"THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE 1914"


 Peter Shillingford


Based on a series of true events

during the first Christmas of the

1914 - 1918 Great War.

(c) US Library of Congress.

PAu 2-666-572 (As CHRISTMAS 1914) 


Opening title sequence: The bloody horror of war as British Tommie's and German troopers fight a vicious hand-to-hand battle in a bomb shattered French schoolhouse. Many die or are wounded and we see the carnage of shattered bodies as medics gather up the broken and bloody soldiers.

Jack Carter, an American journalist is reporting on the conflict and answers questions from the young volunteer Tommie's about how the war began.

The morning of Christmas Eve, 24th December 1914, finds the German army hunkered down in freezing trenches, singing "Silent Night" after a light snow.

It was the first Christmas of a war that would create carnage for millions. 

The British Tommie's take up the song as if it was their own, their voices drifting across No Man's Land, where wounded soldiers from both sides still lay dying. Their cries of agony fade under the emotion of the chorus.

The Boy, a young bugler, just 17, watches as the company Sniper expertly dispatches the wounded in No Man's Land. Through the sights of the rifle, a Sergeant Wolf Steiner appears above the German trenches and waves a white scarf. "Come and have a beer Tommy. It's Christmas!"

The Sniper beckons to a Captain George Payne who picks up his rifle and sights up the German, when, to his amazement, other Germans climb out of their trenches waving flags, helmets and beer bottles. The instigator of the truce, Sergeant Wolf Steiner leads the way. "Don't shoot Tommy I have a present for you."

Captain Payne puts the rifle down and confers with a Lieutenant Wickham who recommends that the Germans should immediately be fired upon.   Payne disagrees and peers over the trench parapet. No Man's Land is full of unarmed Germans advancing across the battlefield waving white flags.

The British Tommie's are also beginning to climb out of their trenches but are confused as to what they should do next.

"We should fire on the Hun" complains Lt. Wickham. "Put down your weapons," shouts Paddy a huge Irishman, a private with attitude. It is a direct confrontation with the officer's command and probably a court martial offence.

More Tommie's leave the safety of the trenches and move hesitantly into No Man's Land. The coming together of the two armies is at first cautious…and then glorious.

The Germans and the British are now embracing amongst the dead as the medics tend to the wounded on the battlefield. 

A German cigar is exchanged for a Tommy's cigarettes and bottles of Schnapps magically appear. The men are happily competing in games of chance and strength in the welcome peace and eerie quiet of the truce. Photos of loved ones are admired.  

It is Christmas Eve and they are drinking with the enemy. It is the happiest they have been for weeks.

The American journalist, Jack Carter, arrives from HQ having heard the rumours about the truce. He begins to photograph the two great armies fraternising. 

Captain Payne amiably escorts him off the battlefield, nervous about the danger of mines and unexploded ordnance and anxious as to what Carter might be writing. He gently suggests that Carter would be better employed reporting on the truce to his New York Times than risking getting hurt in No Man's Land.

The officers on both sides cannot do very much to stop the widespread truce, despite threatening their respective men with side arms.   Reports come in of troops leaving their trenches all along the front, from the English Channel to Switzerland.

Lt. Wickham meets with his opposite number Hauptman Schmidt and over tea; they both agree that "this is no way to fight a war". 

At twilight, still singing their favourite carols, but with the benefit of as much alcohol as they can find, both sides return to their trenches and the Germans light their many Christmas lanterns, which flicker in the approaching gloom of night.

Christmas Day December 25th 1914 dawns bright. No Man's Land glistens under a scattering of overnight snow. The Tommie's wake up, many with hangovers. They yell their Christmas greetings to the Germans. After a few moments, to the Tommie's relief, the Germans take up the cry.

Again, the men meet in No Man's Land and the fraternisation continues.

Captain George Payne confronts both Hauptman Schmidt and Lt. Wickham who are not in favour of the truce. They continue to argue for the resumption of battle but Payne points out that men from both sides are in favour of extending the truce for as long as possible.

Payne tells them that he is going to HQ in the hope that he can perhaps try to talk his Senior Officers into extending the peace.

But first the dead on both sides are honoured by a short burial service.  

When Hauptman Schmidt accuses Steiner of having started the truce Steiner smiles and says that he is delighted to be the one to claim the credit! Payne laughs and leaves for British H.Q. Carter asks Payne if he can go with him. Somewhat apprehensively Payne agrees on the condition that Carter suspends his journalistic talent for the duration of their trip.

The Sniper shows his expertise at knocking down targets instead of the enemy.   Bets are won and lost. 

At H.Q., Payne is able to find his uncle, the Brigadier, who is hosting an officers' luncheon party in honour of a newly arrived General Hardy. Many nurses are in attendance and both Payne and Carter are mesmerised by their presence.

Despite the Brigadier's clear affection for Payne and his awareness of Payne's previous courage under fire, Payne's plea for 'common sense' falls on deaf ears.   Worse still, he is lectured on his duties as an officer, which he is reminded do not include making suggestions as to how the politicians should be conducting the war. 

He is soundly reprimanded and sent back to the front with orders to immediately resume the conflict and to be prepared to receive the new General that afternoon who wishes to observe the fighting.

Faced with immediate arrest and a court martial if he refuses to resume sending his men over the top in anger, Payne and Carter sadly make their way back to the front and the waiting men.

Payne explains that they will have to fight a mock war if they are to satisfy the visiting General. Sgt. Steiner believes that all of this might be a trick but Payne sincerity manages to help convince him and his men to embrace the plan. Carter is allowed to hear of these plans.

Hauptman Schmidt is strangely nowhere to be seen today having apparently met with an "accident" in the German trenches the night before. On hearing this, Lt. Wickham indignantly threatens Steiner with a court martial should he ever manage to capture him. 

Steiner offers his opinion that neither of them will live through this war if the Generals on both sides are determined to continue hostilities.

The Brigadier and General inspect the trenches and observe the "mock war". This consists mainly of both sides keeping their heads down and shots fired high.  They eventually leave at last, seemingly convinced that the truce must be over after witnessing when a drunken German is apparently killed. But during the drive back to H.Q. General Hardy voices his doubts to the Brigadier. 

With the top brass gone, the fratrernisation very soon continues, yet both Sgt. Steiner and Captain Payne now know that the time for their men to relax may be limited.   Carter the American correspondent who came to cover the General's inspection is allowed to stay. He is, however, fully aware of the deception but is trusted by Payne to keep it a secret.

Sgt. Steiner requests a referee for a football match that is about to begin. Carter runs the line and endears himself to Brits and Germans alike.

The friendly but rough game is inter-cut with disturbing images of brutal hand-to-hand fighting. The physical, bodily confrontations in the match reflect the violence of war.

A penalty dispute turns into a punch up between Paddy and Max, two similarly built men from opposite sides but it is settled quickly by Steiner and Payne.   England loses the soccer match! The score is 3-2.

At one point, as the Sniper playfully sights his rifle on a group of German and English soldiers firing up their cigarettes in No Man's Land, we see and hear the old adage that one should never take the third light from a match. When the Sniper spots the first flare of light he points his rifle, at the second he settles on his target and on the third he fires.

The click of the Sniper's trigger on the empty chamber is a bolt of thunder across the killing fields, now full of peaceful men enjoying this God sent lull but wondering what the future might bring. Paddy is explaining to the Boy that the Sniper has to mercifully dispatch the men who fall wounded in No Man's Land.   Their cries of pain cause distress to the men in the trenches.

The sound of incoming shells being fired from behind the British lines sends the men of both armies scrambling back to the nearest trench regardless of whose side they are on! In No Man's Land the recently buried human remains rain down as the shells explode on the burial site. 

Arms and legs and various body parts reach the British trenches landing on the Sniper and the Boy - who becomes hysterical.

Captain Payne is furious.   As the brutal shelling continues, he decides to hitch a ride with Carter to H.Q. to try and stop the massive bombardment and to see if perhaps they can find anyone high enough up that can reach someone in authority that might outrank General Hardy who they speculate must have ordered the barrage. 

Carter offers to help by reporting to the New York Times that the British Generals are shelling their own troops in No Man's Land but a distinctly unappreciative Payne begs him not to do so. On arrival at HQ, the pompous General, who is evidently still outraged by the failed attempt to deceive him earlier that afternoon, confronts George. 

George pleads with the General to stop the barrage, explaining that the men are dying like flies and that the vital opportunity for a final truce is being ignored. George confirms his willingness to die for his country, to do his duty, something he has already proven but he cannot understand why his few surviving men need to go on dying.

What is even worse is that they are now being decimated by their own artillery! General Hardy replies that the only shelling that is happening is of the German positions or No Man's Land and that there shall therefore be none of our men in either place to get decimated! 

Devastated, Payne continues to try to reason with the General by asking why on earth no one is interested in this God given chance to break the months of bloody deadlock. 

He is unceremoniously relieved of his command by the irate and increasingly noisy General, who berates Payne's naïve and pathetic lack of familiarity with High Command's tactics.   "We are planning for the coming breakthrough and a pending glorious Allied victory - one that will be no thanks to the likes of mutinous traitors like you Captain Payne. I will be recommending a court martial charging you with undermining discipline and condoning fratrernisation." Payne is confined to HQ.  

Carter who has been telegraphing his Truce football story to the office back in New York, now helps Payne to slip away from HQ and return to his men.   As they race back to the front, the shelling dies down at last. 

Almost there and as they run the last few yards towards the front, Sgt. Steiner, waving his usual white flag, comes out of his trench with a few of his men and they walk bravely into No Man's Land. Steiner is pleased to see Payne in the distance and assumes that he has been responsible for ending the shelling. He waves his greeting to Payne.

This infuriates the already jumpy and treacherous Lt. Wickham. Another group of Germans, unarmed, approach Wickham. They are annoyed and shaken by the British shelling. They shout and gesticulate at Lt. Wickham, who foolishly over-reacts and tosses a hand grenade in between them all. 

The truce is now definitely over. Seeing this, the Germans in the distant trenches immediately open fire and the Boy bugler is hit in the hail of bullets. 

His broken body falls to the ground at the feet of the Sniper. Coolly but with tears in his eyes, the Sniper, kneeling for scant cover behind the remains of a cart, takes aim through the smoke and mist.   Through his telescopic sight we see Sgt. Steiner, as the bullet exits his neck. He is frozen in death before he hits the snow.

Payne orders his men to hold their fire but it is too late to rescue the truce as bullets fly at them whilst they dive for their trenches. Sniper hears the agonizing cries of the wounded Boy and crawls toward him in an effort to get him back to the trench. He knows that if he leaves him there, he will be dead by morning. 

Payne orders Sniper to take cover but when he realises that Sniper has also been wounded, decides to join him in an attempt to recover the wounded Boy who is several yards into No Man's Land lying in the mud. Cursing, Payne goes over the top and zigzags to the two wounded men. 

Thanks to the smoke and growing darkness and Payne's heroics, all three make it back to their lines under heavy fire. Some of the others including Paddy, are not so lucky and we see them being mown down the same German soldiers that we recognise from the recent soccer game. 

Wickham, whose unwise decision to throw the grenade caused the flare up, now pays dearly for his miscalculation as he tumbles fatally wounded, face down, into the cold deep mud of the stinking trench.

Carter helps drag the three survivors back down to safety but seeing that Payne has been hit, screams for help in getting the Boy and Payne to his car, so that he can rush them straight back to the Doctors at HQ. 

It is too late for the Sniper.

We see the stretcher-bearers carrying the wounded pair from the car to the HQ medical unit where exhausted surgeons and nurses covered in blood receive them. 

Carter is ushered in to General Hardy's office. He asks the General to comment for the New York Times on allegations that he is the General responsible for having authorised the shelling of British positions in an attempt to end the now, no longer secret, Christmas Truce.

Refusing to acknowledge that there has been any form of fraternisation with the Hun, the General remonstrates with Carter and claims that no such order was ever issued, as there had never been any Christmas Truce that he was aware of.

Carter responds by stating that he personally eye-witnessed the Truce and the British shelling of No Man's Land earlier in the day.

"My question is only for clarification purposes General.   Was it you that authorised the shelling?" The increasingly agitated General declines comment. 

"One more thing, General, I have included in my report today, my own account of the courageous rescue by a brave young British officer whom I saw behave with complete disregard for his own safety in an unselfish effort to rescue some of his men under enemy fire, stranded and wounded in No Man's Land. 

All this was as a direct consequence of your alleged orders to British Artillery. Others were killed and he was seriously wounded. Now, I believe that you General Hardy, may be intending to bring charges against him for conduct unbecoming an officer. 

For what it may be worth Sir, this reporter intends to find out every last detail about just what kind of assassin, masquerading as an officer it was, that could have the dispassionate inhumanity to order the indiscriminate killing of his own soldiers without compunction - and during a Christmas Truce. Especially when it might just have helped to end this war. Sir! Thank-you for your time, Oh! And Happy Christmas" 

We see Carter visiting Payne who is clearly recovering in a hospital bed in a large ward where the Boy also is being treated.   Carter tells him of his visit to the General and adds.

"I do have a few million fairly avid readers. When your story gets picked up round the world George, the Army will soon have General Hardy digging latrines on the Eastern Front."

Jack Carter's eulogy over the titles and reprise of the more friendly elements of the football match is a fitting reminder of the brave British soldiers and their counterparts in the German army.


                                               Peter Shillingford

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