Did British and German soldiers really play football in the trenches?

The industrial carnage of the First World War is not exactly a promising hunting ground for heartwarming imagery. Nonetheless, the idea that during the Christmas period of 1914, British and German soldiers stopped fighting and even played football is very definitely inspiring. Witness, for example, its use in the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert.

As is perhaps to be expected with such a perfect picture, its historical providence has been called into question. Stephen Moss wrote recently in the Guardian that:

As for a game of football between the two sides, there is little hard evidence. “It comes down to one or two areas on the line where there are reports in men’s letters or things written very shortly after the event,” says Baker. “The most likely place is near the village of Messines [on the border between France and Belgium], where the first battalion of the Norfolk regiment played something with the 16th Bavarian reserve infantry regiment. There are two references to a game being played on the British side, but nothing from the Germans. If somebody one day found a letter from a German soldier who was in that area, then we would have something credible.”

One of the shards of evidence comes from a much-quoted letter that appeared in the Manchester Guardian on New Year’s Eve 1914: “One officer met a Bavarian, smoked a cigarette, and had a talk with him about halfway 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!”

A kickabout with an old tin which may or may not have involved Germans is, however, a far cry from the fully fledged game often imagined. Military specialist Taff Gillingham advised Sainsbury’s on its Christmas ad and lobbied hard to keep the kickabout in perspective. “Football played an insignificant role in the 1914 truce,” he tweeted recently. Not least, as Baker points out, because it would have been impossible to play any kind of organised game amid the barbed wire and bomb craters of no man’s land.

Moss goes on to suggest that the idea gained in popularity with the rise of revisionist history in the 1960s. It seemed to suggest that this was indeed a war willed by elites but resisted by the masses.

There are, however, historians who take a different view from Moss. For example, an article in the Smithsonian magazine states:

there is plenty of evidence that soccer 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.

The most detailed of these stories comes from the German side, and reports that the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played a game against Scottish troops. According to the 133rd’s War History, this match emerged from the “droll scene of Tommy und Fritz” chasing hares that emerged from under cabbages between the lines, and then producing a ball to kick about. Eventually, this “developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the center. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.”

So if we allow Sainsbury’s some historical licence then their version of events seems pretty reasonable.