As everyone knows, the main feature of the First World War’s Christmas truce was an impromptu football match (soccer to Americans), which is featured in all the memorials to the 1914 armistice. The Christmas truce statue at St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool shows a German and British soldier shaking hands over a football. The United European Football Association Christmas truce memorial in Ploegsteert Wood consists of a football on a marble plinth. The truce memorial in Mesen has a football over a base inscribed with the quote “A lull in the hate.” The latest sculpture devoted to the famous cease-fire was dedicated by Prince William at the National Memorial Arboretum on 12 December 2014, and shows the clasped hands of a British and German soldier inside the framework of a football.
So we all get it: the British and German troops who participated in the Christmas truce played football. And those famous football matches are how we remember the armistice today—the disillusioned soldiers dropping their weapons to engage in a friendly kickabout, demonstrating their sense of comradeship with the men of the opposing side. In the popular version of the truce, the evil generals soon put a stop to the festivities, ordering the troops back to their trenches.
Like other Christmas truce myths, including the fictions that the military leadership put an abrupt halt to the truce (they didn’t), that soldiers were punished for taking part in the armistice (they weren’t), or that the news of the holiday fraternization was censored from the troops’ letters and kept out of the newspapers (it wasn’t), the reality of those famous football matches doesn’t quite match the fabrications about them that have sprung up over the past century.
The letters written home by British soldiers about the truce do often speak of football games—but they mainly reference rumors of matches that happened elsewhere. Harold Atkins, a soldier with the 1/5th London Rifles, spoke of another regiment that “had a game of football with the enemy opposite them.” Lieutenant-Colonel Diggle, with 8th Division Headquarters, said he heard “that there was a football match between the trenches on one part of the line against the Germans.” A letter about the truce published in the Daily Mail on 6 January 1915 noted that “elsewhere along the line I hear our fellows played the Germans at football on Christmas Day.”
Other soldiers wrote about matches that had been proposed, but never took place. A soldier in the 1/16th Queen’s Westminsters said that the Germans “wanted to play us at football, but unfortunately we hadn’t got one.” Captain Aiden Liddell of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders wrote home that the enemy soldiers “were awfully keen to get up a football match against us; whether it will come off or not I don’t know.” (It didn’t.) Another letter in the Daily Mail noted that some British soldiers invited the Germans to play a game of football, but the enemy declined to participate.
The majority of the famous 1914 Christmas Day football matches, it appears, were either third-hand accounts based upon rumors or games that never happened. There were a few isolated instances where soldiers did report playing football themselves—companies from the 1st Scot Guards and the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers both took part in actual matches—but in fact the number of British and German soldiers that played football against their enemies were very small, possibly a few hundred at most out of the 100,000 soldiers who took part in the truce.
So why has football become such a large part of the Christmas truce legend? Partly it is because the subject was mentioned so often, even though the games were more rumor than fact. Partly it is because the idea of those bitter enemies in the fight for the future of Europe playing each other at a harmless football match provides such delightful irony. But mostly it is because the image of the two sides rebelling against their leaders by engaging in the mock conflict of a football match rather than a real battle with bullets and bombs is so appealing, so much what we believe we would have done in their place.
The Guardian embodied this mythmaking in a headline about the matches staged one hundred years after the 2014 Christmas truce: “Kickabout that Captured Futility of First World War To Be Replayed for Centenary.” Those football matches that were in fact mostly mythical illuminate the senselessness of the war for us today. The famous Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas truce advertisement was praised for capturing the spirit of the British soldiers who met their enemies on that magical Christmas day in 1914 and made common cause with them over a game of football, even while it was vilified for employing the First World War as a prop in a corporate commercial. What few people questioned, however, was using historical inaccuracies to promote a view that imposes our present morality upon someone else’s past.
The soldiers who participated in the Christmas truce left behind a clear record in their letters and diaries about their attitude towards the cease-fire. They saw it as a day off, a holiday celebration, and a chance to satisfy their curiosity about an enemy they knew they had to defeat but did not feel the need to hate. They exchanged gifts and souvenirs, discussed the war in very general terms, and buried the dead in No-Man’s-Land. In rare cases, they did play football, but saw the games as a bit of fun rather than a symbol of a futile war. They returned to their trenches with their views on the war unchanged, and resumed fighting within a few days.
Why do we believe otherwise today? Perhaps it is time we stopped expecting history to behave like a good story—featuring obvious heroes and villains, a dash of irony and a clear moral, with a football match thrown in for good measure—and start assuming it looks more like real life: messy, inconclusive and hard to pin down. Since history is, after all, just life that happened in the past, it’s time for us to get over our need for simplicity, and accept that the past, just like the Christmas truce, is always a lot more complicated than we want to believe.
On 28 December 1914, an officer in a Highland regiment wrote home that “Christmas Day was very misty, and out came those Germans to wish us ‘A Happy Day’; we went out, told them we were at war with them, and that really they must play the game and pretend to fight; they went back, but again attempted to come towards us, so we fired over their heads, they fired a shot back to show they understood, and the rest of the day passed quietly in this part of the line.” For this officer, playing the game meant not engaging in a football match, but trying to scold the enemy into simulating a war-like attitude for the holiday.
That regiment’s Christmas truce would make a very dull holiday advertisement, but it would certainly feel more like the truth, which is how historians should be playing their game.
Lead image: The Honourable Irene Lawley kicks off at an RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) football match.