It’s one of the most enduring legends of warfare. The day that two opposing armies stepped out of their trenches, shared a beer, and had a kickabout before going back to the grim business of blowing each other apart.
Often dismissed as a battlefield myth, the Christmas Day football match really happened. To the absolute fury of officers, ordinary soldiers from Britain and Germany put aside their differences and observed a short, impromptu truce.
When it broke out in July 1914 both sides believed the Great War would “all be over by Christmas.” But the appalling conflict was to rumble on for another four years.
It not only resulted in a colossal loss of life, but laid cultural divisions that linger to this day. Without the Great War we would never have had to face Adolf Hitler. And without Hitler, the story of the 20th century would have been unimaginably different.
The Christmas Day football match wasn’t completely unprecedented. As early as December 18 reports were coming in that soldiers of both sides, getting into the holiday mood, had decided to improvise their own short ceasefires.
The British High Command, worried that peace might break out among their fighting men, warned line officers that any show of seasonal goodwill might “destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks”.
In the German trenches, it was all a bit more relaxed. The German commanders had actually sent truckloads of Christmas trees for front line troops to put up in their dugouts, and each soldier had received a cigar case with the inscription “Christmas in the field 1914”.
The truce began in the line around the village of Frelinghien.
Germans under the command of Captain Friedrich von Sinner started singing carols late on Christmas Eve. The Brits might not have recognised the words but the tunes were familiar enough.
As a gesture of peace the Germans put up candles and lanterns, providing tempting targets for British snipers.
Then a few German troops that spoke English started shouting across No Man’s Land: “Tomorrow is Christmas; if you don’t fight, we won’t.”
The following morning there was none of the Dawn Chorus of artillery fire. German soldiers stepped out of the cover of their dugouts and started walking toward Allied lines.
The British, fearing a trap of some kind, were slower to emerge from their trenches.
Captain Clifton ‘Buffalo Bill’ Stockwell of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in a letter to his wife, wrote: “It was one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see.
“Germans came boldly out of their trenches, but our men were forbidden to leave theirs, so they threw out tins of bully, and plum and apple jam, etc., with plenty of sympathy in the shape of, ‘Here you are, you poor hungry bastards’ and other such-like endearments.
“I ran out into the trench and found that all the men were holding their rifles at the ready on the parapet, and that the Saxons were shouting, ‘Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer.’
“A cask was hoisted on to the parapet and three men started to roll it into the middle of No Man’s Land. A lot more Saxons then appeared without arms.
“Things were getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited, and the Saxons kept shouting to them to come out. We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so I climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing Captain to appear.”
Despite the language barrier Stockwell and von Sinner had a discussion and eventually agreed that there would be no shooting that day.
The soldiers shared German beer and English Christmas Pudding.
The ceasefire spread. Not everywhere. There was still some fighting on Christmas Day 1914, but most of the men on that section of the front wrote home saying they had been laughing and joking with their enemies all day.
One man met his German barber, and let a man who a day before was his bitter enemy give him a shave with a straight razor.
Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders wrote: “We were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.”
And yes, the football match really happened. Not an organised 11-a-side match but a massive, messy kick-about with an estimated 50 Englishmen playing 70 Germans.
Some people were furious that the camaraderie of beer, football and Christmas was unravelling the war. Near Ypres, a corporal named Adolf Hitler told his comrades that fraternisation “should not be allowed”.
Late that night the two sides returned to their trenches.
On Boxing Day, at about 8:30am, Stockwell fired his pistol into the air three times, and raised a flag with “Merry Christmas” written on it.
His opposite number appeared, bowed and fired two shots in reply. “The War was on again,” wrote Stockwell, later.
Commanders on both sides were determined that the Christmas Truce would never happen again, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, issued a directive that anyone fraternising with the enemy would be shot.
But – albeit on a smaller scale – there was a Christmas Truce in 1915.
In 2001, one of the last few survivors of that miracle day, Private Bertie Felstead, told of his involvement in the little-known second Christmas Truce of the Great War. He stepped out of a freezing trench near the village of Laventie in northern France and played football with a group of Germans for about half an hour before a furious officer came along and told him to stop.
The following summer, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme , the British army suffered its worst casualties in a single day, losing nearly 60,000 men in 24 hours.
There was no appetite for fun after that. The Great War ground on to its bloody conclusion uninterrupted.
By email@example.com (Michael Moran)