Christmas Day Football and World War 1

Posted on: December 24th, 2019 | by Laura Murdoch | No Comments
World War 1 Football

Soldiers playing soccer in No-Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce in 1914. Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

 

It’s Christmas Eve and you’ll probably be getting ready for the big day. You might even be wondering what Santa will bring you. What you might not be thinking about, for once, is football. Here at Pendle, we like to embrace the sport whenever we can and Christmas Eve is the perfect time to talk about one of history’s most iconic football matches. The Christmas Truce on Christmas Day 1914. Over the years it has become a legend and a symbol of humanity in a horrific conflict. But what happened that night in No Man’s Land?

Christmas Truce

It would all be over by Christmas. That was the promise British men got when they signed up during World War 1. That didn’t happen. Instead of celebrating, British soldiers were stuck in the trenches. So, you could understand why they might have needed an extra dose of Christmas spirit. The story goes that late on Christmas Eve, men of the British Expeditionary Force heard German troops singing carols and patriotic songs. Lanterns and small fir trees adorned the opposite trenches. Soldiers shouted messages back and forth between enemy trenches throughout the night. A German messenger came to the British trench and told them that, if they agreed, neither side would shoot the following day.

The message proved to be true and the next day, British and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land. The two sides buried their dead and repaired trenches and dugouts. According to first-hand accounts, the opposing sides found the meeting to be quite pleasant. The sides exchanged gifts, took photos, and even played small games of football. Historians have attempted to discredit this as fiction because the ground would not have allowed a full game. However, plenty of accounts suggest some form of football was played.

Accounts are so varied that it is difficult to know what actually happened. It’s also apparent that fact and fiction have become muddled over the years. Many accounts include fictional ideas created by British poet and writer, Robert Graves. Graves reconstructed the whole encounter in a story published in 1962. In his version of events, the score ended up as 3-2 to the Germans.

Football in the Trenches

There may not be a great deal of evidence to suggest that a full match was played, it has been suggested that small and messy kickabouts broke out over No Man’s Land. According to staff sergeant Clement Barker, a ball was kicked out from the British lines and an impromptu match broke out. German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment wrote in his diary that the British soldiers “brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was”. On January 1st 1915, a letter written by a doctor with the Rifle Brigade was published in The Times. It reported that “a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench.” Although, the brigade’s history insists that no match took place.

Legacy

Whether it’s fact or fiction, it’s obvious why the story of the Christmas football match has stuck for so long. It is a great example of humanity in the middle of a conflict that caused so much destruction. It might not have helped strengthen the spirit of conflict but it made both sides seem more sympathetic. Whatever happened, we like the idea that football was something that could bring the opposing sides together. The sport connected the German and British soldiers. The fact they tried to play at all shows, in a small way, the power that sport has. Which seems like the perfect message to leave you with before Christmas.

If you have a taste for sporting history, why not learn about the history of the football in our earlier blog post? Or just prepare yourself for getting back on the pitch by browsing our latest football kits.

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