For many, the Christmas Truce remains one of the most enduring and symbolic moments of World War One. The events of December 1914 have become an integral part of national remembrance and provide a centrepiece for the current First World War centenary commemorations.
Yet, the Christmas Truce has also become one of the most misunderstood events of the entire war. Short of definitive evidence, many now suggest the real truth behind the events is rather different, and often more mundane, than many would believe today.
The war stood still on Christmas Day
It is a common misconception that the war ‘stood still’ on the entire front on Christmas Day 1914. This is incorrect, as official casualty statistics for the period reveal.
On 25 December 1914, almost one hundred British soldiers would lose their lives in France and Flanders, with another 62 dying over the following 24 hours. This total, while significantly lower than the normal daily ‘attritional’ average, reveals that the truce was not observed an all sectors.
Furthermore, many veterans would later dismiss suggestions that a truce occurred at all, adamant that it could not have taken place in a war that had already seen sickening losses on both sides. For those who were not involved in, or did not bear witness to, those incredible events, it is entirely understandable that they would be sceptical of the many reports of fraternisation that would soon emerge.
Elsewhere, however, it is clear that extraordinary events did unfold during that first Christmas of the Great War. Recent estimates suggest some form of temporary truce or fraternisation took place on at least two thirds of the front held by British troops, which was subsequently well documented by both official British and German sources. There were also a plethora of personal accounts and diaries produced that told of soldiers exchanging souvenirs, photographs, and food and drink in no man’s land on Christmas Day 1914.
Many men spoke of their experiences in letters written after the truce, with a significant number of these accounts later published by newspapers and journals. The events described were so incredible that those at home could scarcely believe them. One such account was written by former Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers inside-forward, Herbert Smart, who was serving as a Gunner in the Royal Artillery:
“I went myself on Christmas Day and exchanged some cigarettes for cigars. The German I met had been a waiter in London, and could use our language a little. He says they do not want to fight. Fancy a German shaking your flapper as though he was trying to smash your fingers, and then a few days later trying to plug you!”
Similarly poignant encounters would occur up and down the line and would typify just how little enmity existed between the ordinary soldiers of both sides at this point in the war. Nonetheless, there were also more practical reasons behind the willingness to initiate spontaneous, short-term ceasefires.
Forced to inhabit trenches that had long-since deteriorated into quagmires of mud and water, men were only too happy to drag themselves out of the miserable conditions and into the relatively dry ground above them. From here they could gather information on the condition and strength of enemy positions opposite them, while also undertaking much-needed repair work on their own defensive lines.
More significantly, no man’s land was also littered with the decomposing bodies of soldiers who had fallen in the recent British offensive and earlier actions, which posed serious health hazards to the men of both side. Even in December 1914, it was not not uncommon for brief local ceasefires to be agreed to collect and bury the dead, as the War Diary of the 2nd Border Regiment records:
“In the morning the enemy in front of A and C Companies trenches signalled for an officer. One was sent over to their trenches and an armistice agreed upon till 4 p.m. for the purpose of burying the dead lying between the trenches from the night of 18 December. There was no firing on either side on this day, and the bodies were buried near the trenches.”
In the days that followed the truce, the general atmosphere remained relaxed and relations with the enemy, largely cordial. Things would change, however, and orders were soon sent down the line that threatened disciplinary action should fraternisation continue. Despite these warnings, some parts of the line remained quiet until the end of December, when the weather turned wet again, bringing rain, sleet and storms. By 30 December 1914, it was ‘business as usual’.
Following the truce, remarkable reports soon began to emerge suggesting organised football matches had been played out between British and German soldiers on Christmas Day. It was a theme that quickly caught the imagination and news of these incredible events would spread through the pages of regional and national newspapers in Britain, subsequently making their way back to the front where the legend grew.
It is unsurprising that football should play at least some part in the narrative of the truce, after all the game was hugely popular and was played recreationally throughout British Army when out of the line. However, claims that an organised match took place between British and German troops, in which scores were kept, have been disputed for many years.
On 1 January 1915, The Times newspaper published details of a letter in which an anonymous major of the Royal Army Medical Corps told of a match that had taken place between soldiers on Christmas Day. In it, the officer claimed: “The …Regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2.”
This report would go on to provide one of the best-known and most widely-quoted examples of an organised match taking place during the Christmas Truce, however, a lack of substantiating evidence from official sources has lead many to question the validity of the claim.
There is some evidence from the German side, however. Johannes Niemann, a Lieutenant in the German 133rd Infantry Regiment, later wrote that his men had met British soldiers between Frélinghien and Houplines, after which a football match had been played.
“Everywhere hands were shaken, The soldiers opposite us were Scotsmen. We then exchanged everything we had with us – tobacco, chocolate, schnaps, insignia and many other things … then a Scotsman produced a football … and a regular football match developed, with caps put down to mark the goals. There was no problem, because the meadow was frozen hard. One of us had a camera with him … Quickly the footballers formed up into a single colourful group with the football at the centre … The game ended 3-2 for Fritz. During the football our soldiers soon discovered that the Scots had no underpants beneath their skirts [sic.], so that rear views were clearly visible when the skirts flared up … “
It is probable that Niemann is referring to men of the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders who were in his sector on Christmas Day. Official British accounts fail to substantiate the facts, however, and there is no mention of any such game occurring in the official battalion war diary.
Significantly, there IS mention of failed attempts to arrange a match between soldiers of the and enemy troops that day. James Jack, who was commanding a company of the nearby 1st Cameronians, wrote of this in his diary:
“It seems that on Christmas Day the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders actually arranged to play a football match versus the Saxons … in No Man’s Land that afternoon. Indeed, someone in my trench told me of the proposal at the time, but I scouted so wild an idea. In any case, shells prevented the fixture.”
While contradicting Niemann’s claims that an organised match actually took place that day, the diary entry does match more persistent stories of games being arranged, only to then be abandoned for one reason or another. Both personal and official contemporary accounts of similar incidents exist, with a variety of reasons being given as to why arrangements was ultimately broken.
Private 8970 William Tapp of the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment wrote of efforts to arrange a match in the St Yves sector, stating: “We are trying to arrange a football match with them [the Germans] for tomorrow, Boxing Day.” While an unnamed officer of a Highland Regiment also wrote after the event: “We arranged … to have a 2-hour interval on Boxing Day from 2-4 pm for a football match, This, however, was prevented by our superiors at HQ.”
On 31 December 1914, The Angus Evening Telegraph published a letter from former Arbroath footballer, Jack Peters, in which he recorded: “We exchanged caps and cigarettes, and a German officer asked one of our officers to let a football match be played on Boxing Day, but our officer said, of course, that it couldn’t be done, and the German officer understood.”
Furthermore, there were German accounts that mentioned attempts to arrange matches, including that of Lt Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Infantry Regiment. He later wrote that his men were forced to miss a pre-arranged encounter after being withdrawn from the front line at short notice. Significantly, the 134th IR were in the same sector as the British 10th Brigade, which included Pte Tapp’s 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Despite there being no confirmed case of an organised match being mentioned by a British and German soldier who occupied the same sector of the front line at the same time, there is evidence to suggest at least one ad-hoc kickabout took place between the two sides that day. Interviewed by The Evening News while on home leave just days after the truce, CSM Frank Naden of the 6th Cheshire Regiment spoke of his experience in the sector of line near Wulverghem:
“On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over.”
Almost seven decades later another soldier from the 6th Cheshires, Ernie Williams, spoke of the encounter near Wulverghem in an television interview. He also made it quite clear that it was not an organised match.
“The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side – it wasn’t from our side that the ball came. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was a general kickabout. I should think there were a couple of hundred taking part… There was no referee and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee.”
By far the most plentiful evidence relating to football being played on Christmas Day 1914 alludes to kickabouts with all-British participants. On 2 January 1915, The Yorkshire Evening Post published a letter in which an unnamed officer of the Rifle Brigade wrote of an ‘inter-platoon game of football’ in which a ‘cap-comforter stuffed with straw did for the ball’. While, Pte 1125 William Farnden recorded elsewhere: “On Christmas Day we were out of the trenches along with the Germans, some of whom had a song and dance while two of our platoons had a game of football.”
The Truce Today
Despite the plentiful supply of official and personal contemporary documentation that exists relating to the Christmas Truce, there is no definitive evidence to substantiate claims that an organised match, with scores recorded, took place between British and German troops. Instead, it is more likely that chaotic kickabouts developed in a number of areas, usually with dozens of participants and no obvious rules. There is proof that attempts were made to stage formal games, however, these were all seemingly scuppered before they could be staged.
Today, football has become the centrepiece of the Christmas Truce commemorations which some believe has led to the exclusion of many other contributing factors. While it is true the game probably did feature in some form or another on the front that day, there have been accusations that its significance has become overstated by modern sentimentality.
If nothing else, the subject shows that football has the power to unite and divide no matter what context it is played in.