For weeks, the rain had drenched the frigid battlefield.
Weary young soldiers along the Western Front sat huddled in muddy trenches, hiding from bullets that tore through the cold air. The world they once knew was far away, now only a mirage of memories and packages from home. In this harsh new reality, it was only them and the enemy.
But as Christmas Eve turned into Christmas morning, something changed.
The soldiers put down their weapons. If only for a day, the warring sides exchanged gunfire for exchanging gifts.
The Christmas truce of 1914 occurred at the beginning of World War I (WWI), just five months after fighting had started. In a small stretch along the Western Front, from late Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, soldiers hesitantly emerged from their trenches carrying symbols of peace and tradition.
Though some of their traditions were unfamiliar to each other, there was one thing they had in common: a love of soccer. Trading deadly conflict for friendly competition, impromptu soccer matches broke out along the frontlines.
One of the most remarkable events of WWI, the Christmas truce of 1914 was to never be repeated. It would soon fade into the background, replaced by the utter devastation of a war that reverberated all over the world.
How did World War I impact the world?
Known as the Great War, WWI ravaged Europe and left tens of millions dead, both military and civilians.
The widespread destruction crumbled national economies and infrastructures. The cost of the war sent nations into debts that would alter the course of history.
It made such an impact that it earned the moniker “the war to end all worlds” because nobody believed something like it could ever happen again.
How long did WWI last?
World War I lasted for roughly four years from 1914-1918. It began on July 28, 1914 and came to an end on November 11, 1918.
The day that WWI ended is known as Armistice Day. In the United States, we celebrate it as Veteran’s Day.
How did WWI change the world?
During the course of the First World War, millions of people lost their lives and millions more were permanently injured.
Estimates put the total number of deaths around 20 million. Another 21 million more were wounded. Many millions of civilians were killed.
The United Kingdom lost over 2% of its entire population. Germany lost 3.82% and Serbia’s population dropped by 16%.
The huge economic toll of WWI shifted the dynamics of the world’s economy—not only due to the long-term effects of the war’s destruction, but also due to the cost of engaging in it.
A day’s worth of bullets cost $5 million. Most countries paid for the war by borrowing money.
The economic hardships suffered by the United Kingdom lasted for decades, opening the door for the United States and Japan to become world superpowers as they stepped in to replace the void in global commerce.
In Germany, they were required to pay the modern equivalent of $269 billion in reparations as a condition of their surrender. It would take them 92 years to repay it.
The Treaty of Versailles, the official peace treaty signed after the war, placed blame on Germany for causing the war. The conditions of their surrender sent the country into economic ruin, humiliating the country and causing deep resentments that helped Hitler in his rise to power.
Why were so many countries involved in WWI?
World War I was a war of empires. Like soldiers, the imperial subjects of the world’s dominant Western empires of the time were obligated to participate in the war.
The empires involved at the beginning of the war were the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman (North Africa and the Middle East), British and Romanov (Russia) empires. When these countries declared war, it also meant the rest of their empires would be involved, too.
The Austro-Hungarian empire, the second-largest state in Europe at the time, comprised an area that today includes Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.
Why is WWI called a world war?
Over 100 countries all over the world participated in WWI as subjects of the warring empires.
In 1914, 90% of Africa was under the colonial rule of European countries, and 2.5 million people from that continent were involved in the war.
India, part of the British Empire at the time, sent 1.3 million soldiers to fight in the war. Brazil declared war in 1917, adding itself to the alliance that included Russia and Great Britain.
How did WWI start?
The most impactful event leading up to World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the heirs to the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip.
The assassination took place in Sarajevo and was orchestrated by a group called the Black Hand. The group included Bosnian and Serbian citizens who wanted independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
What was the powder keg in WWI?
The murder of the heirs sent shockwaves through Europe and set off what is described as the “Balkan powder keg.” The metaphorical keg had been gaining gunpowder since the Balkan Crisis, which included Austria-Hungary’s takeover of Bosnia and Serbia.
That takeover subsequently resulted in wars in 1912 and 1913. The two Balkan Wars added to a wave of nationalism that had swept over Europe in the late 18th century, causing distrust and hostility among nations.
The Balkan Wars also contributed to the complex interweaving of alliances that would set the stage for the outbreak of World War I.
The tensions in Europe had been brewing for a long time, creating a volatile situation that only needed a spark to explode. That spark came from the gun of Gavrilo Princip.
When did WWI start?
World War I officially started on July 28th, 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
In just a week, Russia, Belgium, France and Great Britain joined Serbia to form one side (the Allied Powers) while Germany joined with Austria-Hungary to form the Central Powers.
From the start of WWI to the Christmas truce of 1914
The convolution of national relations that led to the Great War was likely far from the minds of the young recruits who, five months later, would be sharing Christmas greetings and a love of soccer in the no man’s land between the trenches.
How did British soldiers get involved in WWI?
In response to the outbreak of war in Europe, the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, realized that Great Britain would need a bigger army. In an effort to drive up recruitment, a mass advertising and marketing campaign was put in place in August 1914 to increase volunteerism.
More than 54 million posters were put up, 8 million letters were sent, and 20,000 speeches were given. By the end of 1914, 1,186,337 men had enlisted.
How did German soldiers get involved in WWI?
The German soldiers involved in WWI were in the military due to a long-standing policy of compulsory military service.
Starting at age 20, young men could be called to active duty and were expected to serve for two to three years. Though most men were trained, less than half were on active duty.
However, when the Great War broke out, Germany called up their “citizen soldiers” and immediately grew its army from 808,280 to 3,502,700 in just 12 days.
Trench warfare at the beginning of WWI
The soldiers involved in World War I engaged in trench warfare. This defense tactic was devised early in the war when too many soldiers were dying in open warfare at the hands of artillery and machine guns.
While it reduced casualties, trench warfare brought advancement to a crawl (often literally) and prolonged the war. Many believed the war would only last a few months. But trench warfare let it last for four years.
The trenches were dug up to 12 feet deep and stretched for miles. The trenches of opposing sides were only a few hundred feet apart. The area between the trenches was known as “no man’s land.”
By the end of WWI, 35,000 miles of trenches had been dug.
Conditions of trench warfare in early WWI
Trench warfare went from awful to horrid on April 22, 1915, when Germany fired 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas at two French divisions during a battle in Ypres, Belgium.
But for the soldiers that would take part in the Christmas truce of 1914, trench warfare in the first five months of the war was still a brutal misery.
Soldiers in the trenches dealt with disease, infection and the stench of decaying bodies. They were nearly always wet, muddy and freezing cold. Soldiers lucky enough to survive a combat wound often died later in the trenches.
The best way to envision life in trenches is through the descriptions of trench warfare from the soldiers who lived it. The following are quotes compiled by MilitaryMachine.com.
The mud there wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge, it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. When you got off this track with your load, it ‘drew’ at you, not like quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you.
Rats were a part of everyday life.
I saw some rats running from under the dead men’s greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh…
The stench of rotting corpses added to the misery as dead bodies piled up.
The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting smell of the vapour of warm human blood heated by the sun out of my nostrils…
—British Captain Leeham
It was from these conditions that the first few soldiers arose with trepidation to approach their enemy with an offer of a spontaneous and tenuous truce.
Emerging from the trenches on Christmas Eve
On Christmas morning of 1914, five months after the war started, British, French and German troops began to hesitantly emerge from their trenches.
The soldiers, who had expected to return home by Christmas, were drawn together by a shared experience, shared homesickness and a shared desire to, at least for one day, escape the deadly gravity of war.
When did the Christmas truce start?
Even though Pope Benedict XV had called for a Christmas truce on December 7, 1914, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the 1914 Christmas truce started.
It was a spontaneous series of incidents that seemed to organically occur along a small stretch of the 500-mile Western Front in Belgium. Some 100,000 soldiers were involved.
Each individual instance of a truce had its own beginning. Most accounts point to German troops that began singing carols. In one instance, historian and author Stanley Weintraub credits a German soldier with initiating a truce by singing “Silent Night (Stille Nacht)” in both English and German.
In other areas along the Western Front, the first sign of the holiday spirit started on Christmas Eve when British soldiers peeked out from their trenches to see Christmas trees that Germans had put up along the top of their trench. They displayed small trees called tannenbuams that had been sent from home and were lit with candles.
A member of the Rifle Brigade described the scene mentioning small Christmas trees burning along the parapet (the top edge) of the German trenches, and even though no official truce had been called, no one was firing shots.
The Rifle Brigade member then describes two British officers getting out of the trench and walking halfway across no man’s land to meet with two German soldiers. The four soldiers met in the middle and began chatting and shaking hands.
In another account, a British soldier named Frederick Heath told his version in a letter home with reports of German troops shouting Merry Christmas. He says they couldn’t resist returning the greetings. This led to a night of sharing Christmas carols, piccolo playing, and boisterous laughter throughout the trenches.
What did soldiers share during the 1914 Christmas truce?
Many of the things the soldiers shared during the Christmas truce were items they had been sent from home.
For instance, some of the British troops shared plum puddings, a traditional British holiday food of steamed or boiled pudding containing fruit and spices. They also shared cigarettes, food, buttons and hats.
According to an account from a Belgian troop, they exchanged chocolates and cigars and spent most of the morning fraternizing.
There are even reports of a British soldier setting up a makeshift barbershop and giving haircuts to troops from both sides. The barber was completely indifferent to whether his customers were German or British.
Other encounters were not so much joyous, but rather somber acts of reverence.
The officer of the Rifle Brigade also describes an encounter with a German officer in which they buried the dead together. The British soldiers offered the German troops wooden crosses for the graves.
Sharing a love of soccer at the Christmas truce of 1914
Along with gifts and greetings, another phenomenon developed along the Western Front that Christmas Day.
Just as impromptu as the truce itself, improvised soccer matches turned deadly foes into friendly rivals. As soldiers gathered together, they couldn’t help but share a love of the sport they played back home.
When did the soccer matches start at the Christmas truce of 1914?
Like pinpointing the actual beginning of the truce, it’s difficult to find an exact time the soccer matches started. It’s even difficult to describe most of them as matches. More often, it was simply young men having fun kicking a ball around.
Improvised soccer balls and “a proper football”
The same letter sent home by the soldier of the Rifle Brigade also describes playing an inter-platoon soccer game on Christmas afternoon. They used a cap comforter (a type of wool hat) stuffed with straw for a ball.
In 1983, Ernie Williams, who was a 19-year old Private in the 6th Battalion Cheshire Regiment at the time, reminisced that their game even used an actual soccer ball that one of the German soldiers produced from the trenches. Likely, it was a gift that had been sent from home.
The Christmas truce soccer match between the Scots and the Saxons
One of the more famous Christmas truce soccer matches was between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment (Germany) and a group of Scots.
A notable account comes from the diary of a German school teacher-turned-soldier named Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons.
According to Zehmisch, the British brought out the soccer ball this time and a lively game ensued. He described it as a wonderful and strange celebration where Christmas, at least for a time, brought mortal enemies together as friends.
From across the way, another account of the match comes from a member of the 133rd Saxon Regiment, Lieutenant Johannes Niemann. Grabbing his binoculars, he noticed a soccer ball suddenly appearing out of nowhere before a soccer match got underway.
They used their caps to mark the goal, and even though the ground was frozen, they stuck to the rules of the game and played a real soccer match. From a third perspective, another German soldier describes how kicking a soccer ball around turned into a regulation game.
Who won the soccer match at the Christmas truce of 1914?
While nobody can know for sure, at least three individual soldiers reported 3-2 victories for the Germans.
Johannes Nieman recorded it in his diary, a British war veteran and poet named Robert Graves recounted a match as a 3-2 victory for the Germans in 1962, and in the official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment, an additional German soldier wrote that his game “ended 3-2 for Fritz.” (“Fritz” was a nickname for German troops, as opposed to the “Tommy” nickname for British troops.)
@Wiblicks This is taken from the diary of Leutnant Johannes Niemann, 133 Royal Saxon Regiment, Christmas Day 1914. A more befitting HISTORICAL Tweet than that done by @HistoryExtra who have access to Archives I can only dream of. pic.twitter.com/rbJqSwY8af
— Pink & Susan (@Wiblicks) December 25, 2017
The Lancashire Fusiliers A Company reportedly played their own match against the Germans near the town of La Toquet using a “ball” made out of a ration tin. They also lost to the Germans 3-2.
A match involving the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders took place near the battlefield of Ypres in Belgium. In a letter published January 2, 1915 in the Glasgow News, a match was described where the Scots “won easily 4-1.” Another source reports that the private papers of Harold Douglas Bryant recount the Scots Guards “winning easily 4-1.”
British Lieutenant Albert Wynn of the Royal Field Artillery also wrote about a match against “Prussians and Hanovers” (Germans) that ended in a draw.
Did the Christmas truce of 1914 soccer matches really happen?
Despite the numerous accounts of individual soldiers, there have long been naysayers who think the soccer matches are very exaggerated or perhaps didn’t even happen at all.
But what’s most likely is that while troops were fraternizing, some of them would begin kicking a ball (or a version of a ball) back and forth. Maybe some turned into actual games, but many were simply kickabouts.
Some critics point out that many letters from the soldiers were more centered on rumors of matches, or relied on second or third-hand knowledge. Even in the private papers of Harold Douglas Bryant, his account seems to have been written sometime later and with chronological discrepancies.
Could they have even played soccer games during the Christmas truce?
The condition of the no man’s land between the trenches also raises questions about the ability to even play soccer. It was winter and the ground was likely frozen.
Iain Adams, a professor at the University of Central Lancashire, points out that the front lines were a frozen swamp, making it nearly impossible to play. Still, he believes they happened.
Also, several of the letters mentioning soccer during the Christmas truce describe a desire to play a match, but not actually being able to due to the condition of the land.
Mark Connelly, a professor of modern British military history at the University of Kent, believes that there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that a soccer ball was kicked around, but whether or not an actual match occurred is hard to say for certain.
He even calls into question letters with direct mentions of a score, saying the letter printed on January 2, 1915 in The Times was based on a second-hand report of the game that was told to someone else. He describes it as a “friend of a friend” thing.
Does it matter if they really played soccer matches during the Christmas truce?
When you look at the entire story of the Christmas truce, whether or not they played an actual soccer match doesn’t seem to matter.
Most of the games were akin to a game of classroom basketball using crumpled-up paper and the trash can. Some kept score, some didn’t. There seems to have been an actual soccer ball or two, but most of the soldiers improvised.
What matters is that a love of soccer created spontaneous moments where World War I came to a halt and opposing forces came together in a moment of peace on Christmas Day. The spirit of the soccer matches is still celebrated today in reenactments.
When did the Christmas truce of 1914 end?
For the most part, the Christmas truce of WWI only lasted from late Christmas Eve through Christmas Day. The soldiers that once shared songs and gifts went back to the trenches and began firing at each other once again.
According to one soldier, Captain Charles Stockwell of the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the truce ended early in the morning the day after Christmas. The two sides shared a polite back-and-forth, the British side putting up a flag that said “Merry Christmas” and the Germans responded with “Thank you.”
Then, a German captain fired two shots in the air and the truce was over.
How many soldiers were part of the Christmas truce?
It’s believed that 100,000 soldiers participated in the Christmas truce. The truce mostly took place along a 30-mile stretch of the 500 mile Western Front.
On the Eastern Front, the Russians wouldn’t celebrate Christmas until January 7 because they adhered to the Julian calendar. And as France was being occupied by Germany, the French troops weren’t very much interested in a truce of any kind.
Not every German soldier agreed with the truce, either. A young corporal named Adolf Hitler, who was stationed far from the front lines, thought such a thing should never happen and questioned the “German honor” of the soldiers involved.
What was the reaction to the 1914 Christmas truce?
At home, accounts of the truce were printed in newspapers and it was widely celebrated as a triumph of the human spirit.
Along the war front, the truce was far from celebrated. They were unofficial ceasefires and many officers were upset by it. It often came to an end under orders from superiors to resume fighting.
However, even before the truce, troops from opposing sides were already bantering back and forth and even sharing some common courtesy, such as not shooting at soldiers performing non-combative tasks. It was known as the “live and let live” policy and high command eventually issued orders to stop it.
In his order, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force’s II Corps noted that it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the fighting spirit in all ranks. He went on to prohibit unofficial armistices.
After the Christmas truce of 1914, there was an effort among officers and high-ranking officials to prevent any kind of unofficial ceasefires from happening again.
How did WWI end?
The Christmas truce took place just five months into WWI. The war would carry on for another four years, with the United States not entering the war until April of 1917.
But on November 11, 1918, the Allied Powers prevailed and the Central Powers were forced to sign an armistice agreement. The following year, an official peace treaty was signed.
Although the First World War was thought to be “the war to end all wars,” the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the war would cause wide resentment in Germany that ultimately led to the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War.
The legacy of soccer being played during the Christmas truce of 1914
As astounding as the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 may seem, it’s almost no surprise that soccer was part of it. Sport has long crossed borders and fostered meaningful connections that exist beyond language and tradition. No sport exemplifies this more than soccer.
Christmas Truce Statue, Liverpool
— Moggpix Photography (@Moggpix) December 25, 2019
As was displayed that Christmas Day, soccer can even cross enemy lines and bring moments of peace to a war-torn battlefield. Perhaps legend has come to overshadow reality, but the meaning behind the Christmas truce soccer matches can never be questioned. Even during times of war, when we put down the weapons and take the time to see each other as fellow humans, we learn that we are much more alike than different.
Though forced by circumstance to become enemies once more, the soldiers of the 1914 Christmas truce showed us, even among the horrors of war, that when given a chance, humanity can prevail.
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- “1204-10~050 b Christmas Truce 1914” by Markus Maschinenjunge is marked with CC PDM 1.0
- “Christmas Truce 1914-1918” by Clive Varley is licensed under CC BY 2.0