The Night the Guns Fell Silent: Football, Christmas, and World War I

Peter WrightAnalyst IDecember 24, 2008

On this night of Christmas Eve, I sit back and think about the great tales of humanity, grace, charity, peace and goodwill.  No story captures that spirit like the Christmas truce of 1914, when German and Allied soldiers stepped out of their trenches to greet one another.

You may ask yourself, What does this story have to do with sports?  Well, it is one sport that at this time and, so many times since, united people in a time of great conflict.  The sport of football (soccer), is that sport.  During this truce men from both sides would meet in no-man's land for impromptu games.  

I consider myself a history buff.  I am a World War I enthusiast and I find this story to be the most fascinating story in all of the war.  Not for the amount of military activity, or strategy, but for that one moment when the guns fell silent, and the soldiers in the trenches had that one moment to feel human again. 

On many parts of the line the Christmas Day truce was initiated through sad means.  Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man's land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial.  Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another.

The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.

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With the Truce in full swing up and down the line there were a number of recorded games of soccer, although these were really just 'kick-abouts' rather than a structured match.

On January 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector the British played a game against the Germans opposite and were beaten 3-2.

Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons recorded in his diary:

The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.  How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was.  The English officers felt the same way about it.  Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.

The Truce lasted all day; in places it ended that night, but on other sections of the line it held over Boxing Day and in some areas, a few days more.  In fact, there parts on the front where the absence of aggressive behaviour was conspicuous well into 1915.

Captain J C Dunn, the Medical Officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, whose unit had fraternised and received two barrels of beer from the Saxon troops opposite, recorded how hostilities re-started on his section of the front.

Dunn wrote:

At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet.  He [the Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet.  We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.

We must all remember this event as a symbol of what brings us together and what really matters in the world.  The world can be a cruel and evil place at times, but even in the middle of the carnage of World War I, enemy forces could embark from their trenches and shake hands. 

So in conclusion, I say to all on here (and yes I even include the Manchester United supporters) Merry Christmas and may God Bless you all during this special time.

The picture for this article is a cross, left near Ypres in Belgium in 1999, to commemorate the site of the Christmas Truce in 1914. The text reads:

1914
The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce
1999
85 Years
Lest We Forget.

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