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Christmas Eve, 1914. Frost settles as the day’s rain begins to dissipate. As darkness falls on the trenches of the Western Front, the front lines of what was then called The Great War. It was unusually quiet.
Later, instead of the near constant sound of shelling the soldiers had been used to, a new sound drifted over No Man’s Land. Gunshots and explosions replaced, instead, by Christmas carols.
Carols – initially from the German side – were echoed by their English language equivalents. Seasons’ greetings were exchanged across the trenches.
The next day – Christmas Day – things went further. Tentatively, soldiers on both sides creep out from the trenches, unarmed. More and more soon follow. The young men – many fighting for reasons beyond their knowledge and understanding – exchange greetings, stories, songs and even small gifts. And of course, as with any gathering, someone produces a football from somewhere, and a kickaround ensues.
That’s the story we’re told, anyway. The Christmas Truce of 1914 has been mythologised for over a hundred years, and it’s easy to see the appeal. World War 1 was brutal, mass slaughter on a scale never before seen, with more than 25 million killed or wounded. Why wouldn’t we want to think about peace and camaraderie triumphing – on Christmas Day, of all days?
What really happened?
What really happened on that most famous of Christmases has been the subject of debate among historians ever since. Certainly, the truce was not observed everywhere, and there are plenty of accounts of fighting continuing throughout the day. In areas where there was a truce, it was tentative, but welcome. In a letter home, British soldier Captain A. D. Chater said:
“the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”
In many ways, the truce was about practically as much as anything else. It gave the soldiers on both sides the chance to recover and bury their fallen comrades in No Man’s Land, as well as repair damaged parts of the trenches. But it is true that soldiers from both sides met and even exchanged small gifts.
Did they play football?
But what of the famous football match? The most famous account of it is (largely) fictional. The poet and war veteran Rupert Graves published a fictionalised account of a match between the British and Germans that ended 3-2 to the Germans.
In reality, several games were played, and are unlikely to have featured 22 players, just one ball, and a regulation 90 minutes – never mind anyone keeping score. One description, from Ernie Williams of the Cheshire Regiment, mentions “a couple of hundred” players participating.
Of course, everyone enjoying their new found freedom to fraternise knew it would only be temporary. As the day drew to a close, the men slumped back to their trenches, and fighting resumed on Boxing Day, though reports exist of hostilities being suspended again around the New Year.
The Christmas Truce may not have been as widespread as we like to think, and whatever football took place was disorganised and sporadic, but that doesn’t matter. What happened between the trenches that day can still inspire us, so many generations on.
It reminds us that, in spite of everything, we will always have more to unite us than divide us. And it’s proof of what all football fans know: that football has an amazing power to bring people together – even on opposite sides of a war.
Main image credit: Diego Sideburns via Flickr