When Soccer Matches Broke Out Amidst Trench Warfare

Some perspective on the Chritmas Truce, 1914

Artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

In the 1960s, the hippies asked us to “suppose they gave a war and no one came.” But in the early days of the First World War, brave men in the trenches asked a similar yet different question:

Suppose they gave a war, and we all showed up, but then decided to not fight?

The Christmas Truce of 1914 happened almost by accident. It began with some German troops in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium. War or no war, they decided, they were decorating Christmas trees. And damn the consequences.

They began lighting candles, both on the trees and along their trenches. And then they broke into song. Christmas carols, to be precise.

On their side of No Man’s Land, British Troops responded with a few songs of their own. Festive greetings were called out from both sides. It wasn’t long before men lay down their arms and the opposing armies met face-to-face. On friendly terms. Standing on soil which would usually have meant certain death.

They shared rations and cigarettes. Soldiers passed around bottles. Members of opposing armies wore each other’s headgear and exchanged uniform buttons.

There were even reports of games being played. Their sport of choice? Soccer.

Somewhat quiet on the Western Front

The First World War had broken out on July 28, 1914. By December, the Western Front was a continuous line of trenches. It stretched from the North Sea down to Switzerland. Millions of men constantly shooting at each other. A mechanized bloodbath the likes of which the world had never seen.

The soldiers in the trenches had all been fed the same line: They’d all be home for Christmas.

The generals had done their planning with Naploeonic tactics in mind. It seems no one had adequately prepared for the devestation of modern rifle and machine gun fire. And the staggering casualties involved. The most apropos description of daily life on the front came from its nickname: the meat grinder.

Another thing not planned for was that opposing forces were within earshot of each other. Too many bodies piling up in No Man’s Land? No problem. Call to the other side. Get them to stop shooting long enough to gather up your dead and wounded.

Similarly, the truce that started on Christmas Eve wasn’t the least bit organized. It began with troops deciding that they should take a break from slaughtering each other. If only for a few hours at best.

The cessation of hostilities came only in isolated pockets. The soldiers who dared to leave those trenches still heard gunfire echoing to both sides.

Reestablishing international relations

After two world wars, we often forget about Britain and Germany’s formerly strong ties. Beloved former British monarch Queen Victoria was half-German herself. And her husband, Prince Albert, was German, too. Indeed, the English royal family was still the House of von Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha. (The name wasn’t changed to the House of Windsor until 1917.) And Germany’s ruler at the time was Kaiser Wilhelm II, a grandson of Victoria and Albert.

And so it was that many of the German soldiers calling across the line did so in flawless English. One British captain, Sir Edward Hulse, recalled a meeting with a German soldier. The German complained of having to leave behind his girlfriend in Suffolk because of the war.

Where diplomacy had failed, the boots on the ground had no problem finding common ground between them.

Meanwhile, elsewhere

The ceasefires weren’t limited to English and German forces alone. There was fraternization between French and German forces as well. They didn’t let the fallout from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 stand in their way.

There were also reports of Belgian soldiers approaching the German trenches. They carried letters addressed to loved ones left behind in occupied territory.

It wasn’t just a Western Front phenomenon, either. To the east, Russian soldiers broke bread with their Austro-Hungarian counterparts.

One German soldier celebrating that day was Richard Schirrmann. The truce moved him, and he was forever changed. He soon dreamed of building meeting places. Somewhere young people of all nations “could get to know each other.” A year after the war, he founded the German Youth Hostel Association to do just that.

The soccer matches

Today, in Frelinghien, France, a memorial stands to commemorate a football match. Christmas day, 1914. On one side, members of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. On the other, soldiers from German Battalion 371. Officially, Germany took the match 2–1. But if I had some eloquent way of saying that anyone involved would’ve come away a winner, I’d say so now.

This wasn’t the only game to break out along the trenchlines. It was just one of the more organized. There were many, in fact. Some games consisted of nothing more than kicking around ration tins. But, in essence, every interaction spoke to the same truth. These heavily armed men were still boys at heart. Boys who’d rather have fun together than try to kill each other in the name of king and country.

The brass responds

The official response was to pretend the Christmas Truce didn’t happen. The powers-that-be didn’t want the news leaking out. They feared it might demoralize families back home to learn their boys didn’t want to kill each other.

The news eventually broke on New Years Eve when the New York Times ran a cover story on it. They applauded the “lack of malice” the troops exhibited on both sides. The English press responded in kind soon after.

But within ranks, another story soon unfolded. Mingling with enemy forces was seen as insubordination. Treasonous, even. Stern warnings were issued to all involved. Any future spontaneous ceasefires would have dire repercussions.

The next year, Christmas truces were almost unheard of. Artillery barrages from both sides did their level best to keep the men in their trenches.

No medals for this kind of bravery

To this day, no government has issued a single medal for participating in the Christmas Truce. In a sector so eager to reward bravery, the actions of these courageous men is all but forgotten.

But what is bravery? Is it blind compliance with authority? A readiness to violate everything you hold dear because someone who outranks you says so? Or is it the strength to stick to your convictions? To know your moral compass and do your best to stay true to it? To say, even in the face of mass hysteria, there has to be a better way, then dare to try and find it.

I think of the Christmas Truce often around the holidays. Even though I’m an atheist. Whatever your thoughts on faith, the truce stands as a shining example of human courage. The living embodiment of peace on earth, good will toward men. Amid all the chest-thumping and saber-rattling , these few got it right.

And we should never forget them.