With the Christmas season upon us, I wanted to cover a film that’d help represent the Christmas spirit.

At the end of Joyeux Noël, there’s a bit of text on the screen that says the characters are fictional. But it’s director, Christian Carion, claims the film is historically accurate. So how accurate is it?

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

The movie begins by setting up World War I from multiple perspectives. There’s three school children, each reciting patriotic speeches. For the French child, the speech talks about how great France is and how horrible the Germans are. Similar for the Scottish, their patriotism reflects on how great Scotland is and how evil the Germany is. The speech from the German schoolboy is exactly the same. The only difference is his speech talks about how great Germany is and how we have one and only enemy, Britain.

This scenario is completely made up for the movie, but it’s a very interesting take on perspective. The gist here being that in each country, the children are trained from early on that their country is great and other countries are evil. Just swap out the name of your country and whatever the name of the country is you want your nation to hate. All of a sudden, it’s patriotic to condemn other people just because they were born on the other side of a made-up border.

After this scene, we jump in the movie to Scotland where we’re introduced to two brothers. We never learn their last names, but it’s Jonathan, played by Steven Robertson, and his brother William, who’s played by Robin Laing. They announce the beginning of World War I at their church, along with their pastor, Palmer, who’s played by Gary Lewis in the film.

Then we see the news from the German side, this time a proclamation claiming our land is besieged. A call to arms!

Again, like the school children, the specifics of these portrayals aren’t real. But, of course, World War I was real and the scenes in the film certainly could have happened. After all, the Scottish thought they were the good guys. The French thought they were the good guys. And the Germans thought they were the good guys.

Back in the movie, we’re in the French trenches and introduced to the French Lieutenant Audebert. In the film, he’s played by Guillaume Canet. He’s readying his men for a charge against the Germans, and as he does there’s a quick mention about the German trenches being only some 100 meters away. After this, the French attack and many of the men are slaughtered as they travel across no man’s land.

That distance of 100 meters, or about 328 feet, is very accurate. Or it could be; it’s not like the trenches were perfectly straight lines on both sides. So you’d have points where the trenches would be further away than others, but in many cases the trenches could be even closer. Sometimes they’d be as close as 30 or 40 yards, or less than 100 feet.

As a quick side note, in the movie, you’ll hear them use the term “no man’s land”. This is the nickname for the stretch of land between the trenches of opposing forces, but interestingly it wasn’t what they used originally. When World War I broke out and trench warfare started getting more popular, the space between the trenches was simply referred to as “between the trenches.”

It wasn’t until a British soldier and author named Ernest Swinton used the term in one of his short stories called The Point of View that people started using the term. Then, as more people started to learn about the Christmas truce, the term “no man’s land” started getting even more popular.

As another quick little side note to the previous side note, Ernest Swinton is also the same man who is credited with coining the term “tank” to refer to a tracked, armored fighting vehicle.

Back in the film, much like the characters we’ve seen so far, Lieutenant Audebert is a fictional character. In fact, all of the characters in the film are fictional. But the events could be real. By that, what I mean is the specific sequence of events aren’t real but they’re based on things that did happen.

For example, when Lieutenant Audebert led his French forces against the Germans in the movie, that exact attack didn’t really happen. How could it? Lieutenant Audebert wasn’t a real person.

But there were plenty of charges that happened exactly in this way. And sadly, with a very similar result with hundreds, thousands and sometimes even tens of thousands of people dying within the span of just a few hours.

Even though the specifics of what happens in the movie isn’t real here, the setup is very real. Just like Lieutenant Audebert said, the real German trenches were very often extremely close to the trenches of the French, British or other Ally forces.

Many of the trenches were so close that the soldiers could hear each other talking.

In the next part of the movie, there’s a soldier named Andrew Duncan who calls out to Pastor Palmer from no man’s land. Playing on the pastor’s desire to help people, Andrew claims to be an injured soldier and asks the pastor to come get him.

This is another sort of thing that happened during the Great War. As you might imagine, anytime there was a charge from one trench to the other that meant a lot of people were killed between the trenches. But not everyone died right away. Many were injured and forced to lay there waiting for the inevitable.

As a result, during times when both sides were in their trenches there certainly were many who called out to their friends for help. And sadly, like what happened in the movie to a stretcher bearer who goes to help Pastor Palmer, if you went out into no man’s land to help your friends—you, too, could become a victim.

Instead, countless soldiers were left to die from their wounds. How many of those wounds could have been treated? There’s no way to know.

Another big plot point comes when we’re introduced to two characters. They are Nikolaus Sprink and Anna Sörensen. Nikolaus is played by Benno Fürmann, and Anna is played by Diane Kruger.

Well, we saw Anna singing earlier in the film but we didn’t really meet her character. And it wasn’t really Benno and Diane singing for their characters. Anna’s singing voice was Natalie Dessa, and Nikolaus’ singing voice was Rolando Villazón.

As you can probably guess, the characters of Nikolaus and Anna are fictitious. And so is the back story of Nikolaus being in the trenches, Anna coming to find him and the two of them singing for German leadership. But they play an important part in the film as they decide to sing for the German troops in the trenches.

Even though these characters weren’t real, the importance of music was.

In the movie, the magic of Christmas starts to unfurl when one of the Scots starts playing a song called I’m Dreaming of Home mon bagpipes from the Scottish trench. Slowly, his fellow countrymen start singing along.

It’s very moving, and from the reports we have of what really happened this sort of thing is precisely how it happened. Well, maybe not precisely. The song, I’m Dreaming of Home was made up for the movie so they didn’t really sing that during World War I.

But even here, Joyeux Noël does a good job of coming up with something fictitious that helps tell the story of how things were.

To understand this, we’ll have to jump back in time real quickly to the beginning of World War I. That’s not what it was called when it began. In fact, it began the way many smaller conflicts start. The German Kaiser Wilhelm II, as the oldest grandchild of Queen Victoria from Britain, was good friends and even related to many of royal families in Europe.

One of those friends was the Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria. On June 28th, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia were visiting Sarajevo, in modern-day Bosnia when a 19-year-old boy just out of high school named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the royal couple.

Gavrilo was a part of a group called Black Hand, who were hoping that by assassinating the royal couple they’d be able to free their homeland of Serbia after it was absorbed into the Austria-Hungry empire.

Their plan backfired when it kick started a chain of events that started World War I.

Kaiser Wilhelm was surprised when he heard of his good friend’s murder. Immediately, he offered Germany’s assistance in taking down Black Hand. He didn’t intend war, but members of the Austrian government were convinced to declare war against Serbia in retaliation.

The next day, Russia mobilized their armies against Germany in defense of Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm asked his cousin, Russia’s leader Tsar Nicholas II, to stop their troop mobilization. Nicholas refused, because his country had a treaty to come to the defense of Serbia. Then Wilhelm demanded Russia stop their troop mobilization and stop promising support of Serbia. Again, Nicholas refused.

On August 1st, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia.

Then Wilhelm asked France, who had a treaty with Russia to come to her aid if she was attacked, not to go to war. The French didn’t reply to Wilhelm’s message, but instead mobilized their troops along the France-German border.

On August 2nd, Germany attacked Luxembourg, which is located between the northern borders of France and Germany. On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France.

Belgium is just to the north of Luxembourg, and fearing they’d be dragged into the conflict, Britain sent a message to Germany that Belgium be left out of it.

The next day, August 4th, Belgium refused to let German troops pass through on their way to France. So Germany declared war on Belgium, too. That same day, August 4th, Britain declared war on Germany.

So that’s not a full history by any means, but just to recap:

On June 28th, 1914, a Serbian terrorist group assassinated the Archduke of Austria and his wife. 37 days later, six countries were at war.

It happened so fast that many people thought it would be a quick war. Very similar to what happened in the American Civil War or, well, most wars. In this case, a lot of the soldiers went into the war thinking it’d be over by Christmas.

That’s why songs like I’m Dreaming of Home could very well have been the kind of song that was sung in the trenches. Because it fits so well into the mentality of the soldiers at the time.

With each passing day as Christmas neared, soldiers started to realize the war wasn’t going to be over any time soon. And with each passing day, the soldiers missed their home more and more.

So by the time Christmas Eve came, and as the weather turned freezing cold in the trenches, the soldiers were dreaming of the warmth of a loved one’s embrace. The warmth of home.

Back in the movie, the French and Germans are so close in their own trenches they can hear the touching song. When the Scottish song ends, it’s Nikolaus who picks up by singing a song from the German trench.

When the song ends, this time the bagpipes start playing Silent Night from the Scottish trenches while Nikolaus sings from the German side.

As he’s singing, he brazenly stands up above the trench so his countrymen can hear him better. But he’s also letting the Scots and French see him. Or shoot him, if they wanted. And, in the movie, they almost do. One of the French soldiers takes aim…and then puts the gun down.

The Scottish come out of their trenches to see this German singing.

Silent Night ends, and O Come All Ye Faithful starts. This is one of my favorite parts of the movie because it really showcases how moving it can be to see enemies put aside their differences. Finally, the song ends and the three commanders meet in the middle.

There’s French Lieutenant Audebert, the German Lieutenant Horstmayer, played by Daniel Brühl, and Scottish Lieutenant Gordon, who’s played by Alex Ferns. These are the three commanding officers of the three forces entrenched, and they agree to a ceasefire. Just for Christmas Eve.

All of this is made up for the movie, but it’s a story that’s put together based on facts we know from what really happened. Historians estimate there were about 6,250 miles of trenches built by soldiers in World War I, most of those along the Western Front between France and Germany. And the truth is there were multiple instances of a truce along many of those trenches for Christmas in 1914.

We don’t know about any of these from official military documentation. After all, neither side was very keen on the fraternization with the enemy. But we know from letters and soldiers accounts after the war that they took place.

And perhaps most remarkable was none of them seemed to be coordinated at all. Different soldiers. Different parts of the line. No idea what’s happening at that exact moment hundreds of miles away. They just happened.

It was a true Christmas miracle.

Like any Christmas celebration, music was there. It was this fact that inspired the movie’s director, Christian Carion, to make Joyeux Noël. In an interview after the movie was released, Christian said all of the various truces had one common theme: music and song. He loved that idea, and used it as inspiration for the storyline we see in the movie.

One of the soldiers who participated in a Christmas truce was Sergeant Major Frank Naden. He was a member of the 6th Cheshire Territorials Regiment in the British Army. During the war, Frank was interviewed by the Evening Mail, a newspaper from Newcastle at the time. Frank explained what happened:

On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternized, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs.

The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over.

They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.

So it would seem not only was there music, but the scene in the movie where soldiers are exchanging food, drink and other trinkets was also true. Actually, most of the things we see happen in the movie are the things Frank talks about.

In the movie, we see a soccer game break out—sorry, football for anyone outside the United States—on Christmas day. As we learned from Frank’s account, this, too, was true.

Although, in the movie, the game is depicted as what looks like a fairly organized game. While that may have been the case in some of the other Christmas truces along the Western Front, it wasn’t the case for all of them.

Another British soldier, Ernie Williams, went into a little more detail the game in an interview with British television in the 1980s. According to Ernie, it was the Germans who brought the ball. He said while there were makeshift goals set up on either end of no man’s land, no one kept track of score.

There were at least a couple hundred people playing at once, too. So, according to Ernie, it was mostly just kicking the ball around when it came to you more than it was an actual game.

In the movie, after the first evening of a ceasefire the three Lieutenants look off into the distance where they can see artillery shells and hear gunfire. It’s a reminder that the war is still going on, and the men all return to their trenches for the evening.

Again, this particular story in the movie was fictitious, and while we don’t know how every actual truce ended on Christmas Eve, we do know that the Christmas truce wasn’t something that happened everywhere.

A British soldier named Pat Collard wrote a letter home that would end up being published in the Hampshire Chronicle newspaper in January of 1915 that read:

Perhaps you read of the conversation on Christmas Day between us and the Germans. It’s all lies. The sniping went on just the same; in fact, our captain was wounded, so don’t believe what you see in the papers.

There’s a couple things to take from Pat’s letter. First is that the Christmas truce wasn’t a ceasefire across all of the battle lines. Many people did die on Christmas day of 1914 in the war.

But another takeaway is that the soldiers themselves had already heard the amazing story of what took place. How else could Pat, or many others like him, have commented on it in a letter home?

There were more of these amazing stories. In the movie, toward the end it’s only by letters written home that the British and German leadership start to find out about what happened.

And this is true. Since it wasn’t technically something either side was supposed to do, none of the soldiers were keen on talking about it. But, as is often the case in war, much of what they didn’t want to talk about to their commanding officers, many soldiers were willing to share with their loved ones back home.

Thankfully, in this case, because it’s due to these letters that we’re able to piece together much of what happened. And that’s how, I’m sure, the filmmakers for Joyeux Noël were able to add in so many truthful details to the story.

A British rifleman by the name of C. H. Brazier wrote a letter home that ended up being published in the Hertfordshire Mercury newspaper on January 9th, 1915:

You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English—means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not.

They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows.

I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played God Save the King on a mouth organ.

And another letter, this time from a Private Cunningham from the Scottish Army is perhaps one of the closest to depicting all of the events that we see in the movie. Private Cunningham’s letter was published in The Scotsman on January 5th, 1915:

On Christmas Eve the firing practically ceased. I think both sides understood we were going to have a day off. Through the night we sang carols to one another, the German lines were only a hundred yards away, so we heard each other quite plainly. This went on all night.

When dawn arrived we started putting our head above the parapet and waved to each other. On our left was a brewery occupied by the Germans and to our surprise we saw a German come out and hold his hand up, behind him were two rolling a barrel of beer. They came halfway across and signed to us to come for it.

Three of us went out, shook hands with them, wished them a merry Christmas, and rolled the barrel to our own trenches amid the cheers of both British and Germans! After that it was understood that peace was declared for a day.

We both got out of our trenches and met in the middle of the field, wished each other season’s greetings. The Germans said: ‘A merry Grismas!’ Some of them were quite good at English. We had a most interesting day. The Germans got permission for our officers to bury some of their dead which were lying near our lines.

Just like in the movie, part of the truce was to help bury the dead who were in no man’s land. This was further reported in another letter from J. Reading, a British soldier from Chesham, whose letter was published by the Bucks Examiner newspaper on January 8th, 1915:

 

During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: ‘Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.’

At 4:00 AM part of their band played some Christmas carols and God Save the King, and Home Sweet Home. You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them.

Of course neither of us had any rifles. I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream. We took advantage of the quiet day and brought our dead in.

I could go on, as there are a lot of similar letters that depict what the Christmas truce was for many of the soldiers. There’s way too many to include them all here, but I’d highly recommend looking them up. I’ll make sure to put a link to a few good sources in the show notes if you’re interested.

At the end of the movie, once the military leaders learn of the ceasefire they jump into action to put an end to all of the peace. One of these is a Bishop who comes to tell Pastor Palmer that he’s being sent back to his parish in Scotland. The Bishop is played by Ian Richardson in the film.

Here’s where, in my opinion, the filmmakers made the boldest statement of the movie. After scolding the Pastor for his participation in the truce, the Bishop goes in to perform a service for the new recruits who have been called in to replace those who took part in the ceasefire. The Bishop’s sermon is purely to indoctrinate a message of war and slaughter as he insists the soldiers must kill every single one of the Germans. It’s God’s will.

This scene is not real, but like everything in the movie so far, it’s a detail that certainly could have taken place. We know from centuries of history that the Catholic Church has played a huge part in the European wars throughout history.

Much of this type of history is lost in time.

While the movie doesn’t portray this religious aspect from the German side, as we saw in the beginning of the film with the school children they no doubt had their own propaganda that said the exact same thing.

Both sides are fighting God’s holy war to slaughter the enemy.

One of the final scenes in the film is with the French Major General. He’s speaking with Lieutenant Audebert when he mentions finding a cat with a note from the Germans. Then he goes on to joke that he was ordered to arrest the cat for high treason.

As silly as this sounds, even this is a little detail that comes from history. Although the details are a bit sketchy, we know from soldier’s letters that in at least one of the trenches involved in a Christmas truce there was a cat. The soldiers used the cat to send messages back and forth, and after the truce the French high command charged the cat with espionage and ordered it be shot—the same they do with any spy in the military.

The film’s director, Christian Carion, even said they filmed this scene. But then he decided to take it out, thinking it was going a bit too far. No one would believe that, right?

In the end, as difficult as it may be to believe, most of the details in Joyeux Noël are fairly accurate to what the soldiers who experienced the miracle of Christmas have explained.

At least, they’re as accurate as we can expect them to be when our best documentation comes from letters written to loved ones and recollections of the events from the memories of those who were there.

The filmmakers then took these details and sewed them together with fictitious characters into a story that ties all of them together in a very believable way.

But it’s not only a moving story, the movie also comes with a message of hope and peace set in one the worst conceivable times in human history.

Since the movie’s release in 2005, the story of Nikolaus Sprink, Anna Sorensen, the three Lieutenants and all of the other characters from Joyeux Noël was adapted into an opera called Silent Night that premiered on November 12th, 2011 in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Mark Campbell, who is the writer that adapted the movie into the opera, in an interview explained the core message is simply that war becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, when you get to know your enemy as a person.

To quote Martin Luther King, Jr.:

People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.

This message is one we can all get behind. To go beyond the fear, the accusations and the hatred. To get to know each other just a little bit better. After all, if hundreds of soldiers entrenched in a bitter and bloody war can do it, can’t we?

And what better way to embody the spirit of Christmas?

The character of Lieutenant Audebert said it best in the film when he explained to the French Major General that he relates more with the Germans on the other side of the trenches than the French military leaders eating their stuffed turkey and demanding his troops, “Kill the Krauts!”

And perhaps that’s why this story is such a great message of hope for Christmas. Throughout history, wars have always been fought by men, women, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters—people. On both sides. Those doing the fighting and dying are seldom those who instigate or continue strife.

This Christmas, let’s take a lesson from history. No matter how large or how small, you and I both have someone or something that’s causing us tension or stress. Maybe it’s an argument you had with someone, or maybe it’s the recent political elections that caused a bunch of stress and worry about what will happen.

No matter what it is, let peace win out.

The Christmas truce of 1914 was an unofficial and unsanctioned event, and yet it took place up and down the battlefront. And this happened at the beginning of World War I, with soldiers who were seeing their family, friends and loved ones being slaughtered in front of their own eyes.

If those brave soldiers could do it during The Great War, as it’s now called, surely we can do it in our own lives.

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