Did the First World War Christmas truce football match really happen?

It has become one of the most iconic moments of the First World War, and was in 2014 chosen by Sainsbury’s as the subject of their huge Christmas advertising campaign. But there is still some debate about whether football featured in the 1914 Christmas truce. Here, Professor Mark Connelly from the University of Kent, and Taff Gillingham, a military historian who worked on the Sainsbury’s advert, share their verdicts…

This article was first published in December 2014

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“The evidence is too hazy to say with any kind of certainty that a match took place” – Mark Connelly

I have spent many years researching the Christmas truce, looking through war diaries, and papers at the Imperial War Museum. What I know from my investigations is that we just cannot find any conclusive evidence that a football match took place.

There is lots of evidence of a match being discussed on the day – a number of letters from soldiers see them telling their loved ones about loose plans to play a game – but it seems they never got around to it. This is understandable – no man’s land was a mess, so it would have been difficult to play on, and no one was going to allow opposing soldiers behind enemy lines [to play]! Plus, at least one letter suggests they could not actually find a football.

What’s more, there are problems with a key piece of so-called ‘evidence’ of football being played: a letter written by a doctor and printed in The Times on 1 January 1915, which says a soldier “played a game with the Saxons and lost 3–2”. The first problem is that this was merely reported speech – someone had told the doctor about the ‘game’. It was a ‘friend of a friend’ situation. Secondly, the regiment had been scored out [of the letter], so we cannot verify it.

For those who want to believe a match took place, there’s enough evidence that someone kicked about a ball at some point during the day – after all, soldiers then, as now, were very football orientated. And it would not surprise me if someone does pin this down one day. But at the moment I cannot put my money on saying that a match happened. While there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest a ball was kicked around, it’s certainly too hazy to say with any kind of certainty.

It’s also important to consider: what constitutes a match? Is it a few lads rolling a ball along the ground, or is it a group playing a game with, say, agreed goal posts?

For me, to say a match took place would be to make two plus two tip over to amount to five.

Mark Connelly is a professor of modern British military history at the University of Kent, who last week presented his findings at a public symposium at the university. The symposium considers whether a Christmas truce football match took place, and why the truce has attained such iconic status in British popular culture.

 

“New evidence discovered this year proves there was football during the truce” – Taff Gillingham

You can count on one hand the number of accurate accounts about football during the truce. There are plenty of hearsay accounts, and a few fantasist accounts too – for example, an officer named Peter Jackson claimed to have played, but in 1968 was rumbled and admitted he had made the whole thing up – and there are a number of hearsay reports, of people having heard about a match, but there are only four pieces of evidence from soldiers who either played or witnessed the match. After researching the Christmas truce for 15 years, I can usually spot the real accounts from the fakes.

Until this year, I, like Mark, believed there was not enough concrete evidence to say that any football took place. And we need to be clear: what did happen can certainly not be called a 'match'. However, several months before I started working with Sainsbury’s I got in touch with an old friend who is a historian of the Norfolk regiment, who sent me some papers he thought could be of use.

Two were accounts by men who said there was no football, the third – after 15 years of looking – was an account by a Norfolk corporal who said he played.

Sure enough, in that pile were three very important sheets of paper – a letter written by Corporal Albert Wyatt of the Norfolk regiment, published in a newspaper in 1915, who said he had played a match in Wulverghem, Belgium. This was a breakthrough, as it corroborated a letter sent by Sergeant Frank Naden from the 1/6th Cheshires, telling home that he had played a Christmas Day match.

Naden's letter is widely known but, until now, there had been no corroboration for it. Here’s the thing – the two regiments units served together in the winter of 1914: the Cheshires, who were part of the Territorial force, had just arrived on the front line, and were mixed with the Norfolks for trench training.

So here we suddenly have two people in the same place saying they had played a game of football. That is corroborated evidence. I can now say, hand on heart, that there was a kickabout. I don’t even think it was on the scale that the Sainsbury’s advert suggests – the fact we don’t see lots of soldiers talking in letters and diaries about having seen the match indicates it was on a small scale – but there was a kickabout.

Indeed, the fact the kickabout was small is unsurprising, because many British soldiers were more interested in fraternising with the Germans: they just wanted to see them – to talk to them, to swap photos and food. Some even cut one another's hair. Remember, many of the German troops would have worked in bars and restaurants back home, so would have a decent grasp of English. So there were lots of conversations [on Christmas Day].

A few months ago German historian Rob Schaefer uncovered a postcard sent home by another soldier of IR133 who claimed to have played. The card corroborates a well known account by Lt Johannes Niemann of the same Regiment. Again, two men, same place, same time. The kickabouts at Wulverghem and Frelinghien are the only two places were kickabouts are corroborated, although in both cases there is no corroboration from the opposing side.

In spite of this, I think it is a great tragedy that football is hijacking the Christmas truce – in reality, football played an insignificant role in the truce. It really was more about fraternisation, which is why in the end Sainsbury’s toned down the emphasis on the football and instead highlighted the sharing aspect.

The first responsibility of myself and Khaki Devil [which provides First World War uniforms and replica weapons for film and television production] is to the veterans who can no longer speak for themselves. We would never have been involved with the advert if we did not think it was respectful, and based on hard evidence. The advert is a heartfelt tribute to the men of 1914, who have, in the centenary coverage so far, been horribly overlooked.

Taff Gillingham has been studying British military history for more than 25 years. He was an adviser to Sainsbury’s in the making of their 2014 Christmas advert, which focuses on the 1914 Christmas truce.

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