This is the last Hotspur Towers before Christmas. We look back at a tale from exactly 100 years ago. A tale I first remember hearing sitting spellbound on the floor in front of Jim, my grandfathers younger brother, he must have been in his late seventies at the time. His chest wheezing as he told me of a day many years earlier when he spent Christmas in Belgium. You may think this is a story of how sport can bring us together or a story of hope or just an amazing tale in a time of madness. It is certainly a story that deserves remembering (1).
There are a number of accounts that over Christmas 1914 during the First World War an unofficial truce broke out along the front line, which ran for 500 miles, between the British and German armies. A number of accounts refer to football matches taking place (2). Without doubt the guns fell silent that day and a large degree of fraternisation took place. Jim remembered how the Germans had a makeshift Christmas tree and carols had been sung with men on both sides had joined in the singing. Then when it was light they had slowly at first climbed up out of the trenches and met the German’s. They talked (their English was better than our German), shared food and cigarettes and buried the dead who had been unreachable to then. Jim rarely mentioned that time but I asked him if there was football. He said, not where I was, I don’t think we had a ball, if we had I suspect we would of done.
An account by Pvt. Albert Moren, Second Queens Regiment echoes that memory “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights. I don't know what they were. And then they sang "Silent Night" - "Stille Nacht." I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.’ The Germans good English can be accounted for as we know a lot of Germans lived in London before the war. Historians have recounted cases where German troops asked about how various English football teams were fairing (3). As for each side burying their dead. Second Lt. Arthur Pelham Burn of the Sixth Gordon Highlanders remembered a joint service.“Our Padre arranged the prayers and psalms, etc., and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.’
Private Bill Tucker from the Army Ordnance Corps had taken the ‘captains role’ in a game played against the German troops facing them. The British had won the game and he was presented with a German beer stein as a trophy. It may seem incredible to us that such events could occur. They certainly did not the following year when the troops had become battle scared and seen too many of their comrades fall. That coming year also saw the Germans introduce the hated Mustard Gas to the conflict which killed and ruined many a young life.
One German account from Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of Germany's 134th Saxons Infantry recalled “Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches and pretty soon a lively game ensued. 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 our friends for a time.’
RSM Beck, of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, put in his diary for December 24th."A quiet day. Germans shout over to us and ask us to play them at football, and also not to fire and they would do likewise. At 2am. (Christmas Day) a German band went along their trenches playing Home Sweet Home and God Save The King which sounded grand and made everyone think of home. During the night several of our fellows went over no-man's-land to the German lines and were given drink and cigarettes."
The Glasgow News published a letter sent home in the January which detailed how the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment troops had beaten one of the Saxon regiments by four goals to one. A letter written by a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade, was published in The Times on 1 January 1915, this reported "a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench.” The Royal Welsh Fusiliers played a match with the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1.
Historian Mike Dash(4) confirms that "there is plenty of evidence that football was played that Christmas Day, mostly by men of the same nationality, but in at least three or four places between troops from the opposing armies. One ‘game’ that is due to be commemorated this centenary is the one played between The Lancashire Fusiliers and some German soldiers when on Christmas Eve when they started playing with an old ration tin as a ball.
Lieutenant Albert Wynn, of the Royal Field Artillery wrote of a match against a team of "Prussians and Hanovers" near Yres. A first the Army attempted to prevent the story getting out but so many people wrote home the news broke first in the New York Times and then the ban on the story was lifted in England. The troops could of faced a charge of treason. Gervais Morillon wrote home. ‘The bosh called to us and waved a white flag “Kamarades, Kamarades, rendez-vous.” When we didn’t move they came towards us unarmed, led by an officer. I am telling you this but don’t speak of it to anyone. We must not mention it even to other soldiers.’ Morillon, 20 was killed in action a few months later.
Brigadier-General Walter Congreve VC, wrote to his wife and described the days events but declined to take part personally, he thought he might just be too tempting to a sniper. The future writer, 19 year old Henry Williamson wrote home telling of the joy of smoking German tobacco. Not everyone was happy about the two armies mixing. A corporal in the German army wrote “Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?” The corporal’s name was Adolf Hitler. While the future President of France Charles de Gaulle wrote of the “Lamentable desire of French infantrymen to leave the enemy in peace.’
I’ve leave the last word to Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (5) who describes swopping uniform buttons with a German officer and watching of his men cutting the hair of a German soldier. "I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.’
See also – Hotspur Towers 23
Thanks to - The Imperial War Museum, The Times, BBC, The Telegraph, The Mirror, Max Hastings - Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War, The Daily Sketch, The New York Times, Football Remembers,Bridget Harris - “All Together Now for England.”, The Smithsonian, Captain Robert Hamilton’s dairy published under the title –' Meet at Dawn, Unarmed. ' Daily Mail,
Notes 1 – HT is prepared about a month in advance. With this being the centenary l I expect the story will receive plenty of coverage this year. Sadly over the years a few people to fulfill their own sad personal agendas have attempted to claim these events never occurred. I think the evidence is overwhelming against them.
2 - Nobody has ever suggested these were full scale games played on marked out pitches. Much more likely they were similar to the jumpers for goal posts that we all played as kids.
3 – Tony Ashworth’s book - Trench Warfare 1914-1918: the live-and-let-live system.
4 - Mike Dash -"Peace on the Western Front, Goodwill in No Man’s Land, The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce".
5 – Bairnsfather’s book “Bullets and Billes” is available to view at Project Gutenberg.
Top Image - British Troops 1916. Imperial War Museum. 1- The Daily Mail, 2- Tommy1418.com
f- Peter Shearman (old non de plume reserved for THFC matters)
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