The Christmas Truce: What Really Happened?

Finally! A new TFHB piece is here - it has been a busy few months for the pair of us outside of the blog - Ben has started his PGCE and Gareth has been working as a teaching assistant - no rest for the wicked! 

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,

"An extraordinary thing happened between us and the Germans yesterday. We are so close in our trenches that we can talk to the Germans, and yesterday got quite friendly. After a lot of talking and shouting to each other, arranged that one of our men should go out half-way and meet a German and that there was to be no shooting meanwhile. Both men got out at the same time and went out, everyone in the opposing trenches looking out over the tops of them. The men met and shook hands amid cheers from both trenches. Our man gave the German some cigarettes and received in return some chocolate."

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'

Tales of troops downing their guns to play football at Christmas are some of the most enduring – and poignant – of the First World War.
British and German troops fraternizing

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

"Then the strangest thing happened. As if by some mutual agreement, both sides clambered out the trenches, and met in the middle of the field. We exchanged cigarettes etc, and had general conversation. One of them, came up to officer and said in broken English; 'Good morning sir; I live at Alexander Road, Horusey, and I would see Woolwich Arsenal play Tottenham tomorrow'"

Of course this was perhaps the only English this particular German soldier knew, but amazingly it was to do with Football. So what of the actual football games in No-Man's-Land? We have discussed the exchanging of gifts and the development of friendships along the trenches but not of the matches which have become legend in popular British and German culture. The Times also recorded the football matches on 1 Jan, 1915 under the headline, "Football With The Enemy". In a letter from an officer in the R.F.A, it is noted that,  "We sat around a fire all evening and at about 11 o'clock, a very excited infantry officer came along and told us that the fighting was off and men were fraternizing in between the trenches". In terms of a football match, it is another letter which notes what happened,
"On Christmas Day a football match was played between them and us in front of the trench... They [German troops] were really magnificent in the whole thing and were jolly sorts and I now have a very different opinion of the Germans. Both sides have started the firing and are already enemies. Strange it seems doesn't it?" [2] 

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 large 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.


Syrian refugees 


WHO'LL SEND A FOOTBALL? To the Editor, Amman Valley Chronicle. Sir,- just a few lines to you asking you kindly if you could get me a foot- ball from a few of our leaders, as we would like to have a game to pass the time away a bit after being in the trenches for a while, and then coming out to the rear of the firing line for a rest. [These boys are all good lads, and out here a football is much appreciated whilst they are resting.]

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.


Last year's Sainbury's advert
By Ben Jones (TFHB) Follow me on Twitter (@Benny_J) or (@TFHBs) 


Notes:

To be added tomorrow (07/12/15)

Comments

lind lindjersey said…
nice ,so glad learn a lot from this website,will be back soon.
www.cheapsoccerjersey.org

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