Historical Notes: A fairy-tale Christmas in the trenches

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The Independent Culture
"THE FOOTBALL match!" Somehow it has become fixed in the popular mind that on the Western Front at Christmas 1914 there was an impromptu soccer game between the British and the Germans (anticipating in an almost surreal way the World Cup clash of 1966, and now those of the year 2000), after which the two sides instantly returned to the deadly routines of trench warfare.

One minute Rifleman Beckham was attempting to outwit Musketier Klinsman in the field, the next they were bidding to dispatch each other to a permanent bench in the sky. When, several years ago, I first declared my interest in the Christmas truce, someone wrote to ask if there was any film of the match. I felt like replying: "Got the film, shame we couldn't find the commentary." Oh how Des, Jimmy and Gary would have loved to dissect so memorable an international!

In fact, football was a definite part of the truce's scenario, but there were numerous matches, not just one, with soldiers' caps for goalposts and a real ball, sometimes a tin can instead. The Times recorded a game with a ball which a Saxon team won 3-2; the Lancashire Fusiliers played one with a tin producing the same result but with British winners. At one point there was a general kickabout, with scores of men joining in until the ball became so soggy with mud that play was abandoned.

Soccer, however, was just one element in a wide- ranging event which, despite the scepticism that still surrounds it, is as much a fact of the First World War as the Somme or Passchendaele. Proof? One battalion's war diary reported on Christmas Eve: "Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and are wishing us a Happy Xmas." Another stated: "Quiet. Germans ask for armistice Xmas. Sing songs in turn from opposite parapets. Germans win prize at this."

Further proof? Letters by participants from both sides. One soldier wrote on Boxing Day: "Just you think that while you were eating your turkey I was out talking with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before." An officer commented, after several hours of cheerful fraternising, during which photographs had been taken: "It is really very extraordinary that this sort of thing should happen in a war in which there is so much bitterness and ill feeling." He added that a further truce had been proposed for New Year's Day "as the Germans want to see how the photos come out". A German wrote: "The way we spent Christmas in the trenches sounds almost like a fairy tale."

Why did it happen? Many factors helped: the mass of presents sent from home to give the men at the front a good time at this first Christmas of a new war, the onset of what one soldier called "Christmas-card weather", and a widespread feeling expressed by one Tommy when he wrote, "It doesn't seem right to be killing each other at Xmas time." A truce also allowed the disposal of bodies lying between the lines. As well as the huddles of men joking and exchanging souvenirs, there were other more sombre groups out that Christmas Day, attending to the burial of the dead.

What of the generals? Some raged, others saw that a truce could allow the improvement of what at that time were merely rudimentary trenches. Was the event suppressed? Far from it, accounts were published in almost every newspaper in Britain; even the American press carried the story. One distinguished commentator who immediately recognised its calibre was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, writing in 1915, called the truce "an amazing spectacle" and saluted it as "one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war."

Malcolm Brown is the co- author, with Shirley Seaton, of `Christmas Truce: the Western Front December 1914' (Pan, pounds 7.99). He will give a talk on the truce today, at the Imperial War Museum, at 2pm and 3.30pm