The day the guns fell silent on Christmas Day 1914 allowing a game of football to be played, is perhaps one of the best-known stories of the First World War.
Four bitter years of fighting in Europe saw the slaughter of soldiers on a scale unparalleled in history, but for one day hostilities were put aside, gifts were swapped and no-man’s land in between the two lines of trenches became a football pitch.
A huge mystique has grown up around this match, which is said to have taken place to the south of the village of Frelinghien and just north of Houplines on the France-Belgium border. The New Year’s Eve edition of the Manchester Guardian contained a letter from a British officer stating, “One officer met a Bavarian, smoked a cigarette, and had a talk with him about half-way between the lines. Then a few men fraternised in the same way, and really today peace has existed. Men have been talking together, and they had a football match with a bully beef tin, and one man went over and cut a German’s hair.”
Given the state of no-man’s land, attempting any proper game would have been treacherous. Not only was the ground pockmarked with holes from shells, but there would have been dead bodies lying there. Indeed, the truce enabled both sides to recover bodies. The focus may have been on an impromptu game in the Frelinghien – Houplines sector, but the temporary Christmas truce was followed elsewhere on the frontline between British and German troops.
An Irish priest called Ned Dowling kept a journal of his experiences, but on his part of the front goodwill did not extend to a game of football. Christmas carols were sung by both sides and cigars were smoked, but he ended his account of the day by saying, “The football match, by the way, was a washout as the guns had orders to fire some rounds. Someone was sent out to tell the Germans so. He did so with many apologies, stating, that of course they had nothing to do with it. The enemy politely cut him short, explaining that they knew what selfish beasts gunners were.”
So, on this particular part of the front in Flanders, there were no friendly games of football, and neither it seems were there along the lines occupied by the French and Belgians. Both nations had both suffered losses far greater than the British and there was little feeling of cheer brought on by Christmas. To this day there remains a debate as to the number and nature of games played on Christmas Day in 1914, though none are likely to have been of a formal nature. Interestingly, no accounts emerged from the German side. Perhaps this is unsurprising because at the time, unlike in England, football was a relatively marginal sport in Germany.
Perhaps the last word should go to the English comedy actor Rowan Atkinson of Mr Bean fame. The last of his Blackadder series is set in the trenches of the First World War. With the war coming to an end his faithful side-kick Baldrick asked Captain Blackadder if he remembered the Christmas Day game. “How could I forget it,” came his reply. “I was never offside. I could not believe that decision!”