The Great War was supposed to have been over by Christmas. Instead, by the end of 1914, it had become a voracious monster, beyond the control of politicians, commanders and kings. All that was terrible in the world was contained within that monster, a beast feeding on nations. Yet beneath the carnage, a tiny flicker of humanity still glowed. One hundred days ago tomorrow, Christmas Day, 1914, that humanity provided a moment of warmth that would live forever.
The Christmas Truce, with its famous football match, is one event from the Great War that almost everyone knows about. Our remembrance has been stimulated by the extra attention paid to the War during this centenary year and by the remarkably accurate Sainsbury’s advert. My own research for a new book has revealed a slightly different account from the one that is commonly told, one that gives more credit to the Germans as initiators. The net effect of this revisionism, however, is to make an event of immense beauty even more wonderful.
The truce was, first and foremost, an act of rebellion against authority. In the trenches, though peace on earth seemed a ridiculous fantasy, impromptu ceasefires had been occurring as early as December 18. The British High Command, alarmed that the holiday might inspire goodwill, issued a stern order against fraternisation. Officers were warned that yuletide benevolence might “destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks”. Christmas, in other words, was to be a killing time.
The Germans, however, were stubbornly festive. In an effort to bolster morale, truckloads of Christmas trees were sent to the Kaiser’s forces. All along the line, Germans were acting in bizarrely peaceful fashion. Guns fell silent. Candles and lanterns taunted British snipers. Late on Christmas Eve, Germans singing Stille Nacht echoed across no man’s land. The British, initially perplexed, soon joined in. Then came shouted messages – in English – from the German trenches. “Tomorrow is Christmas; if you don’t fight, we won’t.”
Dawn usually brought a chorus of rifle and artillery fire. On Christmas Day, however, an eerie quiet persisted, as if the war itself had evaporated. As the sun rose, the Germans called to the British to meet them in no man’s land. The latter at first suspected a devious plan for yuletide slaughter, but suspicion soon gave way to trust.
“It was one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see,” wrote Captain CI Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Intent on obeying orders, he tried desperately to ignore German good cheer. But then, around midday, his sergeant reported that Germans were standing on their parapet, unarmed and in full view. “Permission to shoot them, sir,” the sergeant asked. Stockwell was troubled: “The Saxons were shouting, ‘Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer.’ My men were getting a bit excited.”
In an attempt to assert control, Stockwell shouted that he wanted a chat with his German opposite number. An officer emerged and walked across no man’s land. Stockwell met him halfway. He told the German that he was not allowed to fraternise and warned that his men might open fire at any moment. The German responded: “My orders are the same as yours, but could we not have a truce from shooting today? We don’t want to shoot, do you?” After much discussion, the two agreed not to fight until the following morning. As Stockwell turned toward his trench, the German called out: ‘“You had better take the beer. We have lots.” In response, Stockwell gave the German a plum pudding. For the rest of the day, not a shot was fired.
All along the line, Christmas Day was shaped by the willingness to disobey orders. Granted, in some places killing continued, but in many places, delightful chaos reigned. Hundreds of soldiers subsequently recalled meeting their enemies, shaking hands, singing songs, exchanging presents. “We were with them about an hour and everybody was bursting laughing,” wrote one private. One Englishman by coincidence met his German barber, who provided a shave and haircut. “What a sight; little groups of Germans and British extending along the length of our front,” wrote Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders. “We were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.”
Fraternisation led inevitably to football. Men who could not otherwise communicate shared a common language in the game. “After a short while somebody punted across a football,” one subaltern recalled. “The ball landed amongst the Germans and they immediately kicked it back at our men … it was a melêe. It wasn’t a question of 10-a-side, it was a question of 70 Germans against 50 Englishmen.” That scenario was repeated all along the line. The locations of these matches remain obscure, in part because few soldiers subsequently admitted taking part.
On January 1 1915, an anonymous major wrote to The Times that an English regiment “had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2”. That score echoes through the accounts. Yet since the stories originate from various parts of the front, this suggests either incredible consistency in the results, or a remarkable willingness to remember the event in exactly the same way. Equally possible, all recollections might relate to a single mythical encounter that never actually took place. In truth, it matters not if a match ending 3-2 actually occurred, since myths are often more powerful than facts. The “match” is universally celebrated, even by the English who might otherwise prefer to forget another defeat to the Germans. At least it did not end in penalties.
Playing football rudely exposed the contrived nature of wartime animosity. For that reason, it was quickly quashed. Gustav Riebensahm, an officer in the 2nd Westphalian regiment, immediately complained to his commanders that “the whole thing has become ridiculous and must be stopped”. Near Ypres, a corporal named Adolf Hitler voiced the view that fraternisation “should not be allowed”. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien echoed that sentiment, reminding his subordinate commanders that “Friendly intercourse with the enemy … [is] absolutely prohibited.” An even sterner directive was issued by the 1st Army commander, General Douglas Haig, who warned that soldiers caught fraternising could face a firing squad.
In truth, there was never any danger that goodwill would endure. Everyone accepted that the moment of compassion was just that – a moment. At 8:30 on Boxing Day morning, Stockwell fired three shots in the air, then hoisted a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it. The German captain appeared on the parapet, bowed and fired two shots in reply. “The War was on again,” wrote Stockwell. The guns resumed their murderous cacophony; slaughter resumed. The footballs were put away.
The Christmas Truce is significant precisely because it happened only once. It was a last, desperate act of humanity before the war imposed its tyrannical will upon combatants, erasing their individuality and turning them into automatons of death. It figures prominently in the video of Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace, in an episode of Blackadder, in the play Oh What a Lovely War! and in scores of books about the war. Yet remembrance is based on scattered, often contradictory recollections. In truth, however, it is not the match itself that is important, but the desire to believe in it. We worship a golden moment of fellowship that arose out of the suffering and the shattered ideals of war. The Truce, like Christmas itself, seems miraculous.
For a brief moment, football provided a ritual of commonality, a reminder to the British and Germans that what they shared was more important than what divided them. It was fitting that it should be so, since football was the common man’s game, a shared culture every nation could understand. This war had made every single infantryman exactly the same – not hero but victim, a tiny piece of fuel fed into the furnace of war. Yet for one glorious hour, a football match in no man’s land offered an opportunity for these faceless soldiers to assert themselves, to kick back at the monster.
The act was futile, but futility is often beautiful. By spontaneously playing football on Christmas Day, these men gave notice that something precious, noble and decent still survived amidst the carnage. At that moment, they were neither British nor Germans, but lovers of a game. Whether imagined or not, that match was an assertion of civility on a landscape of hatred and waste.
Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews. His book Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War I was published by Vintage in September.