With the holidays just behind us, we wanted to truly close the season with one little known story that merges Christmas, war and soccer.
In 1914, the first Great War broke out across Europe. Soldiers of the allied nations of France, Belgium and Britain were told in August they would be home by Christmas and the job would be done.
By the time Christmas came around, the young men found themselves fighting in the trenches of France in the blistering cold as winter began to rear its cold, ugly head.
It was the first massive war among the nations in the continent and the soldiers from the opposition wanted the same thing – victory and a ticket home to their loved ones.
On Christmas Eve 1914, in La Chapelle d’Armentieres, France, the trenches between the allies and axis nations were set as both groups were in their respective areas. Between them was No Man’s Land. The area they were trying to gain for their country to take control over.
As night fell on Christmas Eve, the fighting for a brief moment in time ceased. The German solders were heard singing the Bavarian version of “Silent Night” from their trenches.
As the British soldiers listened carefully, legend has it, they requested for their enemies to sing the song again once it finished. The Germans obliged and after it was allegedly repeated a few times, the soldiers from both sides began to emerge from their trenches and met in No Man’s Land.
White flags were raised and everyone promised not to shoot at one another.
At that moment, an unofficial truce was called among the commanding officers. The men from both sides were away from their families for the first time for the holidays in a war that proved to be harder to fight than anyone imagined.
Rations of food were shared between both sides, as was whatever booze the troops had to share. Yet, as both the axis and allied nations broke whatever bread they had together, a makeshift soccer pitch was erected in the field.
They used scraps of wood, articles of clothing and whatever they could get their hands on to make goal posts.
No Man’s Land suddenly became Wembley Stadium as an unofficial soccer match between the new “friends” suddenly broke out. As the gear fell to the ground and the men were in their respective uniforms, the beautiful game lived up to its name. They played in their heavy leather boots with a leather ball that could crack someone’s skull if it gathered enough water inside the seems, but it didn’t matter.
The war that was dividing and killing suddenly became a memory as a friendly game took place.
It was a cold, muddy and hard terrain but as the ball was passed among the soldiers, for one hour nothing mattered. They lived the moment as if they were back in their hometowns – whether it was the streets of London or the French countryside or a tiny German town. They were free. They were young men again, not killing machines.
For a brief moment in time, soccer helped stop a war.
In September 1914, Pope Benedict XV, who had taken office that month, sent a letter to the heads of state involved in World War I and requested for a Christmas truce. The idea was immediately struck down by the respective leaders fighting for what they believed was theirs.
The unofficial truce did happen and spread to areas around France and the United Kingdom. The truce did not travel to all parts of Europe involved in the fighting. Historians to this day still have no idea how the news was able to travel so quickly through the night.
Soldier Ernie Williams of the Cheshire Regiment, which stayed in the United Kingdom during the war, told the Smithsonian in 1983: “A ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side… They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us…. There was no referee and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a mêlee—nothing like the soccer that you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace—those great big boots we had on—and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.”
As night turned into the morning, there was no killing just camaraderie among solders of different ethnicities.
Many soldiers recalled as the sun rose and Christmas began, the men from both sides emerged from their trenches and greeted each other with a “Merry Christmas.” Fighting would resume on December 26.
Some historians claim that there was a brief New Year’s Eve truce as well but nothing to the extent of what happened on Christmas.
The war would go on until 1918 and is often times noted as “The Four Year War.” There was never another truce during the fighting after 1914.
All Is Calm, All Is Bright
Some did not take to the idea of a soccer match during wartime lightly. Lieutenant C.E.M. Richards of the East Lancashire Regiment did not enjoy the fraternization of the fighters.
He told ESPN: “telling me to make a soccer pitch in No Man’s Land, by filling up shellholes, etc, and to challenge the enemy to a match on the 1st January. I was furious and took no action at all. I wish I had kept that signal. Stupidly I destroyed it — I was so angry. It would have been a good souvenir.”
Another soldier outraged at the idea of entertaining with the enemy was Adolf Hitler who did not take part in the Reindeer Games that night.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the truce, Prince William, who is also the head of the English Soccer Federation, had two iron hands interlocking as if they were shaking each other placed in Strafford, England in 2014. During a ceremony to unveil the statue, a match between the Royal army and the Germany army was played on the field.
As history honors what happened and what the legacy of the Christmas truce means for future generations, it makes one wonder what if all wars could just be played on the soccer pitch rather than a battlefield?