Poet and fiction writer Robert Graves wrote a slightly fictionalized account of the incident.
Paul McCartney based his music video for “Pipes of Peace” on it. George Lucas placed Indiana Jones squarely in the middle of the real-life historical event, as told in an episode of television’s “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
And folk singer John McCutcheon recorded a song, “Christmas in the Trenches,” in 1984, commemorating the 1914 Christmas Truce of World War I.
Now, 30 years later, only a few days before the centenary of that legendary, if brief, armistice between British and German soldiers freezing in muddy trenches on the Western Front, McCutcheon is coming to Seattle with a pair of concerts celebrating the sheer humanity of a temporary accord.
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The real-life Christmas Truce took place five months after the Great War began, when opposing forces in Europe found themselves stuck in trench warfare, unable to advance on the enemy. Accounts say that a certain “live and let live” attitude developed on both sides among soldiers as young as 18, and incidents of fraternization were not uncommon.
On Christmas Eve and Day, in places up and down the Western Front, British and German troops met face to face, exchanging carols, food and tobacco, sharing drinks and stories. Still-startling photographs confirm these facts.
“What’s appealing about this story,” says McCutcheon, “is that the soldiers’ actions are the most natural response to being human in an inhumane environment. The Christmas Truce broke down the anonymity that is a prerequisite of war. Getting ginned up to kill strangers because someone told you to requires dehumanizing the other side.”
McCutcheon will have much more to say about the truce at his “Christmas In the Trenches Concert” Dec. 17 and 18. The two shows actually complement one another. The first, on Wednesday at Seattle First United Methodist Church, is a solo performance, while Thursday’s concert, an interfaith program at University Temple United Methodist Church, is a collaborative affair with Seattle Labor Chorus.
McCutcheon, 62, a multi-instrumentalist, social activist, teacher, raconteur and popular recording artist, has been playing Seattle for 40 years. The Wisconsin native says his “Christmas In the Trenches” song, which recounts the truce from the perspective of a fictional British soldier, has brought him into contact with veterans of World War I.
McCutcheon met Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran from that war, before Buckles’ death in 2011.
“He told me it’s a mistake to think the Christmas Truce happened only one time. It happened the following year, too.”
By then, however, commanders on all sides — including a young Charles de Gaulle and Adolf Hitler — strenuously objected to fraternization, and the sheer cost of the war in human life (an estimated 10 million military members) took its toll on goodwill.
McCutcheon’s most treasured memory of “Christmas In the Trenches” having a real impact comes from a concert he gave in Denmark 30 years ago.
“I met four German men who traveled from Berlin because they’d heard the song on the radio and wanted to meet me. They were in their late 80s and had been a part of the Christmas Truce. They were just kids when it happened. They’d tried to tell people about it and weren’t believed. I was gobsmacked that they wanted to thank me.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org