“The boys left their families in July thinking of returning quickly, but it never happened. WWI left a huge impact throughout the world. But football stopped the war on December 25, 1914 -only for a day!”
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist, assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading to the July Crisis.
In response, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia on July 23.
Serbia’s reply failed to satisfy the Austrians, and the two moved to a war footing. A network of interlocking alliances enlarged the crisis from a bilateral issue in the Balkans to one involving most of Europe. By July 1914, the great powers of Europe were divided into two coalitions: the
Triple Entente, consisting of France, Russia, and Britain; and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.
The Triple Alliance was only defensive in nature, allowing Italy to stay out of the war until April 1915, when it joined the Allied Powers after its relations with Austria-Hungary deteriorated.
Russia felt it necessary to back Serbia and approved partial mobilization after Austria-Hungary shelled the Serbian capital of Belgrade, which was a few miles from the border, on 28 July.
The First World War broke out.
Only five months into the War, an unofficial ceasefire occurred on the Western Front on the eve of Christmas.
Hostilities had lulled as leadership on both sides reconsidered their strategies following the stalemate of the Race to the Sea and the indecisive result of the First Battle of Ypres.
ESPN stated, “The German high command, hoping to boost morale, sent thousands of little Christmas trees to the trenches. The aim was to keep the soldiers’ hearts in the battle. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Christmas highlighted similarities between Christian nations in opposite trenches. When German soldiers at La Chapelle d’Armentieres in France sang the carol, “Stille Nacht” (the original of the English “Silent Night”, with the same tune), a British regiment shouted for more. Near the French village Fleurbaix, British soldiers in their trenches saw Christmas trees hung with lights advancing into No Man’s Land. The Germans were making a seasonal gesture. The Brits responded.”
“As well as sharing Christmas, the soldiers had gotten to know the enemy. In some spots, the trenches were barely 50 meters apart. You could see enemy soldiers shaving in the morning. Often there were informal truces while stretcher-bearers went around No Man’s Land collecting the dead. Few French or Belgian regiments participated in the Christmas truce. They had more reason than the Brits to hate the Germans, who had invaded their countries. But for hundreds of miles along the British-German lines, there was fraternization.”
“It began spontaneously and slightly differently – in each sector, and yet a coherent story emerges. Germans would raise sheets with texts scrawled on them like, “You no shoot, we no shoot.” A head would pop up above the parapet. Suddenly German soldiers would be walking in No Man’s Land. Britons left their trenches to meet them.”
“Everywhere enemies shook hands, wished each other Merry Christmas, and arranged not to shoot the next day. Together they fantasized about the war dissolving in a burst of brotherhood. In the surviving photographs – one of which appeared in several British newspapers on January 8, 1915 – they still stand huddled together in No Man’s Land. They all wear mustaches, thick coats, and scarves. Smoke rises from the German cigars they are sharing.”
“They also shared Christmas dinners, promised to meet again after the war, and wondered why they were fighting. Britons donned German helmets. Germans sang “God Save the King.” Some Germans told stories of working as waiters, barbers, or taxi drivers in prewar Britain. “Good morning, sir,” a German said to a British lance corporal. “I live at Alexander Road, Hornsey. And I would see Woolwich Arsenal play Tottenham tomorrow.”
The best way to express friendship was through sports – football!
But, whether the football-match took place or not, the historians have shared their doubts, meanwhile, there is also a group of historians, who have given evidence that the football match did take place.
ESPN stated, “Many people, including some veterans of the war, have doubted that these games were ever played. The story seems too good to be true.
Indeed, Geoff Dyer in his 1994 book “The Missing of the Somme” dismisses it as a myth. Some historians believe the truth is somewhere in between. Others contend that the impact of the games has been overstated as we witness the Premier League and FA, among other organizations, commemorates the moment.”
On the other hand, Historian Taff Gillingham thinks otherwise!
Taff has been studying British military history for more than 25 years. He was an adviser to Sainsbury’s in the making of their 2014 Christmas advert, which focused on the 1914 Christmas truce.
According to Taff, there was a football match on December 25, 1914.
“You can count on one hand the number of accurate accounts about football during the truce. There are plenty of hearsay accounts, and a few fantasists account too – for example, an officer named Peter Jackson claimed to have played, but in 1968 was rumbled and admitted he had made the whole thing up – and there are a number of hearsay reports, of people having heard about a match, but there are only four pieces of evidence from soldiers who either played or witnessed the match. After researching the Christmas truce for 15 years, I can usually spot the real accounts from the fakes.”
“Until this year, I, like Mark, believed there was not enough concrete evidence to say that any football took place. And we need to be clear: what did happen can certainly not be called a ‘match’. However, several months before I started working with Sainsbury’s I got in touch with an old friend who is a historian of the Norfolk regiment, who sent me some papers he thought could be of use.”
“Two were accounts by men who said there was no football, the third – after 15 years of looking – was an account by a Norfolk corporal who said he played.”
“Sure enough, in that pile were three very important sheets of paper – a letter written by Corporal Albert Wyatt of the Norfolk regiment, published in a newspaper in 1915, who said he had played a match in Wulverghem, Belgium. This was a breakthrough, as it corroborated a letter sent by Sergeant Frank Naden from the 1/6th Cheshires, telling home that he had played a Christmas Day match.”
“Naden’s letter is widely known but, until now, there had been no corroboration for it. Here’s the thing – the two regiments units served together in the winter of 1914: the Cheshires, who were part of the Territorial Force, had just arrived on the front line, and were mixed with the Norfolks for trench training.”
“So here we suddenly have two people in the same place saying they had played a game of football. That is corroborated evidence. I can now say, hand on heart, that there was a kickabout. I don’t even think it was on the scale that the Sainsbury’s advert suggests – the fact we don’t see lots of soldiers talking in letters and diaries about having seen the match indicates it was on a small scale – but there was a kick about.”
“Indeed, the fact the kick about was small is unsurprising, because many British soldiers were more interested in fraternizing with the Germans: they just wanted to see them – to talk to them, to swap photos and food. Some even cut one another’s hair. Remember, many of the German troops would have worked in bars and restaurants back home, so would have a decent grasp of English. So there were lots of conversations [on Christmas Day].”
“A few months ago German historian Rob Schaefer uncovered a postcard sent home by another soldier of IR133 who claimed to have played. The card corroborates a well-known account by Lt Johannes Niemann of the same Regiment. Again – two men, same place, same time. The kick about at Wulverghem and Frelinghien are the only two places where kick about are corroborated, although in both cases there is no corroboration from the opposing side.”
“In spite of this, I think it is a great tragedy that football is hijacking the Christmas truce – in reality, football played an insignificant role in the truce. It really was more about fraternization, which is why in the end Sainsbury’s toned down the emphasis on the football and instead highlighted the sharing aspect.”
In 1999 Rudolf, son of a German Lieutenant in WWI, Kurt Zehmisch, found his dad’s diary in the attic.
In the diary, he wrote, “A couple of Britons brought a ball along from their trenches, and a lively game began. How fantastically wonderful and strange! The English officers experienced it like that too- that thanks to soccer and Christmas, the feast of love, deadly enemies briefly came together as friends.”
A 19-year old Private in the 6th Battalion Cheshire Regiment named Ernie Williams stationed near Ypres, Belgium, depicted how football brought the two sides together in Peter Hart’s book, Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914.
Williams also recounted his story with minor variations in a recorded 1983 interview.
“The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it was from their side – it wasn’t from our side where the ball came. It was a proper football. They took their coats off some of them and put them down as goalposts. One fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kick about. I should think there would be at least a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at it – I was pretty good then at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will.”
“There were some of the Germans who could speak English. I don’t think many on our side could speak German! No referee, we didn’t need a referee for that kind of game. It was like playing as a kid in the streets, kicking the ball about and the referee being the policeman and chasing you off. There was no score, no tally at all – it was simply a melee. Nothing like the football you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace – those great big boots we had on – and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.”
Lieutenant Charles Brockbank, also a member of the 6th Battalion Cheshire Regiment penned an entry detailing the day’s football match in his journal, “The most extraordinary incident … the Germans started shouting to us to ‘come out’ and ‘have a drink’ and also climbing about in the trenches. One of them came out in front without a 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.”
The same book shares an account from the German perspective as Lieutenant Johannes Niemann of the Saxon 133rd Regiment told of a football match between the Germans and the Argyll and Sutherlands Highlanders deployed in the BEF:
“A Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. 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. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternization ended. The game finished with a score of three goals to two in favour of ‘Fritz’ against ‘Tommy’.”
The games played were not highly competitive, but it was more about relishing the moment. The Goalposts were either a couple of pieces of wood, or caps or helmets, and even though the corpses had been cleared from the battlefield earlier that day, shell holes and the huge boots of the soldiers made close control impossible. Players who fell in the mud were pulled out by the enemy, to cheers from spectators, who gathered to watch the tough boys of war enjoying and spreading the message of love through football.
The boys left their families in July thinking of returning quickly, but it never happened.
WWI left a huge impact throughout the world.
But football stopped the war on December 25, 1914 – only for a day!
Note: Information gathered from Wikipedia, ESPN FC, These Football Times and History