|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
[b]The U’s at Christmas[/b]
[b]The Great War[/b]
[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]
[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:
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.
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]
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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