We’ve covered a lot of ground in this Throwback Thursday series. We’ve mostly stuck with English football, but we’ve also delved into the history books for German, Spanish, Chilean and Peruvian, and, yes, American football. But there’s been one thing that all our past entries had in common so far— a focus on verified historical events, things that we know happened because there was visual evidence of it. This week, we can’t say for sure. There’s no real video to show, at least not of the actual subject. There’s broader historical footage. There are documentaries. There have been tributes and recreations. But whether the original event happened is up for speculation. And, ultimately, it might not really matter.
This week, we look back at one of the most famous football matches in history; one that may never have actually taken place, but nevertheless remains an integral part of football’s mythology and a testament to the nobler aspects of human nature. This week, we look back at the Christmas Truce Football Match— December 25th, 1914.
First, it’s important to note that the Christmas Truce did actually happen. The first few months of World War I were a brutal grind, but it was downright congenial compared to the latter years of the war. Fraternization among soldiers was commonplace. Brief and unofficial ceasefires broke out along fronts and flank lines as both sides laid down their weapons each night to allow each other to tend to their wounded and collect their dead. Soldiers would use the brief timeouts to socialize with their enemy counterparts; newspapers were swapped, rations were shared, cigarettes were divvied up, songs were sold, jokes were told. Some soldiers even gave each other haircuts.
Officers and politicians weren’t entirely pleased with the fraternization on the front lines. Future French leader Charles de Gaulle, who headed up a company stationed near the Marne, called the friendly relations amongst enemy soldiers “lamentable.” But in those early stages of the war, dispelling the culture of bonhomie among soldiers in the trenches was more trouble than it was worth.
If the cordiality among enemy soldiers allowed for brief timeouts from hostilities, Christmastime effectively brought the fighting to a halt. Combatants from both sides ventured into no man’s land to share meals and smokes, sing carols, and generally took the day off from fighting to enjoy each other’s company. The writer Henry Williamson wrote home to his mother after the holiday describing Christmas by the trenches: “The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
And, yes, there were footballs kicked about. But what exactly happened is a little muddy. (Literally and figuratively.) More than a few soldiers on both sides brought footballs from home. Indeed, some of the young men fighting in the war were footballers back home. At the very least, there seemed to be several informal kickabouts among companies and platoons during the unofficial ceasefire. Given how friendly British and German soldiers were with each other that year, it’s not inconceivable that combatants kicked a ball around with their wartime opposition.
What is unclear is whether there was an organized 11 on 11 match, with referees and a scorekeeper, where British soldiers lined up against their German counterparts. The Times published a letter on New Year’s Day a week later from a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade that described “... a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench.” In the years that followed, the story of the football match on Christmas in 1914 grew in the telling, with a wide range of accounts of that game being given with varying scorelines or specified units. Probably the “definitive” account of the match, which is also likely fictional, comes from British poet Robert Graves. His telling of the match ended with a 3-2 score in favor of the Germans. Graves’ somewhat sardonic postscript even described controversy in the build-up to the winning goal: “The Reverend Jolly, our padre, acted as ref too much Christian charity—their outside left shot the deciding goal, but he was miles offside and admitted it as soon as the whistle went.”
Whatever the historicity of the match is, we know there was an unsanctioned ceasefire that spanned the length of the Christmas holiday, and it’s likely that there was at least some football during the break in hostilities. After that Christmas, officers and other higher-ups on both sides cracked down on fraternization. That, combined with the sprawling body count and the mounting bitterness that settled in among the troops, ensured that future Christmas truces would go unobserved.
And whether or not the game actually happened, the myth of the game became part of the bedrock of modern football culture. The romance and nobility of enemy soldiers laying down their arms to play a game of football at Christmastime is a deeply moving and compelling story. It carries a message that people can come together in peace and forgiveness, even in the literal hell produced by war.
And it also belies the power of football to flatten our differences. This was evident in last year’s memorials marking the centenary of the 1914 Christmas Truce. A sculpture was unveiled last year at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to commemorate the football match. The memorial was unveiled by FA chairman Greg Dyke, England National Team manager Roy Hodgson, and the Duke of Cambridge, who described the truce as a “message of hope and humanity.”
Around that time, British and German soldiers met once again on a pitch— for real, this time. Members of the UK and German armed forces fielded teams for a charity match held at the Recreation Ground, home of Aldershot Town Football Club. This time, the British avenged their loss a century earlier by beating the Germans 1-0. (Which I suppose leaves them level on aggregate.)
The legacy of the Christmas Truce, and the football match that may or may not have happened, is that war is never total and never an inevitability. It’s been more than a century since that Yuletide truce was observed, yet in a political climate in which lawmakers and would-be presidents are openly debating operations to “carpet bomb” innocent civilians, it’s a story we would all do well to re-tell and remember.
Today is Christmas eve, which, for many, means family and gifts and church services and food. And, of course, it also means football. There will be charity games recreating and memorializing the Christmas Truce match. There will be people in silly costumes kicking a ball on the beach at Scarborough. And, on Saturday, the Premier League will stage Matchweek 18 as part of an annual Boxing Day tradition, with ramifications for the Top 4, relegation battle, and various managerial tenures. But this holiday is fundamentally about peace and goodwill, and no amount of violence from war or consumer capitalism can obscure that.
Whether the Christmas Truce match actually happened doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s proof that made-up stories can still matter. It’s a reminder that we as a species are at our best when we stop fighting each other. And it’s a story we can tell ourselves when things look truly grim, a path we can lay out for ourselves as we try to find our light again.