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Dec 23, 2010

All quiet on the Western Front

Christmas, 1914. Six months after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Europe is locked in one of the most savage conflicts in human history. But for a brief juncture, peace on earth and goodwill to men prevail as a temporary truce breaks out, and a football is produced.

It is one of the most storied matches in the history of football, but the identity of its players are unknown, the final scoreline is the subject of much debate and even the situation and circumstances in which it took place are shrouded in myth, supposition and propaganda.

The football match, or series of football matches, that took place on Christmas Day, 1914, on the Western Front during World War I are legendary. They had no practical impact on the evolution of the game and had no influence on helping to end the war, but the events of the Christmas truce are remembered because humanity, briefly, burst forth in an inhumane conflict. For a day, decency prevailed in indecent conditions. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, the Christmas truce was "the one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war".

As the first Christmas loomed in what would become known as the Great War - a conflict that would result in the slaughter of millions - British forces had lost an estimated 40,000 soldiers to attritional trench warfare across the fields of France and Belgium. Pope Benedict XV appealed for a temporary truce "in the name of divinity", but unwilling to possibly compromise the war effort and weaken resolve, authorities would not sanction a hiatus in hostilities. They could not prevent an unofficial and spontaneous truce though.

Details of how the accord broke out are somewhat imprecise, and no doubt subject to a certain level of romanticisation, but letters from soldiers on the front suggest that after carol singing broke out in the German camp, British soldiers across no man's land peered out into the gloom and spotted lit Christmas trees springing up on the enemy line. Lt. Col Rupert Shoolbred wrote to his brother: "There followed some hymn and carol singing from each side alternately, applauded and encored by the other side respectively. Our friends opposite us began to blow bugles and set up candle illuminations on the top of their trenches and they and our own people shouted across to each other Xmas greetings."

Troops, who just a day previously had been hell bent on slaughtering each other in an increasingly bitter conflict, downed arms and met in the strip of muddy, carved-up up turf that separated them. Two groups of young men, brutalised by war and divided on national lines, met in no man's land and not a shot was fired. It was an extraordinary moment, laden with symbolism.

The Guardian published a missive from an unnamed private on New Year's Eve, 1914, that provided fascinating detail: "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 walking together, and they had a football match with a bully beef tin."

It appears that impromptu football matches sprung up along the front, with bags, cans and shirts used in place of balls. As a Gustav Riebensahm, of the 2nd Westphalian regiment, wrote: "The English are extraordinarily grateful for the ceasefire, so they can play football again."

One 'fixture' in particular caught the imagination. The game in question was between the German Royal Saxon Regiment and Scottish Seaforth Highlanders, with the official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment detailing how a Scot produced a football and "this developed into a regulation football match". Though the final score is far from certain, accounts on both sides agree with an unnamed German soldier who wrote: "We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established for a match on the frozen mud and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2."

Contemporary accounts suggest that Germany had the better of the majority of the matches that took place during the truce, though one encounter did end in a victory for Britain. In 2000, the daughter of the captain of the British team, Private Bill Tucker, donated the trophy he won - a German beer mug - to the Imperial War Museum in London. An inscription on the mug reads: "Bruder Stokt die Glaser an Hoch lebe der Reservemann ("Brother raise your glass - long live the reservist").

This spirit of fraternity and humanity was dangerous for the respective military leaders, who had to ensure support for the war and maintain forward momentum in a conflict that entailed such an extreme cost to human life. A reluctance to acknowledge that the two armies had, without official support, engaged in a ceasefire resulted in a relative vacuum of official comment, but letters from the soldiers involved helped construct an evocative myth surrounding the truce, which was variously described as a "wonderful day" and a "waking dream".

It is hard to entangle apocryphal tales from genuine events, but it is recorded that a German soldier who had spent time in Camden collided with a British soldier in one match and recognised him as the proprietor of a barbershop he used to frequent in London. Another German, formerly a waiter in West London, was reported to have enquired "how Fulham was doing in the FA Cup". Another is believed to have said to a British soldier that he used to "live at Alexander Road, Hornsey, and I would like to see Woolwich Arsenal play Tottenham tomorrow".

But such familiarity could not last. As one German soldier told rifleman George Eade: "Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country. I fight for mine. Good luck."

What happened next? Under threat of court martial, soldiers from both sides were forced apart by military leaders who were intent on resuming hostilities. In some areas the truce ended on Boxing Day, in others it continued for days or even weeks. In 2004, Alfred Anderson, then the sole survivor of the truce, told The Guardian: "I'll give Christmas Day 1914 a brief thought, as I do every year. And I'll think about all my friends who never made it home. But it's too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad."

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