Christmas 2009 ~ In WSC 23 Phil Dutton examined the story that British and German troops played football against each other in 1914
A central and surviving myth of the first Christmas of the First World War was that games of football were played out in a single day's peaceful ill-discipline. Some have seen in the story merely the symbolic expression of the natural justice and good sense of an exploited soldiery, resolving national rivalries by less drastic measures than extermination.
There are doubts that any match took place, despite the fact of a rash precedent, set at the British Army's GHQ on December 22, 1914, when a Staff XI took on a Cavalry side in the presence of the Prince of Wales (the score was not recorded). Certainly, the ingredients for some potentially cracking games faced each other over the sandbags on that misty and frosty morn. On the German side, for example, was the 133rd Saxon Regiment, proud possessors of a fine pre-war football record.
Facing “Fritz” were the footer-loving sons of Britain. Dragged from home by the remorseless propaganda of the state (poster images of Mr Punch at Stamford Bridge exhorted players and spectators to join in the “Greater Game”) some went out as self-conscious football fighting units: the Chelsea “Die Hards” (17th Middlesex Regiment), the “2nd Footballers” (21st Middlesex). And then it happened. No one knows who started it, but that Christmas Day's outbreak of fraternity outraged the management. Social interaction between the lines gradually gained pace, enemies engaged in friendly chats.
One Highland Regiment officer found himself deep in conversation with a keen German sportsman whose main regret that the war spoiled his football. He claimed to have toured Britain the previous year with the Leipzig team that beat Glasgow Celtic 1-0. Many photographs were taken, gifts exchanged (near lethal sausages for Tickler's jam), addresses swapped. But impromptu football matches escaped the Box-Brownie's eye.
The absence of the game from one sector is corroborated by a colonel in the Grenadier Guards who claimed that, though the Germans wanted to play, their opponents, the Scots Guards, couldn’t supply a ball. Indeed, the notion of the match as unsupported myth has been the message of revisionist historians, no doubt in the pocket of the Polo-playing cabal of GHQ, who were entrusted to give the lie to such unpatriotic activities. But this is to deny the countless testimonies of ancient combatants and the hastily scribbled notes of those who were there.
These speak of goals made from caps and frozen sentries, balls from jam-tin bombs and “Ole Bill” woolly mufflers. Gunner CLB Burrows (104th Battery, 22nd Brigade) noted: “Our infantry played a football match with them [the Saxons opposite] and exchanged cigarettes in No Man's Land." The German Hugo Klemm wrote: “Everywhere you looked, the occupants of the trenches stood around talking to each other and even playing football.” (The Times later discreetly reported a similar scene.)
Accounts of the story vary, 3-2 to Jerry is a persistent refrain, but there were no reports that commitment to King or Kaiser led to any diminution in the prevailing sporting ethos. No tales of thuggery in tunnels, jaw-breaking, abusing the umpire or interminable goal celebrations. Again, it took place in No Man's Land, which, though shell-shocked and seasonally white, offered greater potential for the well- hit through ball than at least one pitch in west London.