the Fourth Crusade. It would remain the seat of a Roman Catholic regime until 1261.
* In fact, the leaders of the Fourth Crusade never intended to go to Palestine, a fact they did not share with the rank and file. The goal was Egypt, a wise move in military terms but without the emotional appeal of invading the Holy Lands.
**Even by the standards of people who considered crusades to be a good thing.
***Pope Innocent III did not approve. Learning of the crusaders’ intention, he sent a blistering letter in which he warned, “Let no one among you rashly convince himself that he may seize or plunder the Greeks’ lands on the pretext that they show little obedience to the Apostolic See.”