A conflict that many had thought would be “over by Christmas” had almost ground to a stalemate as both sides dug their trenches in the fields of Belgium, and there was no end in sight. Unexpectedly the bloodiest conflict in living memory was interrupted on Christmas Day by an unofficial, unplanned ceasefire that took place at many sites along the front line.
The British and German forces had been entrenched in bitter fighting since June of 1914 but on Christmas Day a large number of soldiers put down their weapons. Defined by historians as a symbolic moment of peace, soldiers from both sides ventured into the no man’s land between the trenches and met the men they had been fighting. Sport and football in particular, was a natural ice-breaker and helped to remove the obvious language barrier issue.
Beginning on Christmas Eve the German troops began to sing carols (Silent Night is the song most soldiers reference when writing about the experience) and the proximity of their trenches to those of the Allies meant that they could be heard very clearly. Eventually troops on both sides were singing and by the morning some had felt safe enough to move into no man’s land. To begin with the truce was predominantly a way for troops to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers and conduct funerals but eventually men from both sides began to exchange pleasantries. At many sites along the front line it is said that a ball was produced from somewhere and soldiers began to kick it around; as the troops became more relaxed and the anxiety of being so close to the men they had spent the past 6 months fighting began to ease off. Freed from the confines of the trenches for the first time in a while the games soon became competitive.
Unfortunately for the Allies the only 2 recorded results both ended 3-2 to the Germans although in truth the results were completely irrelevant. The matches provided the troops with an opportunity to meet their opposition and realise that the demonisation of the enemy that had been the key feature of the propaganda by both sides was far from the truth. Soldiers from both sides have spoken about their experience and the overriding feeling is that the Christmas truce and the football matches served to prove that troops on both sides were incredibly similar; just young men, drafted in to fight for their country. It was football that helped break down the barriers and played a key role in one of the few bright spots in an otherwise brutal conflict.
After Christmas Day
Unfortunately the truce didn’t last long and most military operations started up again on the 26th of December, although there are reports of some soldiers initially refusing to return to fighting. The story of the truce and the no man’s land meetings were kept hidden by a press embargo on both sides of the war but the story got out due to letters sent home by soldiers on both sides.
The story has been retold almost every year since it first took place 99 years ago. Next year, to mark the centenary of the truce, the games will be recreated by men from both England and Germany. A fitting tribute to just about the only bright spots during one of the darkest periods of human history.
BY - Jamie Foale
5 March 2014