The Christmas Truce Football Game in 1914

The Christmas Truce Football Game in 1914

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Wednesday, 24th December, 2014

Some newspapers have suggested that it was a myth that the Allies and the Germans played in a football match in No Mans Land during the Christmas Truce in December 1914. Mark Connelly, Professor of Modern British History at the Center for War, Propaganda and Society at the University of Kent has been quoted as saying that "the entire episode has been romanticized in the intervening years." He says "there is no absolute hard, verifiable evidence of a match" taking place and says "the event has been glorified beyond recognition". (1)

It is true that an account that appeared in The Times on 1st January 1915 about a football match won 3-2 by the Germans is inaccurate. Researchers have discovered that the units named in the report “were separated not only by geographical distance but also by the river Lys."

However, there is evidence from other sources that a football match did take place. For example, Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 6th Cheshire Territorials, told The Newcastle Evening Mail: “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. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.” (2)

In 1983, Ernie Williams, who was a 19 year old serving in the 6th Cheshires appeared on television to tell his story of the football match on the Western Front at Wulverghem: “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 just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee - nothing like the soccer you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace - those great big boots we had on - and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.” (3)

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J. A. Farrell, was reported in The Bolton Chronicle as saying: “In the afternoon there was a football match played beyond the trenches, right in full view of the enemy.” (4) According to The Guardian newspaper, the "German and British soldiers who famously played football with each other in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914 didn't always have a ball. Instead, they improvised. On certain sections of the front, soldiers kicked around a lump of straw tied together with string, or even an empty jam box." (5)

We also have a German account of a football match. Lieutenant Gustav Riebensahm, of the 2nd Westphalian Regiment, wrote in his diary: “The English are extraordinarily grateful for the ceasefire, so they can play football again. But the whole thing has become slowly ridiculous and must be stopped. I will tell the men that from this evening it's all over.” (6)

(1) James Masters, CNN (23rd December, 2014)

(2) Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden, 6th Cheshire Territorials, The Newcastle Evening Mail (31st December, 1914)

(3) Ernie Williams, History Channel (1983)

(4) J. Farrell, was reported in The Bolton Chronicle (2nd January, 1915)

(5) Luke Harding, The Guardian (11th November, 2003)

(6) Lieutenant Gustav Riebensahm, 2nd Westphalian regiment, diary entry (December, 1914)

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Christmas truce

The Christmas truce (German: Weihnachtsfrieden French: Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front of the First World War around Christmas 1914.

The truce occurred five months after hostilities had begun. Lulls occurred in the fighting as armies ran out of men and munitions and commanders reconsidered their strategies following the stalemate of the Race to the Sea and the indecisive result of the First Battle of Ypres. In the week leading up to 25 December, French, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into no man's land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, creating one of the most memorable images of the truce. [1] Hostilities continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies.

The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914 this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from commanders, prohibiting truces. Soldiers were no longer amenable to truce by 1916. The war had become increasingly bitter after the human losses suffered during the battles of 1915.

The truces were not unique to the Christmas period and reflected a mood of "live and let live", where infantry close together would stop overtly aggressive behaviour and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there were occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades in others, there was a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised or worked in view of the enemy. The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation—even in quiet sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable—and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.

The Christmas Truce Football Game in 1914 - History

The German offensive into France and Belgium had ground to a halt as armies on both sides constructed sophisticated trenches to escape the murderous artillery and machine guns of a 20th c. war. The war of attrition that developed in the late months of 1914 foreshadowed the next three years of futile and costly attempts by the Allies and Central Powers to break the stalemate and bleed the enemy white.

On Christmas day, soldiers on both sides rose to meet the enemy. However, instead of bringing bayonets and bullets, they brought cigarettes and soccer balls.

Here’s how one soldier described it.

“It was a Christmas card Christmas eve. There was white beautiful moonlight, frost on the ground — almost white everywhere. And round about — I should think 7 or 8 in the evening we heard this singing and a lot of commotion …. Then all of a sudden lights appeared all along the German trench and I thought ‘There’s a funny thing’ and then the German’s started singing ‘Stille nacht, heilige nacht’.

“I woke up — well all the other sentries did the same thing — we all woke up the other people to come along and see this — what on earth’s going on. They finished their carol, we applauded them, then we thought we must retaliate in some way so we replied with ‘The First Noel’. When we finished they all began clapping then they struck up their other favourite carol of theirs ‘O Tannenbaum’ which is the same tune as ‘The Red Flag’.

British Northumberland Hussars meet German soldiers in no man’s land during a truce in the Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector.

“So we went on, first the Germans singing one of their carols then we’d sing another of ours. Then we started up ‘O come all ye faithful’ and the Germans immediately joined in singing the same thing to the Latin words of ‘Adeste Fideles’. Well I thought this was rather an extraordinary thing really, to think of the two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

But that was only the beginning. Frederick James Davies, of Lampeter, Ceredigion, described meeting enemy soldiers across No Man’s Land on 25 December 1914.

…”They (the German soldiers) were only 50 yards away from us in the trenches. They came out and we went to meet them,” he wrote. “We shook hands with them. We gave them cigs, jam and corn beef. They also gave us cigars but they didn’t have much food. I think they are hard up for it. They were fed up with the war.”

On December 7, Pope Benedict XV originally proposed a front-wide Christmas Truce to the leaders of Europe.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has become a thing of legend, seen as an iconic act of defiance, as common humanity triumphed over the bloodshed of a senseless war. It has been memorialized with statues, sports games, and in fiction.

However, like many legends, stories of the Truce are shrouded in rumors, half-truths, and misconceptions. What are the facts behind the fictions of the Christmas Truce?

The Truth Behind the Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce does not refer to any single truce, but instead to a series of independent truces on the Western Front.

While much of the Western Front continued to be characterized by fighting, 100,000 troops were indeed reported to have participated in independent truces. The stated rationale for many of these truces was to bury the dead on each side. Throughout the war, combatants laid down their arms to fraternize with their enemy counterparts, and to bury their dead.

Soldiers on both sides took advantage of the lull in fighting on Christmas day to bury their dead.

Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence to suggest that any soccer match occurred between German and British soldiers on Christmas Day, 1914.

One of the most famous legends surrounding the Christmas Truce is the story of a soccer (or European ‘Football’) match, or multiple soccer matches, between the BEF and the Imperial German Army. This tale has inspired armistice day soccer matches, between amateur and even professional teams, reminding fans and players that, not long ago, the close-knit community of Europe fought bloody wars over ideology and territory.

However, in spite of the pervasiveness of the myth in popular culture, there seem to be few credible eye-witness accounts of these events ever occurring.

British soldiers played a game of soccer behind the frontlines. Soccer was a common sport played by soldiers of both sides, however there is little evidence to suggest that a head-to-head game ever occurred between German and British soldiers during the legendary Christmas Truce.

Remembering the Christmas Truce

As the brutality of war escalated in 1915, events like the Christmas Truce of 1914 became unattainable, though some limited truces still occurred throughout the war. The cordial nature of the conflict, at least between the British and Germans in 1914, was eviscerated by the dehumanization of a total war.

Descendants of WWI veterans, dressed in period uniforms, symbolically shake hands in remembrance of the Christmas Truce.

In spite of the fanciful embellishments, the story of the World War I Christmas truce is an unforgettable demonstration of humanity in the midst of the worst mankind has to offer.

History of the Christmas Truce of 1914: Peace in the WWI Trenches

Over a century ago, across the 400-mile battle line of Europe, World War I had claimed almost a million lives over the previous 5 months of battle. The Great War, “the war to end all wars,” was about to experience something almost unheard of in two thousand years of warfare: a temporary though unofficial truce. As Christmas Eve fell in the trenches of Flanders Field, German soldiers had erected Christmas Trees with lighted candles.

At about 8:30 pm, as the firing of guns began to subside, the Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht.” The song was originally written in German, but the British soldiers knew the English words to “Silent Night.” They replied with a British chorus of “The First Noel.” During this time, soldiers wrote in diaries to tell of local armistices established between both sides, occurring across dozens of other locations along the battle line as well. One British soldier told that

… down the line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war:
“English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”

German and British soldiers left their trenches. They crossed “No Man’s Land” to meet and exchanged gifts they’d received from home: chocolate, tobacco, alcohol, articles of clothing, buttons, badges, and hats. The British soldiers bartered tins of plum pudding and tobacco sent to them by King George. The Germans had pipes with a picture of the Crown Prince.

Truce Football Game?

Christmas Day brought impromptu football (soccer) matches between the soldiers. This time also allowed burying the dead and exchange prisoners. The first documented truce was recorded in the War Diary of the 2nd Essex Regiment on December 11, the last one ended at New Year, but it was all unofficial. Perhaps as many as 100,000 soldiers were involved in this truce.

Robert Graves, the British writer — known for the novel I, Claudius and the authoritative translation from the Latin of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars — later recounted the football match, parts of which were fictional, with a score of 3-2 for the Germans. No reports were published of the truce for a week, until the New York Times broke the story, in the still-neutral at that time United States.

Even the usually conservative Wall Street Journal reported:

“What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”

How unusual was this Truce?

A century and a half earlier, in America during the Revolutionary War, German mercenary soldiers from Hesse, hired to fight for the British, were making merry during Christmas. The American soldiers under General George Washington took advantage of this to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night and surprise attack them on December 26, 1776, at the Battle of Trenton.

Truce Redux?

While this temporary Christmas Truce of WWI was attempted a year later at Neuve Chapelle among other places, the armistice was not repeated. Instead, threats of court-martial and the shooting of deserters were ordered by superior officers. Indeed, Ian Calhoun, the Scottish Commanding Officer of the British forces, was subsequently court-marshaled for “consorting with the enemy” and sentenced to death. Only King George V of England spared him from that fate.

Ironically, George V — known in modern times from the Academy Award-winning movie The King’s Speech (reviewed here) as the father of “Bertie” — was the first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and was the first monarch of the House of Windsor, having changed his name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a politically incorrect German name during World War I.

The War would continue for four years after the truce and claimed 10 million lives until the armistice in November of 1918. In 2005, a slightly fictionalized version of the story was made into the movie “Joyeux Noel.”

In partnership with The Royal British Legion, the Sainsbury supermarket chain in the UK produced the following ad. Worth watching here.

Befriending the enemy for nine hours

Christmas Eve was right around the corner and as most of the men and children that fought were exhausted they decided to have an armistice, or a ceasefire, for what has been recorded as nine hours to try and celebrate Christmas. This truce was suggested by Pope Benedict XV who wanted both sides to acknowledge the importance of Christmas Eve, especially during times of war. Both sides have agreed to lay down arms during this day.

The soldiers from both parties decided to slowly meet in no man’s land (the battlefield between two trenches) and meet each other to exchange gifts and have a more joyful Christmas. Everyone was worried as they could not trust their enemy until they shook hands and smiled as both parties agreed to the ceasefire.

The Western front had suffered the most casualties, so the first thing that they did was to help one another bury their comrades in arms. At that moment all the soldiers were bonded by their comradery and by the service they shared of being soldiers, no matter for what country they were fighting for. For that moment life was normal, however, no one questioned why they were fighting since it was their duty.

It is this simplistic mentality that made life seem more beautiful back in the day even if life itself was crueler. It is imperative to remember that even 14-year-olds were enrolled in the army as every nation was desperate to protect their country and nation against the enemy.

The Christmas spirit was in the air and I think that this may have been what called upon the humanity within these men. The soldiers shared whatever food and provisions they had as gifts to keep the traditions going, many talked, told jokes, and even helped each other to shave. It was as if they had never been enemies in the first place. Just as one WWI British veteran said on that day:

“It is not us, but our countries that are enemies”

Like all soldiers in different wars that have taken place in history, they were just following orders. It really goes to show that a soldier that is serving his country does not have much of a choice, or at least didn’t back in the 1900s. Any men that were over the age of 18 were obligated to fight in the war, a cruel war that has left many scarred to this day.

It was exhilarating for those back at home to see such humanity during such a savage war, even for just a few hours, this gave them hope that the war would end soon, as well as giving them a glimpse of the less grim side of the conflict. Sadly, the war lasted another three bloody years.

The reporter that took the picture you can see depicted in the newspaper clipping above said that that he asked the soldiers from both sides what do they thought of this truce and one response from Cpl. Leon Harris, 13th (Kensington) Battalion London Regiment left the audience in awe:

“This has been the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck.” (Cpl. Leon Harris)

The boys approached the end of the truce with a nice football game that really lifted their spirits and brought them closer as human beings. It was a wonderful match and with it, many people come back to the idea of how football brought the soldiers some peace, at least for a short span of time.

For that moment the truth was that there were no Axis but only Allies, as they all felt like Allies. I presume that many of the soldiers saw this moment as a dream and they also knew that soon they would be waking up to reality. It was very different to actually hear laughter and joy around rather than just screams of pain and gunfire non-stop.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

On December 24, 1914, exactly 100 years ago today, British and German soldiers facing each other across No Man’s Land in the trenches of World War I confounded their superiors by leaving their trenches and walking out to meet and greet their enemies in the spirit of Christmas brotherhood.

Digging Deeper

Not only did the soldiers shake hands and converse but they even exchanged presents! When they sang carols together, it just about gave the generals on both sides fits. In some cases, football games (soccer) were played between opposing forces as well.

French troops were a bit less eager to join in the festivities, but in some cases they did. The camaraderie shared by the British and Germans was almost universal along the front they shared with an outpouring of troops from each side who had more in common with their supposed enemies than they did with their aristocratic superiors. Co-national burial parties and services were also held.

The superiors were outraged, and strict orders were given down the chain of command to forbid a repeat of such a Christmas Truce in the remaining years of the war. Still, it was repeated on a much smaller scale in 1915, but by 1916, the carnage had become so great and the terror of massive artillery bombardments and the barbaric use of poison gasses had hardened the wornout soldiers into outright hatred for one another. There would be no further Christmas Truces. Perhaps the annual Christmas bombardments ordered by the generals on each side had something to do with the men preferring to stay in their trenches.

The generals making these decisions were almost universally located well rear of the fighting in luxurious accommodations in appropriated chateaus and mansions. Unlike the men who fought, these high-ranking officers mostly came from rich, aristocratic backgrounds and ate well, not starving and freezing in the mud as their troops did. World War I was one of the worst cases of “ivory tower syndrome” by those running the war in comparison to those fighting it. General officers who cared about and empathized with the men were the exception rather than the rule. This was one of the not so “great” aspects of the “Great War.”

For now though, Merry Christmas, Happy Winter Solstice, Festivus, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, or whatever your winter holiday is!

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite winter holiday? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Your readership is much appreciated!

Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Crocker, Terri Blom and Peter Grant. The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.

The Christmas Truce 1914

On Wednesday 17 December 2014 Aldershot Town football club played host to the ‘game of truce’ a football match between representatives of the German and British armies in commemoration of the match purportedly played on the Western front on Christmas Day 1914. On this occasion the British Army managed a 1-0 win but, according to a report in The Times on the first day of January 1915, it had been the Germans who had emerged as the 3-2 victors, in the, for once, bloodless fixture in No Man’s Land. While the reality of this yuletide game has been disputed for some time, with it more likely to have taken the form of numerous casual kick-abouts, the reports and letters from serving soldiers confirm the organisation of informal truce arrangements on the Western Front on 25 December 1914. As per The Times, an officer in the Royal Field Artillery wrote that ‘it has been agreed between the soldiers on both sides that there should be no firing until midnight Christmas Day…….it was all arranged privately by one of our fellows going across! I think he was rather brave to be the first to do it.’ According to this officer, this détente led to personal exchanges and attempts at conversation with the ‘enemy’: ‘We all saluted, shook hands and exchanged cigarettes.’ A member of the London Rifle Brigade as well as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps wrote of the playing of football, with the major claiming that ‘some of our people actually went into their trenches and stayed there for some time, being entertained by the enemy.’ The solider from the London Rifles was quite effusive in his admiration for the Germans in allowing the British regiment time and safety to afford a ‘decent’ burial to their dead on Christmas day:

They were really magnificent in the whole thing and jolly good sorts. I have now a very different opinion of the German. Both sides have started the firing, and are already enemies again. Strange it all seems doesn’t it?

Another major from the Leicestershire Regiment questioned the stereotype of the brutal ‘boches’ and even the necessity of combat, noting friendly conversations and carol singing and observing of the German soldiers: ‘They are jolly cheery fellows for the most part and it seems to silly under the circumstances to be fighting them.’ The Manchester Guardian, by far one of the least militarist publications, recorded the sentiments of a solider from the Front, writing on his experience of the truce: ‘I wouldn’t have missed the experience yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.’

Manchester Guardian, 31 Dec. 1914

As many historians have pointed out, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was not universal with fighting continuing in many sections of the Front, with resulting casualties. Nor were such truces unique to Christmas. However these truces became rarer with the escalation of the conflict in the aftermath of the huge casualty tolls of Verdun, the Somme and Passchendale. There has been much commentary in the media on the style and tone of the commemoration of the First World War. Many were left uncomfortable at the sentiments expressed by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom, in the build-up to the centenary of the outbreak, expressed the hope for ‘a commemoration that, like the diamond jubilee celebrations this year, says something about who we are as a people. Remembrance must be the hallmark of our commemorations.’ While many historians are moving away from the perception of the First World War as a senseless undertaking, commemoration of the Christmas Truce strikes a resonance with those who value it as a moment of sanity in an insane conflict a brief respite for humanity in the industrialised machine of war. How we, as individuals and as a society choose to commemorate and the divisive response to such orchestrated acts of remembrance, reveals much about the evolution of historiography and the organic relationship between the practice of history and the contemporary political climate.


Manchester Guardian, 31 Dec. 1914

Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas truce: the Western Front December 1914 (London, 2011).

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The Christmas Truce: What Really Happened?

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When I think of Christmas, a number of things pop into my head - food, presents and boxing day football. In Britain, teams across the nation take part in what has become an annual tradition, one which mixes Santa, mince pies and snow with the beautiful game. However, Christmas and football has a much deeper history, one which includes the First World War. The Christmas Truce of 1914 has become one of the greatest symbols of human compassion 100 years after taking place in no-man's-land between sets of British and German soldiers. Alongside this display of togetherness and brotherhood has come whispers of what actually happened a century ago - some real and some rather far-fetched. So who won, who exactly took part and why should we never forget the Christmas Truce?

Throughout 2014 and 2015, The Football History Boys have written extensively on the role of footballers in the First World War, but with the Christmas Truce comes something a little different - those playing were not the professionals people paid week-in week-out to see, rather they were men, men who had signed up for something 'greater'. After the declaration of war from Britain against Germany in August 1914, the European superpowers had what they wanted - a chance to show off the military strength of their nation and to prove once and for all which empire was built to last. Propaganda from the time has a clear message - for men to 'do their duty' or to 'take part in the greater game'. Of course, the horrendous conditions on the Western Front quickly portrayed something as far removed from a 'game' as can be.

Many soldiers had believed that the war was to be finished by Christmas, but trench warfare and the incompetence of the high command meant that any conflict was to last longer than anticipated. By December 1914, it was clear that for many they would not be returning home over the coming month. In fact, before Christmas Day millions of soldiers from all over Europe had been killed or wounded as resentment and disillusionment grew. However, despite opposing ideologies, Christmas was something the vast majority of soldiers had in common. It presented an opportunity for both sides to display humanity, despite the surrounding chaos, and a chance to forget the enmity they had been told to feel.

Christmas truce re-enactment
Trawling through the newspaper articles of Christmas 1914 offers some of the most fascinating and intriguing stories we have had the pleasure to read here at TFHB. It is an event which we have always been inspired by from an early age. In school when WWI is taught, the football matches in no-man's-land are frequently mentioned - sport being something which goes beyond politics and clashes of culture. The Newcastle Journal wrote of the extraordinary incident on the 26 December,

It is a story which can be found over and over again throughout articles from December to January, but one which we never get tired of seeing. A number of soldiers met along the endless zig-zag of trenches, exchanging gifts and later playing football matches. Football is often described as a 'universal language', a notion no more apparent than with the events on the Western Front. Indeed the idea of a truce had been discussed by the Pope and the English Suffragettes who wrote an 'Open Christmas Letter'. Any truce was officially rebuffed but the disillusionment of soldiers, many of which told opposing armies they were 'sick of it', led to matters been taken into their own hands. Fighting did not totally cease, with some trenches continuing hostilities - The Western Gazette even wrote an article under headline, 'NO CHRISTMAS TRUCE'

British and German troops fraternizing

However, a truce did take place, the Chester Chronicle really encapturing the role of football as a universal language -

Even after Christmas 1914, football was continued to be played in and behind the trenches - as a game football could be a source of freedom and expression when such ideals seemed all but extinct. One amazing article from 1915 shows just how useful football was to soldiers' morale - as Devon faced Cornwall in front of a "large crowd". Jack Solomon noted in the Cornish Telegraph, "There is nothing like a good game of football to brighten up the chaps' spirits. While the match is in progress, you take no notice of the roar of cannon."[5] Indeed, even today across social media images are beamed around the world of refugees, soldiers and even politicians sharing one common passion - football.

Ukrainian Soldiers
So how does this all fit in with what we have been told about the truce? Firstly, it is often taught that the peace was universal and found all over the Western Front, this was sadly not the case with conflict resuming in numerous situations. Secondly, a number of football matches took place, rather than one or two as commonly believed. Indeed it was also reported that a number of colonels (both British and German) wouldn't allow football 'matches' between the opposing sides. The truce has since become one of the most used examples of human endeavour in music videos, adverts and television shows. Last Christmas, Sainsburys used the football matches in an advert with the centenary of the event also seeing a number of recreations taking place in France and Belgium.

Football is often seen as something linked only with hooliganism and gamesmanship, but the Christmas Truce shows just how vital the sport is to society. As well as on the frontline of the western front - football was a source of inspiration and togetherness to many. Matches between women's sides kept domestic moral up between 1914 and 1918 - with the actions of so many football league players in France and Belgium highlighted a unity throughout the country. Despite questions of a possible truce a year later in 1915, none could be arranged and the war would wage on until November 1918. It was a war which shook the world and tore people apart, but those single moments during Christmas 1914 would forge friendships, unite nations and bring us together - a message which is strikingly relevant, even today.

The 1914 Christmas Truce

Four bitter years of fighting in Europe saw the slaughter of soldiers on a scale unparalleled in history, but for one day hostilities were put aside, gifts were swapped and no-man’s land in between the two lines of trenches became a football pitch.

A huge mystique has grown up around this match, which is said to have taken place to the south of the village of Frelinghien and just north of Houplines on the France-Belgium border. The New Year’s Eve edition of the Manchester Guardian contained a letter from a British officer stating, “One officer met a Bavarian, smoked a cigarette, and had a talk with him about half-way between the lines. Then a few men fraternised in the same way, and really today peace has existed. Men have been talking together, and they had a football match with a bully beef tin, and one man went over and cut a German’s hair.”

Given the state of no-man’s land, attempting any proper game would have been treacherous. Not only was the ground pockmarked with holes from shells, but there would have been dead bodies lying there. Indeed, the truce enabled both sides to recover bodies. The focus may have been on an impromptu game in the Frelinghien – Houplines sector, but the temporary Christmas truce was followed elsewhere on the frontline between British and German troops.

An Irish priest called Ned Dowling kept a journal of his experiences, but on his part of the front goodwill did not extend to a game of football. Christmas carols were sung by both sides and cigars were smoked, but he ended his account of the day by saying, “The football match, by the way, was a washout as the guns had orders to fire some rounds. Someone was sent out to tell the Germans so. He did so with many apologies, stating, that of course they had nothing to do with it. The enemy politely cut him short, explaining that they knew what selfish beasts gunners were.”

So, on this particular part of the front in Flanders, there were no friendly games of football, and neither it seems were there along the lines occupied by the French and Belgians. Both nations had both suffered losses far greater than the British and there was little feeling of cheer brought on by Christmas. To this day there remains a debate as to the number and nature of games played on Christmas Day in 1914, though none are likely to have been of a formal nature. Interestingly, no accounts emerged from the German side. Perhaps this is unsurprising because at the time, unlike in England, football was a relatively marginal sport in Germany.

Perhaps the last word should go to the English comedy actor Rowan Atkinson of Mr Bean fame. The last of his Blackadder series is set in the trenches of the First World War. With the war coming to an end his faithful side-kick Baldrick asked Captain Blackadder if he remembered the Christmas Day game. “How could I forget it,” came his reply. “I was never offside. I could not believe that decision!”

History Lesson: The Story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Sadly the 1914 truce was to be the only significant attempt at quieting the guns by the soldiers at the front lines.

On the night of December 24, 1914, the guns along the Western Front were mostly silentand fittingly Silent Night or Stille Nacht in German began to be sung on both sides of the line. World War I then known only as the war and eventually The Great Warwas less than six months old, and while soldiers were hunkered down for the holidays in trenches it was still far from the horrors to come.

This was before the gas warfare, the constant artillery barrages, the futile attacks across no man’s land, and before the trenches became as close to hell on earth as anyone could ever imagine. This is not to say that the war wasn’t still hell, for the casualties were already mounting, the line was already static from nearly the English Channel to the Swiss border. Both sides hoped for a breakthrough in the spring.

However, on Christmas Eve spring was a long time away. Despite probing of the lines and the daily attempts to disrupt the enemy, things were quiet, and then on Christmas Day soldiers waved white flags and came out of the lines. Peace didn’t break out it was just a truce for the holy day.

The scene of soldiers climbing out of the trenches even made the holidays rounds in 2014 thanks to a slick ad campaign from the British Sainsbury’s supermarket chain. The video begins on Christmas Eve as British and German soldiers begin to sing “Silent Night,” and it then proceeds to chronicle how soldiers on each side came out to shake hands, play football and stop fighting.

The sound of artillery sends the soldiers back to their trenches, where the German soldier finds a chocolate bar in his coat, a “gift” from his enemy across the lines. The video advertisement was made in partnership with The Royal British Legion, and was reportedly “inspired by real events from one hundred years ago.”

Of course, it was also made to sell chocolate barsones that look much like the one that the German Landser Otto found in his coat. In this case, all profits will be donated to the Royal British Legion, but it is still intended to get folks in the UK to head to Sainsbury's to do their holiday shopping.

Sainsbury’s is not the first to chronicle the Christmas Truce. It has been the subject of movies, TV shows and even a music video for a Paul McCartney song “Pipes for Peace.” One of the biggest misconceptions about the truce was that it was widely reported and was big news.

In fact, news of the actual truce went unreported for more than a week. It was only on New Year’s Eve that the New York Times reported that an unofficial truce had broken out. Accounts only circulated as families at home found out not through the daily newspapers from firsthand accounts in letters from the front lines. The British newspapers, the Mirror and Sketch, eventually printed front-page photographs of the soldiers mingling.

However, German coverage was somewhat muted and even criticized those taking part, while in France the press censorship all but blocked news of the truce entirely, and only confirmed in an official statement that it was limited to the British sectors and was short-lived.

The first fictionalized account appears to have been the German play Petermann schließt Frieden oder Das Gleichnis vom deutschen Opfer (Petermann makes peace) in 1933. Written by war veteran Heinz Steguweit, who was an early member of the Nazi Party, the play was far from uplifting. In it, a German soldier is shot dead by a sniper whilst singing Christmas carols!

The truce was chronicled as a sequence in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, and served as the backdrop for the 1983 music video of Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace,” in which the former Beatle played both a British Tommy and German Jerry who meet in no man's land. It was also the plot of the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, which depicted the events from the perspective of German, Scottish and French soldiers.

All of theseas well as the Sainsbury’s adare quite moving, and from a historical perspective get many details of the early part of the war correct. The German soldiers are wearing grey uniforms and the Pickelhaube (spiked helmet), while British soldiers are wearing service dress caps or glenngary caps in the case of the Scots in Joyeux Noël, with the latter film even including the early red and blue French uniforms. Rarely do the scenes suggest the latter horrors of the war with troops wearing steel helmets or gas masks.

In that regard, the makers have gotten the equipment and details quite right, even if other aspects are pure fantasyalbeit touching stories in their own right.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the Christmas Truce of 1914 is that it was limited to the days around Christmas. In fact, fraternization had often occurred in warand it wasn't all that uncommon for soldiers who had been shooting at one another one day to wave a white flag to exchange food or drink the next. While largely discouragedeven under the threat of serious punishmentsuch activities happened all the time.

In the early stages of the Great War the British and German units tended to have moments of fraternization, but relations between the French and Germanslong-time rivalshad been far tenser. However, by the early part of December, it wasn’t uncommon for short truces for each side to recover dead soldiers for burial.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was also spurred in part by the “Open Christmas Letter,” a public message for peace that was addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria” and signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists. This followed on Dec. 7, 1914, when Pope Benedict XV called for an official truce between the warring governments, but this attempt was officially rebuffed by all sides.

How long the truce lasted is also heavily debated and misunderstood. While the film Joyeux Noël suggested that it lasted beyond Christmas Day, most other depictions including McCartney’s take and the Sainsbury’s advert suggest it was something that lasted mere minutes. The truth is murky on this because trucesrather than a single truce existed up and down the lines.

In many sectors, it is widely accepted that the Christmas Truce did in fact last just for one day, but in other sectors, it continued through New Year's Day. Part of the reason for the latter phenomenon is that as noted neither side planned major a campaign for the foreseeable future, and as a result it was just a quiet time on the line.

“There are reports of truces from the French and Belgian sectors too,” explained Chris Baker, author of The Truce: The Day the War Stopped. “It varied and in some areas went on for several days in others nearby it did not take place at all. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day appear to have been quiet pretty well all along the linebut even so more than 70 British soldiers lost their lives that day. Actual fraternization appears to have been a few hours at most.”

What is accepted is that the commanders on both sides of the lines were pretty much in the dark about the activity until after it occurred. And neither side’s leaders were particularly happywith both fearing that a widespread mutiny could ensue! The last thing the commanders wanted was for their respective soldiers to give up the fight.

The other debated issue of the truce is whether football (soccer) was ever played? While it is likely given that there were a number of cases of fraternization that some balls were kicked around, it isn't clear if there were really any “organized” matters. A number of period letters suggest that the units did kick around the ball but in many cases, it is unlikely that the soldiers used a real ballprobably tins ration tins or other similarly sized objects.

Most historians tend to agree that the football matches could have been much more than kick-about games given the terrain in no man’s land. It is also believed that most of these matches were really soldiers on the same side playing together rather than with those from the opposing side.

“The evidence for football being played is from letters and various other paperwork from individual soldiers,” added Baker. “It gets no mention in unit war diaries, regimental histories, etc., and indeed some men wrote that they simply did not believe that it had taken place.”

“The circumstances of the cratered nature of the ground, presence of barbed wire defenses and so on, plus the very short time over which fraternization occurred, make it most improbable that we are talking about a properly organized game,” Baker suggested. “A kick-about is probably nearer the mark. The only place where even two

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