Almost a century ago, Europe was plunged into a conflict that many believed would ‘be over by Christmas’. It would go on to become the bloodiest and most pointless conflict the world had ever seen up to that point. A conflict in which Generals used out of date military tactics – more suited to the days of hand-to-hand combat and cavalry charges – in an age when new technologies meant that war would be fought with machines. A conflict that took the lives of up to 20 million men in the muddy trenches of Belgium and France, in the wintery mountains of Eastern Europe, in the waters of the Atlantic, on the disease ridden shores of Turkey and in the hot desert climate of Mesopotamia (Iraq). This was the ‘Great War’, as it was known then ‘The War to End all Wars’ or as we now know it, The First World War.
Most of us are aware of the horrors that were experienced in the trenches by the men who fought in the First World War. Trench-foot, machine gun fire, heavy artillery bombardment, poison gas, death, disease, shellshock. But in amongst all these stories there is a much more human story. A story that shows a common bond amongst all soldiers whether they were British, Irish, French, Belgian, or German. This is the story of the Christmas Truce and the common bond of football.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was not a planned event. It was not arranged by the commanding officers on both sides. In fact many soldiers were warned against ‘fraternising with the enemy’. It is widely reported that it was initiated by the Germans, who began by placing candles above the parapets of their trenches. In the battlefields near the Ypres salient, the British and German trenches were often only 50 to 90 yards across No-Man's Land from each other. Many of them could trade greetings (or insults) by simply shouting. There are several accounts of the Germans holding up ‘Merry Christmas’ signs and then, one by one, the soldiers came out of their trenches and exchanged handshakes, cigarettes and other gifts. Both sides agreed then not to fire on each other that night. On a sadder note, the halt in shooting also gave both sides time to gather the bodies of their fallen comrades to bury them.
That night it wasn’t the sound of guns that rang out but the sound of carols being sung. The truce held for the following day, in some places the truce lasted up to New Year’s Day or for several weeks beyond that. During this time, the troops exchanged food (gift packages had been sent from home to many soldiers) and tools to help mend the living quarters in the trenches and to fix barbed wire. It is also on Christmas Day that reportedly there was a football match between the British and the Germans.
No evidence for the exact location of this match has ever been found. In subsequent years, if a soldier was asked about it he would claim it happened in the next sector over. When a soldier from that division was asked it would have been in another sector! Many accounts point to a location near Wulverghem (just north of Ploegsteert, Belgium), others to Armentieres in North France. This adds more to the theory that there was more than one match. However, in alot of the accounts the result is always the same: 3-2 to the Germans.
It is likely that there was not just one match, but several in different locations. It is unlikely however that these were full matches, merely kickabouts. The condition of the ground in No Mans’ Land was not exactly like the local park, let alone a proper football pitch! There was also the need for a ball. It is possible some troops had footballs, but many would have made do with anything that could be stuffed and fashioned into a ball.
Some of the accounts of the football matches come from the newspapers of the day.
For example; In the Bolton Chronicle 2nd January 1915: "A very interesting letter has been sent by Mr J A Farrell, a Bolton Post Office employee. The letter is sent to the Post Office and reads: '...In the afternoon there was a football match played beyond the trenches, right in full view of the enemy'..." Although the letter doesn’t specify if the match was between just the allied soldiers themselves or between them and the Germans. It does show the importance of football as a past time to the troops.
In another; Rugby Advertiser, January 16th 1915: "Walter Cooke, son of Mr H Cooke of Church Lawford has written home to thank his friends for the plum pudding and good things they sent him for Christmas. He says: 'They wanted to play at football but that fell through. They kept their word, and did not fire a shot all Christmas Day and Boxing Day'." Did it fall through due to orders from superiors or due to the lack of a ball?
One letter usually cited as evidence for such a match (and a score of 3-2 to the Germans), comes from The Times on January 1st, 1915 in which an anonymous major states: "The ... (censored) Regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2." But this is also ambiguous: Is the major quoting hearsay or did he actually witness the match himself?
Historians Seaton and Brown (Christmas Truce, 1984) also point out that a German reference to a match also had a score of 3-2 and go on to say: "The fact two scores of 3-2 occur in the accounts of Christmas Day football must be assigned either to a curious coincidence or to mistaken memory. The two matches referred to could not have been the same one; in that the units concerned were separated not only by geographical distance but also by the river Lys."
This German reference is credited to an account from Lieutenant Johannes Niemann, of the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment. He served near Armentieres in France.
"We came up to take over the trenches on the front between Frelinghien and Houplines, where our Regiment and the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders were face to face. It was a cold, starry night and the Scots were a hundred or so metres in front of us in their trenches where, as we discovered, like us they were up to their knees in mud. My Company Commander and I, savouring the unaccustomed calm, sat with our orderlies round a Christmas tree we had put up in our dugout.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, our enemies began to fire on our lines. Our soldiers had hung little Christmas trees covered with candles above the trenches and our enemies, seeing the lights, thought we were about to launch a surprise attack. But, by midnight it was calm once more.
Next morning the mist was slow to clear and suddenly my orderly threw himself into my dugout to say that both the German and Scottish soldiers had come out of their trenches and were fraternising along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee. A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.
Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts - and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of "yesterday's enemies." But after an hour's play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternisation ended.
The game finished with a score of three goals to two in favour of Fritz against Tommy."