Bully Beef and Bratwurst: The Christmas Truce
The Christmas Truce, or in German Der Weihnachtsfrieden, is inexplicably tied to football, despite questionable evidence of the match taking place. Matt Hull investigates the truce and its broader significance.
Despite the recent ignorant screechings of blockheaded players and the ramblings of a certain spittle lipped official, one of football’s greatest qualities is its power to unite. This has proved particularly true in respect to wartime enemies. In the wake of the invasion of Iraq images of soldiers kicking balls about with ragged looking kids in the ruins of recently liberated towns were abundant; a heartwarming antidote to the pictures of charred buildings and bodies. Helping to win hearts, minds and feet.
There is one particular piece of peacemaking football, which holds a special place in the popular imagination though. In Christmas 1914, less than six months after the beginning of the First World War, a brief un-officiated truce was held between the groups of soldiers from both sides of the trenches. Carols were sung; hands were shaken; tins of bully beef were exchanged for parcels of bratwurst. It has also been widely asserted that, at various points along the lines, both sides took part in games of football. Numerous letters sent back from British units mention matches between soldiers while some correspondence recorded a 3 – 2 victory to the German side, perhaps an ominous portent of painful fixtures to come.
In an interview nearly seventy years later, Ernie Williams, veteran of the 6th Cheshire Territorials, recalled the atmosphere at one of the impromptu matches, “Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill will between us. There was no referee. No tally. No score.” A friendly kick about like the schoolyard games that many would have been playing only a few years before. And perhaps there was no collective will for the implementation of rules; maybe they felt too much like orders. No stomach, any longer, for matters of yards and numbers. At our historical remove it’s tempting to read broader significance into Ernie’s account.
There is, though, some dissenting opinion on the matter of the Christmas Truce matches. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of censorship during the period, there is a lack of documentary evidence of the games actually happening. Historians, including the influential revisionist Modris Eckstein, declared the idea of the matches by turns politically naive and, with no-man’s land churned by artillery fire and thick with barbwire and barricades, physically impractical.
Christmas spirit and football fandom, though, is an intoxicating combination. Like all great legends the Christmas Truce football matches refuse to be shackled to verifiable proof, it is instead rooted in a deeper truth of the power of play to heal even the widest and bitterest of rifts. The Premier League last year announced a new under-12s football competition, its name: the Christmas Truce Tournament. The matches are to be dedicated to the memory of all who fell in the Great War and played in Ypres, just minutes from where the bombs, and perhaps for a few precious minutes on one cold December 25th, the balls flew.
Words by Matt Hull
Illustration by Will Daw