On a cold winterâ€™s morning in December 1914, men climbed out of their trenches and walked towards each other. Their intentions werenâ€™t to fight. They were there to say hello, share pictures of family, exchange gifts with their combatants. A football match broke out between England and Germany.
But how much of this story is true and how much of it is myth?
Many of you reading this may be familiar with the story of the Christmas Truce in World War One. However, itâ€™s a story which has been embellished somewhat over the years. Many historians tear their hair out at the very mention of the subject. But then many WW1 historians, particularly amateur ones, are very sniffy about what people think they know regarding stories from the Great War. They seem to believe theirs is the only truth anyone should know.
Fact is, none of us truly know. Letters have been scoured to try and discover what people went through. But many soldiers were used to colouring in their experiences, usually to protect their loved ones from the awful circumstances they found themselves in. Added to that, Army hierarchy often censored content they believed would be too negative/graphic for the public at home to read.
The Army always had one eye on morale at home, as this provided them with a steady stream of recruits to replace those sacrificed on the battlefields. War in the trenches had never been fought like this before and was far more brutal and shocking than anyone imagined it would be. There were trenches during the last big conflict, the Boer War. Back then cavalry, bayonets and rifles were the order of the day. By 1914 industrial style weapons had evolved and shells, shrapnel and machine guns were far more effective, and devastating.
When Germany chose Belgium to invade on their way to France to surround Paris, it triggered a chain of events resulting in a war involving nearly the whole of Europe. In the intervening years nations had equipped themselves to be ready for an inevitable battle. During this they aligned themselves with other nations they believed shared their values and intentions.
Militarily Germany was the most equipped. On the seas, Britain ruled the waves with the strongest navy. Basically, you had a series of agreements between nations on a sort of â€˜if you hit my mate, Iâ€™ll hit yoursâ€™. Germany had aligned themselves with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, promising to protect them if anyone attacked. Britain had a similar arrangement with Belgium. So when Serbian rebel Gavrilo Princep assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the leader of the Austria-Hungary Empire, it began a series of tit-for-tat moves throughout the continent. Germany reacted because Austria was affected. When they invaded Belgium, British ire was triggered.
On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany.
For the average man in the street in Britain all they knew is that Germany was trying to take over Europe and the needed to repel them. The official line was the conflict would be â€˜all over by Christmasâ€™.
For most people in Britain their lives existed within the confines of their own town or city. Travel was expensive and existed generally for holidays. People lived where they worked, and often worked in similar jobs to their parents and grandparents. Recreation was yet to become much of a thing in society. Going to Europe to fight for your country was an exciting prospect.
Added to that, public shaming and how you were perceived by others was an important factor in regulating public opinion. The move in the country was every man was expected to do their duty and fight for their country. To refuse rendered you a pariah and susceptible to public humiliation. No one wanted that.
The authorities, and in particular the Army, used this to enhance their recruitment. Many rushed to sign up, caught up in the wave of euphoria they were going to fight for their country.
The reality of what modern warfare meant in 1914 soon hit them when they arrived in France and Belgium. So much so, they couldnâ€™t tell the people back home about it as it was so far removed from what theyâ€™d believed it would be. If you were to experience public humiliation by refusing to fight, what would the reception be if you signed up, went over there and then said you didnâ€™t want to do it anymore?
Once the Germans realised they werenâ€™t going to make it to Paris they began a retreat which developed into an advantageous tactical move. They chose high ground to dig themselves in. Giving them the advantage of always having a far better view of any attackers, than they were giving up. The French and British also dug themselves in and soon a â€˜race to the seaâ€™ commenced as both sides built their trenches from the Swiss border in France up to the Belgian coast. Trenches stretched for almost 450 miles. Once theyâ€™d cancelled each other out, stalemate ensued.
Well into December it was obvious things wouldnâ€™t change for a while. Both sides had suffered casualties already and it was quite obvious no major battles were going to be fought before the New Year. One of the issues both sides were discovering at this stage of the conflict was that trenches theyâ€™d dug a month or so earlier in dry weather, were now beginning to fill up with water. Not necessarily conditions conducive to fighting.
It most definitely would not be all over by Christmas.
Again, contrary to popular opinion or myth, fighting didnâ€™t take place throughout every trench. There were areas where a policy of â€˜live and let liveâ€™ prevailed. If we donâ€™t shoot at you, you can leave us alone. This is largely where a truce at Christmas was possible.
Needless to say the authorities were keen to stamp out any possible instances of non-fighting. In some parts of â€˜the frontâ€™ fighting did continue and casualties emerged.
But late on Christmas Eve 1914 British soldiers heard German troops in the trenches opposite singing carols and patriotic songs. Lanterns were lit and small fir trees were positioned on top of the trench.
Eventually messages were shouted between sides and a festive feeling of goodwill broke out from men who longed for home.
The following day, soldiers from both sides climbed out of their dugouts and walked into â€˜no manâ€™s landâ€™ (the area of land between each rival trench).
To begin with, the British were very wary of the Germans. Theyâ€™d seen enough of their â€˜dirty tricksâ€™ to mis-trust them. But eventually they were convinced of the peaceful nature of the approach. Gradually men from both sides climbed out of their dugouts and met in an area previously far too dangerous to consider being seen in.
They exchanged gifts, shared photos of family and loved ones they all missed.
There is an account from Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, a prominent cartoonist was serving in France and has given his account. Late on Christmas Eve, he and another officer had ventured out of their trench to exchange banter with some Germans on the other side.
Next morning he awoke early and became aware of more Germans sitting on top of their trench, rather than hiding in the safety below the parapet.
I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in the muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches. It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves. This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they were â€“ the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match. The difference in type between our men and theirs was very marked. There was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted head-dresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a light-hearted, open humorous collection as opposed to the sombre demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.
Eventually one of the Germans ran back to his trench and came back with a camera. A picture was taken, though there were several men who were a little wary of being caught on camera in case there were repercussions from the hierarchy.
Some took the opportunity to bury casualties and some officers took advantage of being able to look around the enemyâ€™s trench to see how they were set up.
These were very early stages in trench building. In later years of the war conditions were reasonably manageable, with the Germans becoming particularly adept at putting up concrete structures to bolster their positions. It should be remembered the Germans built trenches to reflect their desire to remain in position. The Allies were always looking at attacking, gaining ground and moving forward. Consequently, their structures were always more temporary.
Four months into this new type of warfare, both sides were still learning.
A day later the meetings dwindled out and this was the end of the whole charade. After that, generals from all sides made efforts to ensure this never happened again. Punishments were put in place for any soldier who laid down arms to fraternise with the enemy.
One thing generals were incredibly concerned with was that soldiers from all sides meeting up close with their enemy would soon discover they were just like them. Anyone becoming friendly with an opponent is less likely to be keen to shoot his head off when they came face to face in combat. This actually happened too, and despite their best efforts armies from all sides had to deal with an emerging feeling of ambivalence towards the conflict within the troops.
Diaries from some soldiers have emerged confirming a cessation in hostilities did occur.
Corporal Charlie Parke, 2nd Gordon Highlanders
I never saw, and never found out, how that truce started but it soon spread through the trenches like wildfire. As an NCO, I stayed in the trench, it was only the privates who mixed with the enemy; the officers from both sides paced along the top of their own parapet refusing to acknowledge each other, pouting and clearly disapproving of the events. The men played good-natured football games with empty Maconochie tins [tinned stew ration] and exchanged their ration of rum or cigarettes for generous-sized German cigars. Close to dusk, the two sides were ordered back to the trenches; the ceasefire had been scrupulously adhered to by both parties.
Corporal Arthur Cook, 1st Somerset Light Infantry
A few days ago, we were trying our hardest to slaughter each other, and here today are our men and the enemy walking about together in no-manâ€™s-land, laughing and joking with each other and shaking hands as if they were old friends meeting after a prolonged absence. You had to see it to believe your own eyes.
After exchanging cigarettes for cigars, they would stroll along arm in arm. Not to be done out of this little armistice, I too went out and had a chat with several of the Germans, most of whom spoke very good English. They all looked extremely well and assured us that they would not shoot as long as we didnâ€™t, so I donâ€™t know who will start the ball rolling here again. Anyway, we are making the most of this fantastic situation while it lasts.
Private Frank Sumpter, London Rifle Brigade
Then we heard the Germans singing â€˜Silent night, Holy nightâ€™, and they put up a notice saying â€˜Merry Christmasâ€™, so we put one up too.
While they were singing our boys said, â€˜Letâ€™s join in,â€™ so we joined in and when we started singing, they stopped. And when we stopped, they started again. So we were easing the way. Then one German took a chance and jumped up on top of the trench and shouted out, â€˜Happy Christmas, Tommy!â€™ So of course our boys said, â€˜If he can do it, we can do it,â€™ and we all jumped up. A sergeant-major shouted, â€˜Get down!â€™ But we said, â€˜Shut up Sergeant, itâ€™s Christmas time!â€™ And we all went forward to the barbed wire.
The myth of football matches taking place along the Western Front has grown over the years to the point many had simply accepted it was an actual incident.
Thereâ€™s a memorial near Prowse Point, just north-east of Ploegsteert (Plugstreet, as the British called it) near the French border in west Belgium. It started as just a simple cross in a field. Now itâ€™s been moved down the road to a designated area. Thereâ€™s a football memorial, where many visitors have added footballs to it. The area also contains some reconstructed trenches and a bunker brought in from another area.
The irony is thereâ€™s no evidence of a truce taking place on Christmas Day 1914 in this area. Itâ€™s something which riles military historians. But the local tourist board believes it brings in enough interest to keep the myth going.
There are several other memorials dotted around. Mesen, in Belgium and Frelinghien and Neuville St Vaast in France.
There is no evidence of a football match taking place as is often depicted in many films, dramas and even music videos. In several areas a football, or other hard items, were kicked about but only by a few soldiers.
One such instance was at Wulvergem, near Messines Ridge in Belgium. There was no match involving loads of soldiers, no England v Germany, a pre-cursor to 1966.
The terrain made this virtually impossible anyway. The ground was already battered by shells and littered with barbed wire, not to mention dead bodies lying in the mud. In addition, itâ€™s impossible to conceive soldiers would have a football with them in the front line.
One thing which is not easily understood by many is that troops didnâ€™t spend months on end in a trench. Both sides constructed a series of trenches which would stretch across the area they occupied. There was a front line and then a series of support trenches where back up troops would be before taking their turn at the front. The trench system would also make it possible to move the dead and wounded back to relative safety to receive treatment or be buried. In reality a soldier would only spend a few days on the front line at any one time. They werenâ€™t expecting to be there for a long time and would only have taken essential kit with them. There would be no room to carry footballs and no officer would have permitted this if theyâ€™d tried.
Itâ€™s also worth remembering that football was nowhere near as popular in the early 1900â€™s as it became later in the century or is today.
Iâ€™m afraid if you were hoping for a story of groups of soldiers kicking a ball about and keeping count of the score, there is no evidence of this. I am afraid Blackadder being called for offside is just the stuff of fiction.
There were three more Christmases during the First World War but only the first had a significant occurrence of any kind of truce. Authorities on all sides made sure there was never any fraternisation again.
Another factor to take into account is by 1915 the war had changed to such an extent something such as a truce was virtually impossible to contemplate. Many of the battles fought that year were far more horrendous than had been seen in the opening months of the conflict. Certainly on the British side, the make-up of the army had changed as well. Gone were the pre-war regulars and professionals. Replaced with the territorials and new army men, not used to life in the services. By 1916 the army was increasingly a conscripted one. Many of them frightened out of their wits to even contemplate disobeying orders and stop fighting.
We will never see the like of a war as was fought in the early 20th century. Weapons and technology have progressed so far it is not even necessary to be in the same country as your opponent to be able to inflict damage on them. Certainly, by the Second World War planes had evolved to be able to fly distances to drop bombs. Hence, by the 1940â€™s there was more of a war experienced in both Germany and Britain, whereas 25 years earlier the conflict was largely confined to Belgium and France.
The real story of the Christmas Truce 1914 is not one of football. It is one of ordinary men from both sides instigating a ceasefire. Stepping out into the dangerous â€˜no manâ€™s landâ€™ and talking to the enemy, swapping keepsakes, and becoming human again, if only for one day.
It was a kind of protest, a sort of revolt on both sides. Just for a short period where men could claim back a small part of humanity for themselves before resuming the horrors of guns, bombs and bullets.
Sources:Â â€˜Forgotten Voices of the Great Warâ€™ by Max Arthur â€“ Ebury Press, â€˜The Soldiersâ€™ War â€“ The Great War Through Veteransâ€™ Eyesâ€™ by Richard Van Emden – Bloomsbury Publishing, The Illustrated Newsâ€™ – 9th January 1915, Smithsonian Magazine, Guy Walker, â€˜The Old Front Lineâ€™ podcast by Paul Reed.