How Soccer Stopped The Great War

Ryan GorceyCorrespondent IDecember 24, 2008

The Christmas Truce of 1914

It’s the morning of Dec. 25, 1914. On the plains outside Ypres, Belgium, khaki groundhogs are poking their heads out of their trenches, one helmet, one eyeball at a time.

The hammering and the shouting have stopped, the incessant barrage of artillery has in fact ceased. It’s Christmas in Hell.

In an agreement between the great warring powers, hostilities of the Great War were stopped to allow both sides to celebrate Christmas.  The night before, on Christmas Eve, the German troops had begun to decorate the area around their trenches for the holiday, placing candles in the surrounding trees.

They struck up a chorus of Stille Nacht (Silent Night), and across the frozen battlefield, as Garth Brooks sang, the Scottish troops began to sing along. All is calm, all is bright...

By morning, the foreboding wasteland stretched between battle lines, the famed no  man’s land, had become sacred ground, as both sides met in the middle to exchange whisky, jam, cigars, chocolates, and other small luxuries.

All across the Western Front, the scene was repeated, over and over again. Then, as if by some grand design, someone at each of these meetings brought out a soccer ball. 

Someone else marked out goals with whatever the soldiers had, and they began to make a pitch out of a field of death. Out of such salted earth grew something amazing, a true Christmas miracle: a friendly game of soccer between men who, not 24 hours earlier, had been trying to kill one another.

No one kept score. No one griped about fouls or penalties. They set their rifles aside, took off their helmets, and played a game.

Much has been said about the ability of sport to unite even the most bitter enemies. Soccer in particular has even stopped wars, in the case of several notable World Cup truces.

During the Olympics, ostensibly, all warring nations are implored to set down their weapons, and in fact many do.

But we’re not talking about the World Cup or the Olympics, are we?  This is a sacred time, no matter what religion you purport to follow. For my people, this time of year is a Festival of Lights, commemorating yet another instance in which the candle that is the Jewish people refused to be snuffed out, even in the strongest of storms.

For those of the Christian persuasion, it is a time to commemorate humble beginnings, and when you think about it—even without the whole virgin birth thing—to celebrate perhaps the most remarkable of everyday miracles: the creation of new life.

No matter what invisible being you pray to, in whatever form, this time of year is magical.  The ideas behind Christmas Spirit, and good will towards mankind, are admirable and laudable.

And they’re even more amazing when carried to their logical extent, as they were on that frosty morning 94 years ago in Belgium, and all across the Western Front.

You see, that simple game of soccer really made an impact. It was a scene repeated all along the battle lines. For one day, sport united a fractured world, torn asunder by violence. When night fell, and the games ended, no one knew how to say goodbye.

Nothing seemed right. The war itself, didn’t seem right. Because now, as the men headed back to their trenches, they knew that they would be shooting at their friends. They had learned of one another’s families and knew the names of their opponents’ children. Tell me: could you shoot with knowledge like that?

But we here on earth are so rarely allowed to glimpse such an Eden, such a simple peace. And someone had to put a stop to it. One British major ordered his men back to their posts, reminding them that they “were there to kill the Hun, not to make friends with him.” And with that, the artillery shells flew once more.

But at other points, the one-day-one-night truce lasted much longer, even weeks, as both sides refused to fire upon their new comrades. They willed their small part of the war to a grinding halt, so much so that their commanders had to shuffle the men off to different units where they would not be firing at their friends.

Those in charge ensured that “good will towards men,” had a qualifier: “good will towards men who are on our side.”

Those in charge went so far as to order artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve each of the following years of the War, so that no lull could be allowed, so that peace could gain no foothold.

But let us not remember anything beyond that one frosty day and night, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914. For there, in the midst of one of the most brutal wars that our world had seen, amidst the rattle and the roar of modern warfare, for 24 hours, snowflakes fell gently, silently, on the smiles and the laughter of soldiers.

Upon their toes, a humble soccer ball danced, and between their feet the threads of peace, weaving in and out to stitch together the fabric of a broken world.

For one fleeting, all-too-brief day and night, a game brought the world together. The holidays of religions that more often than not, use God as an excuse for death, were an excuse to stop that death, to stop a Great War.

So when you open your presents Christmas morning, or for the next few nights of Hanukkah, remember the whiskey, the chocolates, and the soccer ball. Remember the greatest gift that we can all give and receive this Holiday season: Peace.


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