Letters From the Front

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{Header photo from the Christmas Truce and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication license, via Wikimedia Commons.}

Note: this article will be published in the November 2010 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

“Christmas in the trenches! What a time. ‘Peace on earth, goodwill toward Men.’ It is hardly to be believed, but nevertheless it is quite true that such was the case this Christmas.” — Maryport Private, January 7, 1915

The story of the Christmas truce during World War I is well-known. From books, film, and songs — including Garth Brooks’ “Belleau Wood” — there’s even a page about it on Snopes.com — confirming that during World War I, German and British soldiers stationed in no-man’s land did indeed choose to have a truce over Christmas.

Park University’s history department, having already established a connection to the National World War I Museum, knew they had an angle to this compelling story — and Dr. Timothy Westcott, the chair of the Department of Social Sciences, also knew last year that it was the 95th anniversary of the meeting, and that 2014 is the centennial of the beginning of World War I.

So, Dr. Westcott came up with the idea of the history majors at Park reading letters from soldiers from this time.

James Hodges, Laura Lampert and Daniel Brandt in the 2009 'Letters from the Front'. Photo by Dr. Tim Westcott
James Hodges, Laura Lampert and Daniel Brandt in the 2009 ‘Letters from the Front’. Photo by Dr. Tim Westcott.

“The production is an actual reading of British and German soldiers’ letters that they wrote home within a few weeks following the Christmas Truce,” Dr. Westcott writes in an email interview. “These letters were written to parents, wives, sisters, girlfriends, or just friends the soldiers desired to share their story.”

Working with not only the Liberty Memorial but also the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the In Flanders Field Interactief Museum in Germany, the organizations provide original letters as well as photographs that accompany the photo.

“As cast members read a particular letter,” Dr. Westcott explains, “there is a corresponding PowerPoint slide in the background that represents an aspect of that letter. The photographs selected for the production have to represent an aspect of the actual corresponding letter. The German solider letters are spoken in German with an English translation slide. If a soldier mentions a particular musical selection in which they sang in 1914, we play a short clip of that song. At the conclusion of the production, the cast members join hands on center stage, while inviting the audience, to sing ‘Silent Night’ which was actually sung on the battlefield by both armies.”

Photo from the Christmas Truce, by Robson Harold B [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo from the Christmas Truce, by Robson Harold B and used under a Public Domain license, via Wikimedia Commons.
The cast and crew are all history majors. Last year, there were five stage cast members, one of which is a narrator, and Dr. Westcott hopes to include another reader to this year as well as increase the number of letters that they read. Last year’s production was about 90 minutes long with an intermission, and they hope to increase that to about two hours for this year.

The production, which runs December 2, 3, and 4 at 7 pm at the Jenkin and Barbara David Theater on the Park University main campus, is a fundraiser for Park’s national history honor society chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, called Zeta Omicron. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students or children under 18, and you can also support the project by donating to Zeta Omicron.

The majors attend the American Historical Association meeting annually, which according to Dr. Westcott typically hosts between 5,000 – 6,000 professional historians presenting conference papers on their recent historical research. The fundraiser helps cover travel, lodging, and conference fees for the majors to attend the conference.

“The conference is important to the history majors for professional networking with historical experts researching similar topics,” Dr. Westcott writes, “plus as young historians, the majors observe the proper manner in presenting research. In addition, the opportunity to network and interact with faculty from graduate programs that the majors may be interested in attending is extremely important.”

For more information, you can contact Dr. Westcott at 816-584-6364 or via email at tim.westcott@park.edu.