The Christmas Day Truce: Soccer during World War I

World War I is considered one of the bloodiest wars in human history. New weapons of destruction were introduced during this war, including mustard gas and trench warfare. So many died during this war that the generation involved became known as the “Lost Generation” due to the amount of casualties having such an effect on the world’s population.

The horrors of World War I were unfathomable. Despite this, there were pockets of ceasefire during the Great War. One such occurred Dec. 24-26, 1914. This holiday ceasefire saw opposing sides show acts of goodwill, including an impromptu soccer match between German and British troops.

On Dec. 7, 1914, nearly five months after the onset of the war, Pope Benedict XV made the suggestion that a temporary truce be made to celebrate the holiday season. Such a request was rejected by both the Germans and the Allies.

On Christmas Eve, in the middle of combat between British and German troops, Christmas caroling broke out from trenches on both sides. It was believed brass instruments were also brought in by the Germans to accompany the singing. At dawn on Christmas Day, the German troops emerged from their trenches, shouting “Merry Christmas” and suggesting an unofficial truce for the day. The British were initially weary of the offer, as they thought it may be a trick. When they saw the Germans were unarmed, the two sides agreed to the truce on a handshake.

Gifts were exchanged during the truce. Packs of cigarettes and rations of plum pudding were swapped between the enemies. The caroling and singing from the night before picked up again.

Painting Depicting the Christmas Day Truce of 1914 / Snopes

During this Christmas celebration, a game of pickup soccer began in No Man’s Land, with the British and the Germans playing against one another. German lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch recalled in his journal: “A couple of Britons brought a ball along from their trenches, and a lively game began. How fantastically wonderful and strange. The English officers experienced it like that too — that thanks to soccer and Christmas, the feast of love, deadly enemies briefly came together as friends.”

It was believed that the Germans won the spontaneous match, but this was a moot point. This soccer match, and this truce, allowed these warring sides to learn about each other. This truce humanized the enemy.

At the conclusion of the match, it was reported that a group photo occurred with the British and German soldiers whom took part. Saxon lieutenant Johannes Niemann recalled, “The players of both teams gathered in a group, always beautiful coloured rows, the ball in the middle.”

Sadly, no such photo has emerged to the public.

This truce is memorialized across the world, with the soccer match being the main focus of such memorials. In Liverpool, England, there is a statue at St. Luke’s Church depicting a German and a British soldier shaking hands over a soccer ball. In the Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery in Belgium, the truce is memorialized with a soccer ball on a marble plinth. At the National Memorial Arboretum, there is a sculpture of British and German hands clasping within the outline of a soccer ball.

The 1914 Truce Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum / History

Although the truce was short-lived, as fighting resumed Dec. 26, holiday spirit led to this unusual, yet beautiful, moment of chivalry and compassion that is remembered in not only the history of war or sports, but the history of humanity.

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