If someone took a poll as to which of all the wars in recorded history was most heartbreakingly pointless and wasteful, World War I would undoubtedly win hands-down. And that’s true not only with a century of hindsight: Many soldiers who participated had no clearer a notion of what they were fighting for than we do today in retrospect. In the trenches there was quite a bit of what modern folks would call “nonviolent noncooperation,” with long periods of troops just lying low and not firing at the other side, occasionally calling brief truces for the retrieval of corpses or unloading of ration deliveries. Historians even have a name for it: the “Live and Let Live System.”
The most famous and widespread of these incidents was the Christmas Truce of 1914, in which peace broke out spontaneously at many points along the battle lines. As Christmas carols rang out from the trenches on both sides, infantrymen began to emerge, meet in No Man’s Land and harmonize together. They exchanged food, cigarettes and souvenirs, shared stories of their families and lives back home, decorated their muddy shelters with candles and even played pickup soccer games – with an empty food can, if nothing more closely resembling a football was available.
As the war dragged on and got bloodier and uglier, such unofficial truces became less common – especially after officers (including the young Charles de Gaulle and Adolf Hitler) got wind of the “fraternization.” But lower-ranked troops remained unenthusiastic about killing, and sporadic smaller truces still occurred when official eyes turned elsewhere. The camaraderie of one localized Christmas truce in the Vosges in 1915 actually inspired one participant to go on to found the German Youth Hostel Association four years later.
Being the sort of rare phenomenon that tends to rekindle one’s faith in humanity, the 1914 Christmas Truce has been celebrated in story (including one by Robert Graves) and song, films and television episodes ever since. It’s a tale that bears retelling in dark times, and is especially appropriate now, on the 100th anniversary of this improbable – and apparently contagious – outbreak of human decency. A stage version titled All is Calm will be performed this weekend at St. Mary-in-the-Highlands Church in Cold Spring by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF).
All is Calm was written by Peter Rothstein, based on letters and reminiscences by soldiers who fought (or tried not to) in World War I, with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach of Christmas carols from England, France and Germany. The NYSF production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnager, will have two performances beginning at 7 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, December 12 and 13. Tickets cost $40 and are available exclusively online at https://hvshakespeare.org. St. Mary-in-the-Highlands is located at 1 Chestnut Street, at the corner of Main Street, in Cold Spring. Call (845) 809-5750 for more information.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s All is Calm, Friday/Saturday, December 12/13, 7 p.m., $40, St. Mary-in-the-Highlands Church, 1 Chestnut Street, Cold Spring; (845) 809-5750, https://hvshakespeare.org.