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Letters from Wiltshire #25
Written by wessex_exile on Thursday, 24th Dec 2020 12:30

A little earlier than usual, but as we approach the end of what has been a most difficult year for everyone, I’ll keep the introductory editorial brief, as I’m sure you will all be very busy in the coming days rescuing what you can from this pandemic-ravaged festive period. I simply wish you all peace on earth, goodwill to all (yes, even our South Essex cousins), and here’s to a happy, prosperous and most importantly healthy 2021 for us all.

[b]Allies v German Empire
Saturday 25th December 1914
Western Front
Attendance [i]c.[/i] 100,000[/b]

[b]The U’s at Christmas[/b]
In researching for this blog, I was quite surprised to discover that matches on Christmas Day actually used to be quite a thing, with the U’s doing so no less than eight times in the ten years between 1946 and 1956. The very first match was a 0-1 defeat at home to Gillingham, but that would be the first and only occasion we have lost on Christmas Day, probably helped by six of the eight matches being played at Layer Road. Relatively local rivals Gillingham have featured in three of those games, but the pick of the results has to have been demolishing Queens Park Rangers 5-0 at Layer Road in 1953.

[b]The Great War[/b]
However, for Letters from Wiltshire #25 it seemed fitting at this time of year, and in the context of a world still beset by far too much hostility and intolerance, to focus on something heart-warming that perhaps still gives us hope for humanity. Thus, we go back to the Western Front Christmas Truce of 1914.

[i][b]Gavrilo Princip being taken into custody by local Sarajevo police – [/i]©[i] Topical Press Agency/Getty[/i][/b]

For a bit of background, despite Baldrick’s assertion that he’d heard the Great War started “[i]…when a bloke called Archie Duck shot an ostrich ‘cause he was hungry[/i]”, the reality was that it all followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by 19-year old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. Although this one event is considered the most immediate cause of World War I, the toxic contribution of an ongoing global arms race, fuelled by rampant nationalism, imperialism and militarism, all combined to plunge the world into the Great War just a month later, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire, supported by the German Empire, declared war on Serbia.

On the Western Front, fought predominantly by British, French and Belgian forces against the German Empire, the war started with the [i]Race to the Sea[/i], a failed attempt by both sides to outflank the other by pushing north through the Low Countries to the North Sea. There then followed the mutually costly and indecisive battles of Yser and the first battle of Ypres, before both sides settled back in November to reconsider strategies, whilst fortifying their positions and preparing for renewed offensives in Spring 1915.

These opening campaigns of the Great War had unleashed horror on a scale never before witnessed, both sides appallingly well-equipped to slaughter their fellow man with grotesque industrial efficiency. We can’t today even begin to imagine what it must have been like, nor the effect it must have had on the soldiers of both sides that went through it, but that was almost certainly a driving force behind the widespread unofficial truces along the Western Front for Christmas 1914.

[b]Peace in our time?[/b]

[b]© [i]Emily Hobhouse, copy released in 2013 by the Manchester Archives[/b][/i]

There were semi-official moves to try and at least broker a ceasefire, if not actual peace. Towards the end of 1914 a group of 101 British suffragists penned the [i]Open Christmas Letter[/i], a public message calling for peace addressed “[i]To the Women of Germany and Austria[/i]”. This was written in acknowledgement of the mounting horror of modern warfare, and in itself was a response to letters written by German women’s rights activists to American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt (president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance). The letter was answered by 155 prominent German and Austrian pacifist women early in 1915, and whilst neither brought an end to hostilities, the promotion of peace between women of nations at war certainly maintained their unity in the common goal of suffrage for women. Pope Benedict XV also called for at least an official truce, asking “[i]that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang[/i]”, but his plea was politely declined by both sides.

However, whilst officially there was to be no fraternisation with the enemy as far as leaders were concerned, the reality in the trenches was completely different. With the proximity of the trenches it was quite easy to shout greetings (and no doubt taunts as well) across no man’s land, and thus fairly easy to arrange temporary ceasefires. Cessations in violence on both fronts were actually reasonably common, certainly in the earlier years of the war. These were usually arranged to recover dead and wounded from the battlefield, with soldiers on both sides taking the opportunity to chat, exchange news, even newspapers (several British soldiers later recounted Germans wanting to hear news of the football leagues, results etc).

[b]All quiet on the Western Front[/b]
As the [i]Race to the Sea[/i] period drew to a close in November and with rations being brought through to front lines just after dusk, soldiers also began noticing a temporary and unsolicited daily peace as food was distributed and eaten on both sides. Inter-trench rivalry also started to include music, with impromptu choirs on both sides singing in the evenings – generally believed in most cases to be for the benefit of all within earshot, on both sides. There was a healthy competitive edge to this as well, with Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards writing that he was planning a Christmas Day concert to give “[i]the enemy every conceivable form of song in harmony[/i]”, apparently in response to frequent choruses of [i]Deutschland Über Alles[/i]. Inevitably, as Christmas approached, more and more of the songs being sung were carols.

[b]© [i]Harold B Robson - Photograph Q50719 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums[/b][/i]

There is no one definitive Christmas Truce event, but rather an unofficial (and unsanctioned) cessation of violence pretty much all along the Western Front. It wasn’t complete, there were still hostilities taking place, and other areas where even if there was no fighting, there was no fraternisation. However, in many sectors there was a genuine truce. It is reported that Germans placed candles on their trenches and in trees and sung carols, the British responded with carols of their own, with both sides shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Eventually, those brave enough to do so, lifted their heads above the parapets, and before too long soldiers from both sides were meeting in no man’s land, shaking hands, chatting, exchanging gifts and souvenirs, even joint services were held.

Author Henry Williamson, then a 19-year old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day:
“[i]Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. 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?[/i]”

Near Ypres, Josef Wenzl of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment wrote in considerable detail about the Christmas Day encounter between his regiment and soldiers of the British 15th Infantry Brigade.
“[i]That which only hours ago I should have thought was nonsense I now saw with my own eyes. A British soldier, who was then joined by a second man, came from our left and crossed more than halfway into no man’s land, where they met up with our men. British and Bavarians, previously the worst of enemies, stood there shaking hands and exchanging items. The one star still in the sky above them was regarded by the men as a special sign from heaven. More and more joined in all along the line, shaking hands and swapping souvenirs. More than half of my platoon went out. Because I wanted to take a closer look at these chaps and obtain a souvenir, I moved towards a group of them. Immediately one came up to me, shook my hand and gave me some cigarettes; another gave me a handkerchief, a third signed his name on a field postcard and a fourth wrote his address in my notebook. Everyone mingled and conversed to the best of their ability. One British soldier played the mouth organ of a German comrade, some danced around, whilst others took great pride in trying on the German helmets. One of our men placed a Christmas tree in the middle, pulled out a box of matches from his pocket and in no time the tree was lit up. The British sang a Christmas carol and we followed this with ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’. It was a moving moment; between the trenches stood the most hated and bitter enemies and sang Christmas carols. All my life I shall never forget the sight … Christmas 1914 will be completely unforgettable.[/i]”


Leaving aside the romantic twaddle of Paul McCartney’s [i]Pipes of Peace[/i], nor past Sainsbury’s Xmas advert campaigns, what about evidence for actual football being played?

There is some dispute about whether actual matches took place, not least because of the practical limitations of trying to do so within a landscape of shell holes, mud and barbed wire. However, there are more than enough first-hand recollections to suggest that football was involved at various truce events along the Western Front. For instance, a letter written by a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade (published in [i]The Times[/i] on New Years Day 1915) reported “[i]a football match…played between them and us in front of the trench[/i]”. One of the more likely locations for a formal match would have been at the village of Messines, with two separate references on the British side to a match between the first battalion of the Norfolk Regiment and the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (Josef Wenzl’s regiment), but without any corroborating accounts from German sources.

All in all, recent research has identified at least 29 separate references to football being played during the Christmas Truce, probably most as a simple kick-about between soldiers on just one side (The Lancashire Fusiliers at Le Touquet apparently using a bully beef tin in place of a ball), but very few accounts of formal matches. Poet and writer Robert Graves served on the Western Front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the time, and wrote in his 1962 short story [i]Christmas Truce[/i] “[i]we provided the football, and set up stretchers as goalposts; and the Rev Jolly, our padre, acted as ref. They beat us 3-2, but the padre had showed a bit too much Christian charity – their outside-left shot the deciding goal, but he was miles offside and admitted it soon as the whistle went[/i]”. Graves’ work was fiction, but who’s to say the seeds of it weren’t originally sown from first- or second-hand memories whilst serving on the front line.

Probably the most compelling contender for a formal football match was apparently between teams drawn from the German regiment IR133 (Royal Saxon Regiment) and the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. This particular match was considered in detail by Swedish journalist Pehr Thermaenius in his book [i]The Christmas Match: Football in No Man’s Land 1914[/i], focusing on two players in particular – Albert Schmidt and Jimmy Coyle. This is probably the most credible account of a match taking place, with corroborating sources from both sides to the event. The British forces (technically therefore Scotland) beat the German side 4-1 btw…

[b]Germany 3 Allies 2, or Germany 1 Scotland 4[/b]

[b]Official response[/b]
Both British and German High Commands were not happy about the truce, and many of the soldiers, particularly officers, were rebuked over their part, though it is fitting to note that surprisingly few faced any sort of meaningful punishment. However, an unofficial embargo prevented the public from learning about the Christmas Truce until the [i]New York Times[/i] broke ranks and reported on it on New Year’s Eve. The British press quickly followed suit, drawing heavily on accounts in letters sent home from the front line, and within a week, actual photographs from various locations were also published. Responses elsewhere, and particularly Germany and France, were more muted, with the French press forced to reprint a government notice reminding all that to fraternise with the enemy was considered treason.

Whether actual football matches did or didn’t take place during one of the most significant, spontaneous and unsanctioned cessations of hostilities in human history is largely irrelevant, it is the symbolic significance of such an event that is most important. The Christmas Truce has become a lasting and dramatic example of the spirit of non-cooperation with the most brutal of conflicts. That non-cooperation was described as the ‘live and let live system’ by Tony Ashworth in his 1980 work [i]Trench Warfare 1914-1918[/i] as it “[i]gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence[/i]”, and at the very heart of that was the sport of the working classes, the universal language of football.

The Christmas Truce, and similar smaller-scale events before and after it, weren’t politically motivated actions by those who necessarily opposed war, or to overthrow the shackles of oppressive (and murderous) regimes, it was simply men – for a few brief hours at least – taking the chance to stop trying to kill each other, forget the horror around them and instead celebrate their shared humanity. By Boxing Day the truce was over and the bullets and shells were flying again…

[b]Lest we forget[/b]

[i][b]A cross left at Saint-Yves Ploegsteert Belgium to commemorate the Christmas Truce reads "1914 – The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget"[/b][/i]

Merry Christmas to all, and Up the U’s

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