On Christmas Eve 1914, English and German soldiers on the muddy battlefields of the Western Front went against orders and established a temporary truce. They sang Christmas carols back and forth to each other across no man's land, and even met to exchange gifts and fraternize. A soccer match was held. Artillery fell silent for the night. Each side took advantage of the peace to collect its wounded.
What became known as the Christmas Truce of 1914 was one of several small, informal truces that occurred between the warring countries on holidays throughout World War I. The remarkable event is the focus of All Is Calm, a unique choral concert and drama presented at the Wisconsin Union Theatre on Dec. 11. First performed in 2007, the program explores war's human side and the theme of finding common ground in the worst of circumstances.
All Is Calm is a co-production of two Minneapolis groups: Cantus, the men's vocal chamber ensemble, and Theatre Latté Da, an innovative musical theater group. The production draws on a repertoire of war songs and Christmas carols, both familiar and obscure, from each of the countries involved: from "Silent Night" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" to "Die Wacht am Rhein" and "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern."
Author Peter Rothstein combined letters, journals, official war documents, poetry and even a period radio broadcast to generate the text of the show. He says the story of the truce wasn't "in any of my textbooks" in high school and college. The event had, he concluded, been buried long ago. "The propaganda machine of war is powerful, and the news of soldiers fraternizing across enemy lines would put a human face on the Germans and readily undermine public support for the war."
For posterity's sake, it didn't help that many of the men who experienced the truce firsthand were later killed in the war. "The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks," says Rothstein. "The young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic."
They acted with great courage to put down their guns, he says. "That's the story I hope to tell."