It is regarded as historical fact that during Christmas 1914 – the first Christmas of the First World War – widespread ceasefires took place across the Western Front.
After five months of fighting, hostilities soothed, French, German and British soldiers laid down their arms, crossed trenches and met in no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to talk, exchange gifts and take photographs.
However, a tale that has become hazy in the fogs of time is that of the Christmas Day football match between the British and the Germans.
It’s a romantic, wholesome tale – but did it actually happen?
It was the first Christmas of the war and soldiers were exhausted. They were homesick and harrowed by everything that they had witnessed. Many had expected be home by Christmas.
Through testimonies, what is regarded as fact is that, late on Christmas Eve, the British Expeditionary Force heard German troops in the trenches opposite singing carols. The Germans had lined their trenches with fir trees and candles, and the British returned with a few carol renditions of their own.
The troops then ventured into no man’s land, shook hands and exchanged everything from buttons to cigarettes, alcohol to hats. One Brit even gave a German a haircut.
However, there is not a lot of symbolism or romanticism attached to hairdressing. A shame, as it would have made for a much simpler Sainsbury’s advert.
What really tugs at the heartstrings is the beautiful game, and legend states that a fully fledged football match was organised; Britain versus Germany, caps for goalposts and a real football. The game is said to have finished 3-2 to the Germans.
Such a story has been largely dismissed by historians – partly because the bitterly hard winter ground, barbed wire and bomb craters would have rendered a game of organised football unlikely.
However, first-hand testimonies do suggest that a series of small scale kickabouts – perhaps with a bully beef tin instead of a football – were held between soldiers. Again, whether these troops involved were from the same or conflicting sides has been blurred by time.
“The most extraordinary incident…the Germans started shouting to us to ‘come out’ and ‘have a drink’ and also climbing about in the trenches,” Lieutenant Charles Brockbank, member of the 6th Battalion Cheshire Regiment, wrote in his journal [via These Football Times].
“One of them came out in front without rifle or arms, as one of ours went out, too. A huge crowd formed. We had found a little rubber ball so, of course, a football match came off and we exchanged various things.”
Likewise, Lieutenant Johannes Niemann gives a detailed account from the German side – albeit in an interview conducted in the 60s – reporting that the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played a game against Scottish troops.
“The Scots marked their goalmouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours,” Niemann recalled. “It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and we had no referee.
“A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm…but after an hour’s play, when our commanding officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it.”
Although the truth behind the Christmas Day football match has been debated and disputed – from the size of the game to the presence of an actual football, to whether it really took place at all – what cannot be rendered untrue is the existence of the 1914 Christmas Day truce itself.
It was a demonstration of peace in the face of conflict, togetherness in the face of tragedy, hope in the face of despair.