Did German and British troops really stop fighting and play soccer 100 years ago?

Did German and British troops really stop fighting and play soccer 100 years ago?

PBS
The British Army 26th Divisional Ammunition Train get involved in a football match on Christmas Day in Greece in 1915. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

The British Army 26th Divisional Ammunition Train get involved in a football match on Christmas Day in Greece in 1915. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Widely remembered as the unofficial cease-fire between British and German troops at the start of the first World War, the details surrounding the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 have become muddled over time.

As might be expected with any story passed down through generations, new narrative threads emerge, much like the recently discovered letter written by General Walter Congreve, who described the act as “one of the most extraordinary sights anyone has ever seen.”

When British and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land, it “was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”

The most enduring image out of the cease-fire is the impromptu game of soccer that apparently occurred between enemies. And although historians continue to debate whether a soccer match ever took place — Congreve’s letter doesn’t actually mention a game of soccer — the public has embraced the symbolic possibility that tired soldiers sought a respite from hellish war with something as leveling as soccer.

The Christmas truce has inspired books, plays and this super-viral commercial for UK supermarket chain Sainsburys:

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Christmas Truce, the Open University poured through the Imperial War Museum’s archives and put together a photo gallery showing the role soccer played in the lives of troops in World War I.

1916. A handmade football net is setup by soldiers for an inter-company match on the Balkan Front on Christmas Day. Imperial War Museum via Open University

1916. A handmade football net is setup by soldiers for an inter-company match on the Balkan Front on Christmas Day. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

Researchers have said that the troops — Allies or Central Powers — enjoyed playing soccer in breaks between fighting, a distraction from the horror of war. The Imperial War Museum said the sport was used as a recruitment tool. Grantland’s Brian Phillips, noting the ever-present soccer ball in many wartime group photos, said soccer meant something deeper than a “morale-boosting pastime”:

It’s a way to hide the horror under one layer of spectacle and another layer of moral virtue — a way to pretend that war is like a game, that there are rules, that there is safety. A way not to look into oblivion. We missed the cruel irony in all those soccer balls that show up in World War I photos. Nothing is a metaphor for war. War is a metaphor for nothing.

One hundred years since the Christmas Truce, Phillips’ words may resonate, but the world has also chosen to remember what brief moments of joy soldiers could embrace in the midst of nightmare.

An impromptu game of football kicks off between British and Italian troops, as others take some time out to rest on the hills and watch on in 1917. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

A British general is about to kick off a friendly football match between the British and Italian troops on the Italian Front in 1917. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

A British general is about to kick off a friendly football match between the British and Italian troops on the Italian Front in 1917. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

1918. The Royal Flying Corp football team of No.54 Squadron RAF line up for a team photograph in front of a Sopwith Camel aircraft. Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

1918. The Royal Flying Corp football team of No.54 Squadron RAF line up for a team photograph in front of a Sopwith Camel aircraft. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

The football team of the British Third Army Trench Mortar School pose for a picture on the Western Front, Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, France in 1917. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

The football team of the British Third Army Trench Mortar School pose for a picture on the Western Front, Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, France in 1917. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

A large group of the 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment join in on a football match, France in 1916. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

A large group of the 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment join in on a football match, France in 1916. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

Final of the 48th Divisional Fanshawe Cup. The 1/7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment versus 1/7th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Two players tackle for the ball as soldiers scramble to get a view on the Italian Front, Trissino, Italy in 1918. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Final of the 48th Divisional Fanshawe Cup. The 1/7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment versus 1/7th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Two players tackle for the ball as soldiers scramble to get a view on the Italian Front, Trissino, Italy in 1918. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

Major General Thomas Herbert Shoubridge, the Commander of the 7th Division, presenting the Fanshawe cup to the captain of the winning British Army team. Soldiers crowd around in the background to watch the presentation in 1918. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Major General Thomas Herbert Shoubridge, the Commander of the 7th Division, presenting the Fanshawe cup to the captain of the winning British Army team. Soldiers crowd around in the background to watch the presentation in 1918. Courtesy Imperial War Museum via Open University

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