All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Holidays on the front lines
"All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914," tells the story of European soldiers putting down their arms, singing songs and helping to bury each others dead.
Image from the Imperial War Museum

When World War I broke out, commanders on all sides told their soldiers, "You'll be home in time for Christmas."

But it quickly became clear there was no immediate end in sight. Theater Latte Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein says as the holidays approached, soldiers fighting in the trenches along the Belgian border were miserable.

Cantus vocal ensemble regularly stretches the boundaries of what is considered traditional choral work. In "All is Calm" the choir joined forces with Theater Latte Da to create a work that is part theater, part concert.
Image courtesy of Cantus Vocal Ensemble

"They were living in subterranean conditions, up to their knees in mud," says Rothstein. "Food was scarce, the rats and the lice had taken over the trenches. These conditions were inhuman. In fact, in that first winter of the war, more men died from infection and disease than died from enemy fire."

It's what happened in the coming weeks that inspired Rothstein to create "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914." It's a musical retelling of one of the more remarkable events of what some people called "the war to end all wars."

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Enemy trenches were just a few yards apart, divided by "no man's land." At night, the various troops took up singing their favorite carols and ballads, in French, English and German. They competed, at first drowning one another out, and then applauding each other's efforts.

Finally on Christmas Day, along several sections of no man's land, soldiers on both sides laid down their arms for a holiday truce.

A Christmas Truce
This image appeared in the Illustrated London News on January 5, 1915, depicting the spontaneous truce that occurred at several different points along the front lines of World War I.
From the Illustrated London News, January 1915

"Some of them lasted an hour, and some of them lasted up to a week," says Rothstein. "The men met in no man's land, exchanged gifts of tobacco and rum and chocolate, even photographs of family. Some of them played soccer, and they buried each other's dead. And then they returned to their trenches, and the war resumed for another four years."

Rothstein spent close to two years collecting firsthand accounts of the truce, traveling to war museums and libraries in Belgium and London.

He approached Cantus vocal ensemble artistic director Erick Lichte to work with him. Lichte says having a dramatic story made it easier and more inspiring to arrange the music.

"It was great to have these scenes in our head. When we have the drinking and the camaraderie, we have this wassail song that's really expressive, with the burying of the dead we have a setting of Auld Lang Syne," says Lichte.

War veterans
Cantus vocal ensemble performed excerpts of "All Is Calm" for war veterans at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. Many vets had tears in their eyes as the performance came to a close.
Image courtesy of Cantus Vocal Ensemble

Cantus performed excerpts of "All is Calm" for a group of veterans in for a day of physical therapy at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

Tom Donovan served in World War II, or as he calls it, "the WAR war." By the end of the performance, Donovan is clapping heartily with moist smiling eyes.

"I think this is tremendous! I went through two Christmases [in World War II]. It's always hard," Donovan laughs sadly.

Cantus Artistic Director Erick Lichte says his group is regularly asked to sing Christmas music at the holidays.

"And you can lose sight as to why you're singing that Christmas music," says Lichte. "And I think this story reminds us. It is about peace on Earth, goodwill toward men -- that's not just a thing you sing in a carol you like the tune of."

Singing about war
In addition to performing excerpts of "All Is Calm" for veterans at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, Cantus also performed a letter by an American soldier in Iraq, set to music. The letter was addressed to his wife and child, who he knew he would never see again.
Image courtesy of Cantus Vocal Ensemble

Lichte says "All is Calm" has brought new life to the music. Director Peter Rothstein says what makes the story of Christmas 1914 extraordinary is that everyday soldiers transformed themselves from warriors into peacemakers.

"It puts a human face on war," says Rothstein. "The heroes of the story are not the kings and the queens and the generals and the army strategists, and those people that make up biographies and history books. They were the men in the trenches, and they took it upon themselves to have a moment of peace and to honor the spirit of Christmas."

Rothstein says such a remarkable story should be a part of our history books.

Theater Latte Da and Cantus vocal ensemble perform "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" at churches in Minneapolis and Excelsior throughout the weekend.