Amid the First World War centenaries marked by stirring rituals of remembrance, few events are as simple and yet as poignant as soldiers laying down arms to leave opposing trenches and play the enemy at football on Christmas Day 100 years ago.
As 1914 drew to a close, it was plain that confident predictions of the war being over in time for the men to be home by Christmas had been hopelessly optimistic.
The conflict had already caused much loss of life and would get bloodier and bloodier before peace returned nearly four years later.
But at certain locations along Franco-Belgian border areas of the Western front, the mutual suffering was briefly suspended as impromptu kickabouts took place between British and Germans troops.
That, at least, is the view of some historians. Others express doubt, though not enough to dismantle the widespread belief that No Man’s Land, the often narrow strips of land between opposing lines, was used for a few such rudimentary games.
The bleak reality in that in an overwhelming majority of the places where soldiers faced one another, December 25 1914 was like any other day, violent and deadly. But in a world weary of warfare, large numbers of people want the stories of the Christmas Truce, extending beyond football to carol-singing and exchanges of gifts, to be true. And, at least to some extent, they are.
The French director Christian Carion portrayed the phenomenon in Joyeux Noel (happy Christmas), an Oscar-nominated film released in 2005. One scene shows a German tenor singing to his comrades within earshot of the opposing trenches, where a Scottish piper adds improvised accompaniment.
Letters from the front lend support to the notion that football was played. One Scottish newspaper even provided a scoreline, men from of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders defeating a German team 4-1. While the historians Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton wrote that organised football would have been made impossible by the muddy or waterlogged state of the land between the lines, they conceded that matches were mentioned in hearsay with, on occasion, imaginative substitutes for balls. Soldiers of the Lancashire Fusiliers reportedly used a tin of bully beef.
If instances of fraternisation were relatively rare, that they occurred at all was a source of concern to military top brass.
A BBC report says the London Rifle Brigade’s war diary for January 2 1915 records an order forbidding further informal truces, with any officer initiating one liable to court martial.
Among Britain’s French allies, the future president Charles de Gaulle, then a young officer, sternly deplored the “lamentable” wish of infantrymen to suspend, temporarily, hostilities against the enemy. A French government notice threatened treason charges. The heavy hand of military discipline prevailed and the war progressed with only the shortest of ceasefires sporadically offered by one side to the other and usually rejected.
But whatever the exaggeration, and however brutish life remained for those dispatched to this “war to end war”, the Christmas Truce happened in various forms a century ago this week. It was an uplifting outbreak of humanity, frowned upon in 1914, that now has a special place in folklore, if a less established one in academic military history.
In the run-up to Christmas present, these ghosts of Christmas past have taken their salutes. Memorials have been unveiled in Flanders, the area of southern Belgium where some of the fiercest fighting raged, and in England. Wayne Rooney, Hugo Lloris and Bastian Schweinsteiger were among players of today from the war’s main participating nations to join forces for a film produced by the sport’s European footballing body, UEFA.
In a handwritten note attached to a wreath he placed at Britain’s national site of remembrance, Aston Villa’s most famous supporter, Prince William, second in line of succession to the British throne, wrote: “Remembering the Christmas Truce and honouring the humanity and sacrifice of all those involved.”
The importance of football can be overplayed. Most thinking lovers of the game distance themselves from the sentiments of the late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who once said, only semi-lightheartedly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.
Yet one of Britain’s finest 20th century writers, George Orwell, had football in mind when he said serious sport was “war minus the shooting”.
At its noblest, beyond all the modern play-acting and excesses, the game can serve as a powerful unifying force, as Prince William, president of England’s Football Association, also observed.
It is fitting that a conflict that has come to be known as the Great War should be recalled, not just for anniversaries of the eruption of hostilities, major battles and the Armistice but for the men who took part in what were, in their own rough and ready way, the greatest football matches ever played.