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The Christmas truce
Saturday, 25th Dec 2021 09:49 by Carl Lewis

The Christmas Truce has become one of the most famous and mythologised events of the First World War. But what was the real story behind the truce? Why did it happen and did British and German soldiers really play football in no-man's land.?

Please note headline image for dramatic purposes only.

Late on Christmas Eve 1914, men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) heard German troops in the trenches opposite them singing carols and patriotic songs and saw lanterns and small fir trees along their trenches. Messages began to be shouted between the trenches. The following day, British and German soldiers met in no man's land and exchanged gifts, took photographs and some played impromptu games of football.They also buried casualties and repaired trenches and dugouts. After Boxing Day, meetings in no man's land dwindled out.

British soldiers of the London Rifle Brigade meeting German troops of the 104th or 106th Saxon Infantry Regiments, in no man’s land, Christmas Day 1914. (IWM Q 11718)

The truce was not observed everywhere along the Western Front. Elsewhere the fighting continued and casualties did occur on Christmas Day. Some officers were unhappy at the truce and worried that it would undermine fighting spirit. After 1914, the High Commands on both sides tried to prevent any truces on a similar scale happening again. Despite this, there were some isolated incidents of soldiers holding brief truces later in the war, and not only at Christmas. In what was known as the 'Live and Let Live' system, in quiet sectors of the front line, brief pauses in the hostilities were sometimes tacitly agreed, allowing both sides to repair their trenches or gather their dead.

One British fighter named Ernie Williams later described in an interview his recollection of some makeshift football play on what turned out to be an icy pitch: "The ball appeared from somewhere, I don't know where... They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kick-about. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part.”

German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134 Saxons Infantry, a schoolteacher who spoke both English and German, also described a pick-up football game in his diary, which was discovered in an attic near Leipzig in 1999, written in an archaic German form of shorthand. “Eventually the English brought a football from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued,” he wrote. “How marvelously 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.”

Gradually, news of the Christmas Truce made it into the press. “Christmas has come and gone—certainly the most extraordinary celebration of it any of us will ever experience,” one soldier wrote in a letter that appeared in The Irish Times on January 15, 1915. He described a “large crowd of officers and men, English and German, grouped around dead bodies, which had been gathered together and laid out in rows.” The Germans, this British soldier said, “were quite affable.”

Just how many soldiers participated in these informal holiday gatherings has been debated; there is no way to know for sure since the ceasefires were small-scale, haphazard and entirely unauthorized. A Time magazine story on the 100 anniversary claimed that as many as 100,000 soldiers took part.

Merry Christmas.

Images used for dramatic purposes

Photographs licensed from Reuters & IWM

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