Christmas Day Football and World War 1

Posted on: December 24th, 2019 | by Laura Murdoch | No Comments

By Varges Ariel, Ministry of Information [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

 

It’s Christmas Eve and you’ll probably be wrapping those last-minute presents, eating a cheeky mince pie, and settling down to watch your favourite Christmas film. You’re mentally preparing yourself for the feast that you’ll be tucking into tomorrow and wondering what Santa will bring you. What you might not be thinking about, for once, is football. But 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?

When young British men signed up as soldiers for the First World War, they were told that the whole thing would be over by Christmas. That didn’t happen and, in December 1914, they found themselves stuck in the trenches fighting a war that wasn’t going anywhere. 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. The opposite trenches were adorned with lanterns and small fir trees. As the evening moved on, messages were shouted back and forth between enemy trenches. 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. Over the years, historians have attempted to discredit this as fiction because the state of the ground would not have allowed a full game. However, there are plenty of accounts that suggest some form of football was played.

It is difficult to know what happened on Christmas day over 100 years ago because the accounts are so varied. It is also apparent that fact and fiction have become muddled over the years. Many accounts have included ideas that were 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.

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. A letter from staff sergeant Clement Barker stated that 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 marvelously 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.

Whether is it fact or fiction, it is obvious to see why the story of the Christmas Truce and 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. Whether a full match was played or not, we like the idea that football was something that could bring these opposing sides together. The sport was a big part of so many people’s lives at that point and it was something that connected the German and British soldiers. The fact that they attempted to play any kind of football is heart-warming and shows, in a small way, the power that sport has to change things. Which seems like the perfect message to leave you with before Christmas.

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