The Christmas Truce and a Game of Football
To commemorate todays centenary of the Christmas Truce, here is a piece I wrote for the book Legends of British Football, published in 2008.
Christmas Day 1914 saw an unofficial truce in the First World War, between British and German soldiers on the Western Front. Men who had been fighting amidst the carnage of war briefly shared a unique Christmas celebration. There was widespread fraternisation between members of the opposing armies, and a group of German soldiers beat a British team 3-2 in one of the most poignant football matches ever played. The truce, observed at many locations along the Western Front, was unofficially arranged by British and German officers at a local level, in defiance of the military and political leaderships of the two countries.
Good relations between Britain and Germany during the Hanoverian era, followed by the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), rapidly disintegrated during the early part of the twentieth century. Victoria was a dynastic matriarch with pan-European influence, but after her death the familial connections between monarchs became less important than the power struggle between rival empires. The First World War began in August 1914, with the general mood in Britain being one of optimism for a quick victory, which would end the conflict by Christmas. As war became protracted, Benedict XV, the newly-elected Pope, called on December 7 for a Christmas truce. The idea was favoured by Germany, but opposed by Britain and its allies. In an attempt to raise the morale of their troops over Christmas, the German authorities sent food hampers and decorations to the trenches. With Christmas Eve being central to the holiday season in their country, the German soldiers decorated their trenches after dark that day, and sang Christmas carols. In many cases this was the action which broke the ice, and led to the truce. During Christmas Day, British and German soldiers exchanged gifts and stories about their lives. At the same time there were similar peaceful meetings between members of opposing armies that featured men from Austria, Belgium, France, and Russia. By contrast, at some points on the Western Front fighting continued throughout the Christmas period. At many locations where an armistice was observed, officers from the respective armies formally agreed a time at which the ceasefire would be replaced by a resumption of hostilities, with the change mostly taking effect during the night that ended Christmas Day. The orders of the respective military commands that fighting continue meant that hopes of another widespread truce on New Year’s Day dissolved. At a few locations, however, the break in hostilities held for several days, into the start of 1915.
For several decades after the First World War there were suggestions that the scale of the Christmas peace had been exaggerated, but subsequent research has revealed the widespread nature of the armistice. Extensive testimony from participants was quoted in the book “Christmas Truce” by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, which was published in 1984. This was followed by “Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914” by Stanley Weintraub (published 2001), which drew upon the earlier work, while adding further recollections from those involved in the truce. One of the quotes in Brown and Seaton’s book was taken from a letter that Captain R J Armes, of the 1st North Staffordshire Regiment, sent home to his wife:
I have just been through one of the most extraordinary scenes imaginable. Tonight is Xmas Eve and I came up into the trenches this evening for my tour of duty in them. Firing was going on all the time and the enemy’s machine guns were at it hard, firing at us. Then about seven the firing stopped.
I was in my dugout reading a paper and the mail was being dished out. It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up all along our front. We had been calling to one another for some time Xmas wishes and other things. I went out and they shouted “no shooting” and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got on the top of the trench and talked German and asked them to sing a German Volkslied [folk song], which they did, then our men sang quite well and each side clapped and cheered the other.
I asked a German who sang a solo to sing one of Schumann’s songs, so he sang “The Two Grenadiers” splendidly. Our men were a good audience and really enjoyed his singing.
Then Pope and I walked across and held a conversation with the German officer in command. One of his men introduced us properly, he asked my name and then presented me to his officer. I gave the latter permission to bury some German dead who were lying between us, and we agreed to have no shooting until 12 midnight tomorrow. We talked together, 10 or more Germans gathered around. I was almost in their lines within a yard or so. We saluted each other, he thanked me for permission to bury his dead, and we fixed up how many men were to do it, and that otherwise both sides must remain in their trenches.
Then we wished one another good night and a good night’s rest, and a happy Xmas and parted with a salute. I got back to the trench. The Germans sang “Die Wacht am Rhein”, it sounded well. Then our men sang quite well “Christians Awake”, it sounded so well, and with a good night we all got back into our trenches. It was a curious scene, a lovely moonlight night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets.
At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German or two halfway. They exchanged cigars, a smoke and talked. The officer I spoke to hopes we shall do the same on New Year’s Day. I said “Yes, if I am here”. I felt I must sit down and write the story of this Xmas Eve before I went to lie down. Of course no precautions are relaxed, but I think they mean to play the game. All the same, I think I shall be awake all night so as to be on the safe side. It is weird to think that tomorrow night we shall be at it hard again. If one gets through this show it will be a Xmas time to live in one’s memory. The German who sang had a really fine voice. Am just off for a walk round the trenches to see all is well. Good night.
The 1914 ceasefire also featured in “Christmas Past” by Gavin Weightman and Steve Humphries, a book about the development of Christmas traditions that appeared in 1987, to accompany an ITV documentary. Weightman and Humphries combined archive material and interviews with members of the British public. The section on the truce included the following illuminating quote from Graham Williams, who had participated as a soldier:
My turn of duty on the sentry was from ten to twelve. I was standing there, gazing out, and I thought what a different Christmas this was going to be from any I’d ever had before. I thought that my family back home would be putting up their decorations as they always did after supper on Christmas Eve, and my father would be thinking about making his rum punch. I looked at my watch and at eleven I was standing there – it was exactly midnight by German time – and I suddenly saw lights appear in front of me all along the German trenches. I was wondering what was happening, and they started singing “Stille Nacht” – “Silent Night”. I’d not heard it before and I thought what a beautiful tune it was.
Many of the accounts of the fraternisation mention British and German soldiers playing football but, despite great efforts, independent research by a series of historians has only managed to find a single detailed account of a match between representatives of the two armies. Johannes Niemann, a German soldier from the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment, who participated in the game, recalled the event in 1969 – more than half a century later. The match took place during Christmas Day, on a piece of waste ground between Frelinghien and Houplines, two villages in France beside the border with Belgium. The location was a just a few miles south of the Belgian town of Ypres, which gave its name to a fierce battle recently fought in this area. Niemann’s account begins with the night of Christmas Eve, before moving to the match played on Christmas Day:
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 a 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.
This impromptu football match during a war represented quite a turnaround for a British army. Back in 1389 Richard II had an Act of Parliament passed which officially banned the playing of football in England, due to concern that the game was distracting men from archery practice, with the latter being of national importance during the Hundred Years War against France. At several locations on the Western Front during Christmas Day 1914, British and German officers discussed the possibility of an organised football match between soldiers from their respective armies, to be played on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. These matches did not materialise, due to the general resumption of battle. The British and German troops who played football together were soon locked again in military combat. The abandonment of plans for organised football on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day has been dwarfed by the memory of the spontaneous match played on Christmas Day. That game stands as a testament to the strength of human spirit, and the value of sportsmanship, in contrast to the brutality of war.
Fifteen years after the game between soldiers from their nations, the professional football teams of Scotland and Germany met for the first time, drawing 1-1 in a friendly international, played at Berlin in 1929. The main British football rivalry with the Germans, however, has been the series of matches between England and Germany / West Germany. The most famous of these international matches is the 1966 World Cup Final, in which England beat West Germany 4-2 at Wembley. Alongside history, football has been a major strand of my literary career, with contests between British and German teams, at both international and club level, featuring at length in my writings. Indeed the current narrative developed from an account of the 1914 game that I wrote back in 1998.
Alongside the role of the football encounters between the British and Germans in acting as a reminder of the wartime match in 1914, the Christmas truce has become a powerful motif in art, with several memorable depictions. These have grown in recent years, being strengthened by the results of historic research. In 1983 the video for Paul McCartney’s record “Pipes of Peace” included a short dramatisation of the lull in fighting. Seven year later, in 1990, McCartney’s fellow-Liverpudlians, the Farm, released “All Together Now”, a song about the truce. The Farm’s record was re-worked in 2004, with additional material, to coincide with the England football team playing in the European Championship finals. Two years later, a version of “All Together Now” by Atomic Kitten was released to tie-in with the 2006 World Cup finals, which were staged in Germany, with England among the participants. The football element of the Christmas truce featured in the final episode of the BBC comedy “Blackadder Goes Forth” in 1989. In this episode, set in 1917, the character of Captain Edmund Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, recalled the football match, complaining that he had been incorrectly ruled offside. Blackadder’s servant, Baldrick, was portrayed by Tony Robinson, an actor who has since enjoyed a new career as a historian, with the writing of books and presentation of television programmes. The script for “Blackadder Goes Forth” was written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, the latter of whom is a stand-up comedian, novelist, and nephew of the late Geoffrey Elton, a distinguished historian of Tudor England.
Nearly a century after the event, the 1914 Christmas peace remains a fascinating moment in history. In November 2006 Chris De Burgh, the singer best known for the hit single “The Lady in Red”, spent £14,400 at an auction to purchase a letter written by a British soldier, whose name has been lost, recording his role in the armistice. The following quote from the letter (which includes mention of a football match among British troops) provides a fitting conclusion to this account of the truce:
This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think theres been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us – wishing us a Happy Christmas etc. They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations. Some of our chaps went over to their lines. I think theyve all come back bar one from ‘E’ Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir. In spite of our fires etc it was terribly cold and a job to sleep between lookout duties, which are two hours in every six.
First thing this morning it was very foggy. So we stood to arms a little longer than usual. A few of us that were lucky could go to Holy Communion early this morning. It was celebrated in a ruined farm about 500 yds behind us. I unfortunately couldnt go. There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as today we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down. We had breakfast about 8.0 which went down alright especially some cocoa we made. We also had some of the post this morning. I had a parcel from B. G’s Lace Dept containing a sweater, smokes, under clothes etc. We also had a card from the Queen, which I am sending back to you to look after please. After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We’ve had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about a 100 yds from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him.
About 10.30 we had a short church parade the morning service etc held in the trench. How we did sing. ‘O come all ye faithful’ and ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ were the hymns we had. At present we are cooking our Christmas Dinner! so will finish this letter later.
Dinner is over! and well we enjoyed it. Our dinner party started off with fried bacon and dip-bread: followed by hot Xmas Pudding. I had a mascot in my piece. Next item on the menu was muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate etc followed by cocoa and smokes. You can guess we thought of the dinners at home. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2 way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc and had a decent chat. They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday – perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner. We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them for the last week or two – it all seems so strange.