Sportsnight #43: 1914, The Western Front, The Christmas Truce Football Matches

by George_East on December 24, 2014

Football truce

A hundred years ago today one of the most extraordinary things happened. Men who were facing each other in opposing trenches and who had been dug in already for months experienced a moment of peace and fraternity.   The truce was not organised or official. Indeed many in the higher ranks were opposed to it because, so they thought, fraternisation with the enemy would lead to a weakening of the martial spirit.

The Germans started it. At Ypres in Belgium. The singing of Christmas Carols in the trenches on Christmas Eve.   The sound of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht carrying across the shell scarred no man’s land was soon met with Christmas Carols in response from British trenches. Similar moments were experienced between the French and German trenches, and even on the bitterly fought Eastern Front between the Austrians and Russians. The songs were followed by Christmas greetings shouted across the lines.

How the next bit happened is not entirely clear but somewhere along that interminable trench line, some brave soldier put his head above the parapet and climbed out into no man’s land.   No rifle shot was heard. No artillery shells were fired. The guns had gone eerily quiet.   Soon he was joined by others from both trenches and then hundreds of men walking towards each other in peace and curiosity.

What the soldiers found were men like them. Overwhelmingly working class men sent to fight a war of dynastic power.   They swapped cigarettes and rations, and buttons as mementos of the meeting.   Photographs were taken and the solemn business of burying fallen comrades was attended to. A letter published today from a participant, one Captain AD Chester of the Gordon Highlanders to his mother describes it unsurprisingly as ‘the most extraordinary sight ever seen…’.

Hardly any of them spoke the language of the enemy and so very little actual conversation took place.   Yet at points up and down the line there was one universal language. That of the workingman’s game: football.   Games were played – some improvised with bully beef tins. There are even a couple of reports of organised games being played. One report has the Germans beating England 3-2 (no surprise there) but the score really doesn’t matter. The fact it happened mattered.

Of course a year later the top brass on both sides mostly ensured it didn’t happen again and by the time 1916 came around after Verdun and the Somme and the gas attacks, enmity was too bitter. But for one brief moment a common humanity triumphed, however briefly, in one of the grimmest of all circumstances our world has ever seen is something from which we can all take hope and even solace.

Wishing a very happy Christmas to all our readers…

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