Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Christmas Truce of 1914 - a picture book roundup

(This post gets filed under the rubric Better Late Than Never. My Kiddo arrived home at 2:00 AM Christmas morning, we've been catching up, and I forgot to set this up to publish automatically.)

The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is an interesting one. The very fact that ordinary soldiers fraternized with each other on the battlefield, even for one day, was considered to be an act of treason by both the British and German governments. But when you realize that war is a political act, and soldiers are the powerless who must carry out the commands of their superior officers unquestioningly, the story about Christmas Truce becomes all the more meaningful. In his Author’s Note to Shooting at the Stars, John Hendrix writes that the truce “stands as a lasting example of ordinary men doing the extraordinary…Armed with carols and Christmas trees, individual men threw away their weapons and walked toward the enemy with a desperate hunger for peace.” I think that the hunger for peace is a true today and it was in 1914.

The Best Christmas Present in the World by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman
2004, 2014, Egmont UK, 48 pages, age 7+

Accompanied by Michael Foreman’s beautiful, touching illustrations, in this short story turned picture book, the past and present meet in the form of a letter. It begins in the present day with a purchase of a much desired roll-top desk in need of restoring due to fire damage. The unnamed narrator decides to begin work on it on Christmas Eve to escape overly excited relatives for a while. Pulling out the drawers, he discovers a letter written on December 26, 1914 and addressed to Mrs. Jim Macpherson. In the letter, a soldier describes how British and German soldiers came together on that frosty Christmas morning, sharing food and drink from each other’s Christmas packages, and playing a game of football. For Captain Jim Macpherson, the day was spent getting to know Hans Wolf from Dusseldorf, who spoke perfect English and whose favorite book was Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. At the end of the day, the two parted friends. On Christmas day, our narrator decides to visit the address on the letter, an old house that had had a fire. A neighbor tells him the woman, Mrs. Macpherson, now about 101 years old, had survived and was in a nursing home, where the narrator next goes. Yes, he finds her, she recognizes the letter, but the ending though sad, it so poignant. But, you can read it for yourself. The story was published in the Guardian in 2003 and you can find it here:

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by written and illustrated John Hendrix
2014, Abrams BFYR, 40 pages, age 7+

After a short introduction about World War I, Hendrix begins his story with a young freckle-face soldier named Charlie writing a letter home to his mother from France, and telling her about the cold, wet, muddy experience of living in trenches with rats vying for their rations of cold beans, all nicely captured in an accompanying illustration. Since Christmas has arrived, hope that the war will end by then has faded, but, he writes, something extraordinary does happen. German soldiers begin singing Silent Night and all along their trench line little lit up Christmas trees appear. In the morning, British and German soldiers meet on the battlefield, shake hands and begin helping each other bury their dead soldiers. Pictures are taken, uniform buttons exchanged, food shared, and football played, and the inevitable question of soldiers was asked: why can’t we just have peace. And the answer comes from Charlie’s superior Major Walter Watts who orders them back to their trenches and to being fighting again. Their splendid day over, Charlie writes his mother that he suspects they will spend the rest of the night shooting at the stars instead of their enemy. Hendrix did the illustrations for this story in an acrylic wash of blues, yellows and greens, reflecting the cold landscape and the warmth of the men meeting momentarily as friends on No Man’s Land.

The Christmas Truce: The Place Where Peace Was Found by Hilary Robinson, illustrated by Martin Impey
2014, Strauss House Productions, 36 pages, age 7+

The moon is shining brightly on Christmas Eve, 1914, when Christmas lights appear atop the German trenches and two German soldiers, Karl and Lars, begin to sing Sille Nacht on one side of No Man’s Land. They are soon answered by Ray and Ben, best friends and British soldiers on the other side, singing Silent Night. Slowly the two armies, enemies the day before, leave the trenches, meet on the battlefield, and shake hands as church bells are heard chiming. Pretty soon, a soccer ball is brought out and a friendly Christmas morning game is played. The soldiers are sure that their example of peace on earth, goodwill towards all will end the war soon, but that was not to be. This is a poignant retelling of the Christmas Truce story, a cumulative tale where the rhyme repeats and builds up using the previous lines as the story moves forward (think This is the House that Jack Built), and each final line reminds us that No Man’s Land, in the midst of war, was a place where peace was found, if only for one day and night. Along with the text, the illustrations, set in a palette of wintery blues, capture this unusual pause in the fighting - the barbed wire, the youthfulness of the soldiers, a debris strewn No Man’s Land. Though the faces of the soldiers are a bit playful, they carry a definite feeling of grace to this most graceful of moments. 

And the Soldiers Sang by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Gary Kelley
2011, 2014 Creative Paperbacks, 32 pages, age 8+

Answering the King’s call for men to enlist once war is declared in 1914, a young unnamed Welshman from Cardiff joins the British army, and chronicles his experiences in a journal his father's give him. He begins with crossing the English Channel in September, riding in a cattle car crammed with soldiers from France to the Western Front in Belgium. Fighting the Germans across no man’s land, the weather gets colder and wetter, the trenches are filled with water and rats, the noise of machine gun fire is deafening, and the young Welshman suffers from with the agony of trench foot. But then, on Christmas Eve, lights on trees are seen across a No Man’s Land, littered with debris and dead soldiers, and suddenly a German soldier begins to sing Stille Nacht and is answered by the young Welshman singing First Noel. And so the Christmas Truce of 1914 begins. Soldiers on both sides meet, help bury the dead, share food and photographs of family, and the young Welshman is convinced that the war will end soon, how could it not after what he just experienced, and what a story to tell his grandchildren, but alas, that is not to be. The British Major orders that soldiers back into the trenches and the war continued. It was Lewis’s hope that readers would see “the helplessness of war, the futility of it’ and that in war, it is always the soldier, on the front lines, who pays the price of fighting. This is an incredible book - emotional, moving, frustrating, and ultimately almost devastating, but a tale that could easily reverberate in today’s world. The illustrations are dark, in a palette of browns and blacks, reflecting the utter grimness of war. This is not a happy Christmas Truce story, but one that will definitely impact readers.

I've already reviewed two excellent books about the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914 which you may be interested in reading about:

Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy is the first truce story I read.  Murphy's excellent nonfiction account gives a history leading up to the start of World War I, what life in the trenches was like and, of course, the Christmas truce.

Christmas Truce by Arron Shepard is the second truce story I read.  This is a fictional account of the Christmas Eve truce told by a soldier in a letter home to his sister.  There been some false beliefs and misconceptions surrounding this night when fighting ceased and goodwill took over.

There are countless articles about the real Christmas Truce of 1914. Here is one I recommend:

3 comments:

  1. What a great holiday collection! Thanks so much for sharing it.

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  2. You’ve found some wonderful books here Alex, thank you for telling us about them. Whenever I think about those soldiers in 1914, it brings tears to my eyes. My grandfather fought in the war and was killed in 1917. His body was never found, and we can only assume he was one of those buried in the mud. It is just so terribly sad.
    I came over to wish you a Happy New Year, so finding this lovely post was a bonus.
    All the best for 2018, Barbara.

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  3. My daughter and I were just discussing this truce. Happy new year.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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