In the winter of 1914 war raged across Europe, the trenches had been dug, battle lines drawn and a horrible scene of death and horror were present across the continent. Yet in a remarkable display of humanity, and proof of how amazing the sport of football is, the guns ceased, the death stopped and an impromptu game of football broke out.
This is the story of that historic match.
To understand how monumental this match truly was you have to consider the background of the times. Both sides were immersed in what at the time was the deadliest war in history, to make matters worse the soldiers had been told that they should have been home by now. Yet they were still there fighting in the trenches that were surrounded by death and squalor. The idea that the fighting soldiers would ever get the chance to play football against each other would have seemed just as likely as pigs flying, especially when you consider that anything that moved was a target and would have been met with a hail of automatic gunfire.
However, this story wasn’t one of a heartfelt gesture from up high in the chain of command, in fact it was far from it. It was in fact a rebellion, the generals feared that there would be these acts of kindness on Christmas Day and therefore they sent specific orders stopping any soldiers showing any kind of compassion to their German counterparts. However, these orders didn’t stop the Germans being peaceful on Christmas Day, probably helped by the mountains of beer they received to celebrate the holiday.
In truth the German festivities began on Christmas Eve, their guns fell silent, candles were lit and Christmas trees were erected in their trenches. The Germans then started signing ‘Stille Nacht‘ from their trenches, the British were flabbergasted by such a strong display of kindness, and soon joined in, it was now that shouts from the trenches agreed on a Christmas Day truce.
Christmas Day came but instead of the usual chorus of gunfire and artillery rounds, No-man’s land was silent which seemed like the war had just disappeared. Despite this show of Yuletide kindness, the British were still suspicious of the German’s invitation to meet them in No-man’s land – the Brits were convinced it was a trap.
When the first Germans appeared over the parapets and started to approach the British trenches it was Captain Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers who took control. When asked by one of his sergeants for permission to shoot the advancing Germans he refused the order. He recalled the Germans shouting “Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer.” Stockwell mentioned, “My men were getting a bit excited.”
Stockwell decided he wanted a chat with his German opposite number. Despite both sides having strict orders not to fraternise with the enemy, Stockwell accepted the German’s offer of free beer and in return gave them some of the British plum puddings. It didn’t take long for the rest of the soldiers on the front line to join Captain Stockwell in the festivities as the soldiers spilled out over the trenches to chat with their counterparts. These occasions weren’t just in one location, stories of fraternisation were widespread across the entire length of the trenches.
Of course while the language barrier was a difficulty, it didn’t take long for a universal language to take over, a football was punted from the British over to the Germans and it was here that one of the most famous football matches in history broke out. Recollections of the match have compared it to a “melee” saying instead of 11 a side it was closer to 50-70 men on each side. Again this football match wasn’t a one-off but instead a common site throughout the day across all of the front line. However, one match in particular has been immortalised in history, thanks to an anonymous major who contacted The Times with his report of the days’ football action. He told the newspaper that “an English regiment had played a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2”.
While scores obviously varied in the different matches it’s the 3-2 that’s the most widely celebrated. Probably due to the British wanting to remember a defeat to the Germans that didn’t involve penalties. While the Army Commander issued orders that any soldiers caught fraternising would be shot, humanity shone through and the compassion continued throughout the day.
While many will say that the matches had little effect on the war as the killing restarted the very next day and that may be true. However, the sheer fact that these groups of men were willing to risk facing a firing squad just to have a kick-about with a group of men they were supposed to hate just shows the true power of football. Football can change lives, stop war and even cause people to forget about the problems they have in their life. Occasions like this just go to prove that football is infinitely more powerful than any politician could ever be.
Football, isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s so much more than that.