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World War I tale tells of day peace broke out

Sunday, December 15, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's a story that may be difficult for Americans to imagine, but during World War I, peace broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Day in 1914. Soldiers in trenches on both sides of the battle lines sang Christmas songs and eventually put down their weapons, came out of their trenches and exchanged greetings peacefully.


"The Christmas Truce"

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday on History Channel.

For director Vikram Jayanti, co-producer of the Oscar-winning documentary "When We Were Kings," the story of "The Christmas Truce" was an old chestnut. An American who spent part of his childhood in Europe, Jayanti knew the story, but he also realized it wasn't part of American lore.

"I was not aware how little in general Americans know about World War I, which I think will be the next big war for the movies," Jayanti said in a phone interview last month from New York. "The zeitgeist is ready for World War I movies because World War II is kind of used up."

Before a Hollywood producer dreams up a dramatic retelling, Jayanti wanted to tell the story of "The Christmas Truce" as a one-hour documentary.

Of course, there's not much to work with, visually, from World War I. That necessitated re-creations of the day soldiers from both sides found themselves singing the same Christmas carols in different languages in the trenches on either side of the body-covered No Man's Land.

"I've often been turned off by television programs about history that has reconstructions that are done badly," Jayanti said. "You go to watch installations at a history center and there are conquistadors stumbling around, and that can't make you suspend your disbelief. I wanted to see if I could find a way to do re-creations that gave us the emotion rather than the information."

Using letters from the men who were there and some recollections recorded by the BBC in the 1950s to describe the day's events, Jayanti set out to re-create the Christmas truce, filming on a pig farm in Northern England. He hired young men to play the soldiers, outfitted them in authentic World War I uniforms and sent them into freshly dug trenches on opposite sides of No Man's Land, where he let them "get good and cold."

When the time came to film the rival troops congregating and playing with a soccer ball, Jayanti said it felt authentic.

"They weren't boys acting like soldiers -- they were just kids playing soccer," he said. "I wanted to make you feel something about what happened."

His biggest challenge? "How do you make something dramatic about people [begin itals] not [end itals] shooting at each other?"

Patrick Keefe, a historian interviewed in "The Christmas Truce," said the documentary tells an important story of the turning point in the history of warfare.

"Many historians say the 20th century didn't begin in 1900, but in 1914," Keefe said. "There's a kind of nostalgia tied up in the Christmas truce for an old kind of warfare."

Before the Christmas truce, wars in Europe were conducted with, if it's possible, more civility. After the Christmas truce, that all disappeared.

"In the past, particularly in Britain, war was thought of almost like sport. Your enemy was not really an enemy, but an opponent," Keefe said. "There was something kind of courtly about it."

During the Christmas truce, before soldiers began kicking around a soccer ball, they worked together to clear bodies from No Man's Land. They celebrated for just one day, then officers directing the war soon imposed a crackdown, threatening severe consequences for any man who fraternized with the enemy.

In addition to trench warfare, World War I introduced machine gun shells, zeppelins and tanks, Keefe said, weapons which allowed soldiers to remain farther apart physically.

"It's more difficult to dehumanize your enemy when you're just across a short little trench from them," Keefe said. "The farther you get from the person you're fighting, the more mechanized and dehumanized the process of warfare becomes."

With the winds of war blowing again, Keefe said, the current state of technology all but rules out a recurrence of the events depicted in "The Christmas Truce."

"I wouldn't bet on it happening in Iraq."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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