A story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 and how football brought enemies together
One-hundred and five years ago the conflict that is known today as The First World War, or The Great War in most parts of the world, had only been brewing for a little over 4 months. Many of the men thought that the conflict would only last until Christmas at the wars beginning, as many men over-romanticized about the quarrel between nations which they had vigorously signed up for, most looking for adventure. By the time of the holiday season, those hopes had been sadly dashed after the Battle of Ypres. One of 5 separate battles that can be considered "battles" at Ypres throughout the war saw the British suffer over 160,000 casualties. With over 9000 of those casualties being deaths for the British. The worst had not even begun to be seen on the Eastern front. The German route of the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg cost the Czar’s army nearly 70,000 killed outright, and over 200,000 casualties. This was the beginning of the four-year-long struggle which would end the lives of so many bright young English, French, Canadian, New Zealand, Australian, and all colonies under the authority of Great Britain.
The story that shows the best of humanity before the sickness of war destroyed so many young lives is the story to focus on in these early months. By this time there was fierce fighting between both sides have dug into trench warfare for the first time in history. Men huddled together not truly understanding the gravity of this new type of warfare, at least not yet. The invention of the Maxim Machine gun, as well as large jumps in advancements of effective artillery, would make this a different war. No more would men stand and fight as “gentlemen” and no more would there be any mercy while the fighting was going on. Imagine being a 17-year-old Tommy sitting down in your trench, Enfield rifle in your arms, freezing from the beginning of a frigid winter not yet at its full power. Already you have witnessed man’s inhumanity to a man like never before seen on the face of this small place we call our planet. Likely many friends have already perished, and mud and sludge cover your feet sometimes freezing into the ground. The thought of Christmas, although surely bringing back fond memories likely feels as far away as the island just across the Straights of Dover. Yet no artillery is being fired, no bullets are whizzing past your head, and no one is foolishly commanding you to go over the top to gain literally feet at a time at the cost of thousands of lives.
The silence must have been welcome, although eerie at the same time. Surely this is nothing like any Christmas spent at home runs through your mind. Then out of the silence comes voices, soft at first but unmistakably Christmas Carols. Who is singing? It doesn’t seem to be coming from our side of the trenches. The brave man next to you stands just above the parapet, and yet there are no snipers, no bayonets, and no shells continuously bursting overhead. “The Jerry’s are lighting up Christmas Trees”, your brave friend says. No self-respecting Englishmen is going to not join in singing given the time of year, and the apparent happiness coming from just a few hundred meters away. So your entire battalion starts a serenade of what the Germans sing, known to them as “Stille Nacht” or Silent Night. Soon there is an odd harmony that seems so misplaced in this desolate place.
After some time of this German Soldiers begin to stand up out of their trenches, it must be a trick. No way something like this could be happening? The men do not come with clubs, or bats, guns or knives, simply smiles and want to celebrate with his fellow man and in this case his enemy. Slowly both sides emerge warily and cautiously. Finally coming together in no-man’s-land, the place where even the bravest men dare not go, yet still, they rise from their trenches and shake the hand of their enemy. Before you know it for a few hours life is normal again for both sides. You eye a button of a German Soldier and show him your own. You trade and shake hands whilst another man cuts the hair of another soldier in bad need of a haircut. You break bread with your enemy for no reason other than a holiday that can bring out the best in humanity, even during the worst of what men can do to other men.
Then one of your mates brings out a football. Worn and old, covered in mud you start to pass back and forward with the German as if you were back home playing on your University Field. Before the highest-ranking officers in both factions know it, these men who hours early were trying to kill one another are playing a game of football. All up and down the lines in 1914 this “Christmas Truce” was upheld. Imagine the scene: young men at the prime of their lives are forgetting for a fleeting moment about the realities and devastation of war and simply play a game of football. Certainly, the competitive streak that exists in all sportsmen comes out. The game quickly turns into a competitive match while others sit and watch and enjoy the break of this odd, yet undeniably beautiful event that is best celebrated by playing a game of football. After the English score, there is an uncontrolled roar from the men watching, as the same can be said for the Germans.
This is a very singular event in human history for multiple reasons, and it shows not just how but why the sport is meant to bring us together rather than to tear us apart. The commanders on both sides never allowed this to happen again in the later years of the war. Fraternization with the enemy became extremely rare, let alone laying down your weapons, and showing kindness and affection for your enemy. It shows how important sport is to the world, even 105 years ago. It holds the power to bring us together under the most deplorable of human conditions. Although the war would begin anew on the 26th with the shelling recommencing, many men who witnessed the different events of the Christmas Truce of 1914 have said that there was no other place they would have rather been that year. Demonstrating how much of an effect kindness and understanding towards your fellow man, even during a time of war can be a beacon of light shining brighter than any exploding artillery shell or flash of a muzzle spitting out death.
Although there are not documented scores of regiments or units that is not what the story is meant to convey. The purpose is for us to understand that sport transcends all languages, all creeds, and religions. It is simply part of what so many hold dear to them because it’s familiar no matter what the setting. Although the fighting went on for another 4 years it should be a lesson to all of us that the holiday season, and especially football during the holiday season is an incredible unifier of men. No matter how short the duration, sport gave those young men something in common with their enemy during a time of year where we feel a need to be giving and kind to one another. As the holidays are celebrated, and the amazing set of football games are played, take a moment to think about what happened 105 years ago. Two days in the history of a long and sad conflict, in which Christmas and football played a part in the most unlikely of circumstances.