On the evening of December 24th, 1914, something redeeming happened along the Western Front in France and Belgium. Something sane, kind, good and human took over from the cruel madness that was emerging from the first few months of the Great War. On that night, rifles were put down and soldiers on opposite sides of a pitted field rose from their makeshift trenches filled with mud and earth and came together as comrades, offering each other gifts and friendship.
Today it is referred to as the Christmas Truce. It happened only once during the First World War, and intermittently along the vast front line that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. Reports are largely incomplete and many stories over the near century since it occurred appear apocryphal, but as with most stories of this kind, they germinate from a seed of truth.
It began with the German soldiers putting small Christmas trees decorated with paper lanterns on the parapets of their trenches, then the sound of “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) came across No Man’s Land and eventually men could be seen standing up in the German trenches. After some time, the English and German forces came together where they exchanged beer, cigarettes, tea, cigars, even helmets and buttons.
Almost inevitably, a sporting spirit soon took hold of the men and soccer balls were produced from one side or the other and the two armies separated into teams, Fritz vs Tommy. Here is what one soldier, Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons, said about the soccer match at his area of the front:
“’The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously 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”.
And so, on a shared holiday, two warring armies who were equipped and ordered to obliterate one another, put aside their contrived enmity and devoted themselves to another innately human pursuit: sport.
Amidst some of the worst that humanity has to offer, some of its darkest and most nihilistic days, left to their own devices and inspired by a belief in something greater than king and country, soldiers declared a truce and, for as long as the rest of the world would let them, behaved as men and comrades, rather than machines or monsters.
Sport was a natural outcome of this kind of meeting, and a friendly soccer match between opposing armies shouldn’t seem to surprise us so much. It stopped a war, if only briefly. This is what the diplomats of the time couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do. It is what the Olympics used to do over two thousand years ago and what they were intended accomplish when re-introduced in 1896.
The last remaining survivor of the Great War who was serving in December of 1914 was interviewed by the Guardian Newspaper back in 2004. Alfred Anderson had this to say about that day:
“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
There are times when we let sport divide us, but as much as the competition is about challenge and struggle against another, it is also a unifying force. Perhaps it serves as a psychological proxy for that part of our brain that is home to warring instincts. Perhaps it is a deeply seated survival instinct to prevent the annihilation of the species, saving us from ourselves as it were. Nevertheless, the Christmas Truce stands as a moment of humanity, and perhaps one of the last true moments of chivalry in the modern era of warfare. We would do well to remind ourselves of moments such as these today, as we approach the eve of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, the First World War.
Here is the link to the full Guardian interview with Alfred Anderson and a few histories of the Christmas Truce can be found here, for those interested.
Thank you for reading, and here is the link to last year’s Remembrance Day article.