WWI Christmas Truce football match: Fact or fiction?

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Story highlights

Christmas Truce football match is supposed to have taken place in 1914

British and German troops laid down weapons on Christmas Day

Historians have argued over whether match ever took place

CNN  — 

It’s a story which has captured the imagination of the English Premier League and persuaded one UK retailer to use it for its Christmas TV advert – but did rival armies really turn the World War I killing fields into a football field?

A century on from the first Christmas of the Great War, there has been a rush to commemorate one of the most iconic moments in British military history.

The story goes that on December 25 1914, both German and British forces laid down their weapons and took part in a game of football which was to be dubbed as “The Christmas Truce.”

It is a tale which has inspired the Premier League’s successful educational program as well as a Christmas television commercial for Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s largest supermarkets.

But while many have been quick to embrace one of the war’s most famous tales, some historians have begun to raise questions over whether the legendary football match even took place at all.

The clearest recollection of the famous match reported to have occurred came from Ernie Williams, a former soldier in the British Army.

He claimed that he had taken part in the match at Wulverghem, in Belgium, during a television interview which was recorded in 1983.

“The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side - it wasn’t from our side that the ball came,” he said.

“They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part.

“I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all.

“It was simply a melee - nothing like the soccer you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace - those great big boots we had on - and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.”

Mark Connelly, Professor of Modern British History at the Center for War, Propaganda and Society at the UK’s University of Kent believes the entire episode has been romanticized in the intervening years.

The notion of two sets of soldiers simply laying down their arms and waltzing out of the trenches ready to play an organized game of football is not one he subscribes to.

In fact he says “there is no absolute hard, verifiable evidence of a match” taking place and says the event has been glorified beyond recognition.

“I think it highly likely that someone, somewhere did bring out a ball and a bit of a kick about took place, but that is a long, long way from saying it definitely happened and that it was anything like a formal match rather than just men tapping a ball about a bit,” Connelly told CNN.

“There is a huge difference between a truce and fraternization and we have tended to put the two together.

“Truces are very common in war and often involve both sides ignoring each other in order to carry out common tasks – often burial of dead and retrieval of wounded.

“At Christmas 1914 where the truce occurred most men took part in it in this tacit manner rather than actively fraternized, which is clearly much more ‘romantic’ and appealing.

“It also made not the slightest bit of difference to the wider mindset of the armies - it was clearly temporary and hostilities would obviously resuming.”

Education

The role of the football match has been thrust into the public consciousness this year by both the English Football Association and the Premier League, who have produced educational programs for children and held a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary.

The Premier League set up its Christmas Truce Tournament in 2011 and has held it each year since in Ypres, Belgium.

The latest edition was held earlier this month with teams from across Europe coming together to compete at the tournament for boys aged 12 and under.

All 20 Premier League teams from England were represented and were joined by clubs from Belgium, Germany, Scotland, France and Austria.

The two-day competition, which was won by Chelsea, ran alongside an extensive educational program created especially for the occasion.

The participants visited one of the sites which is alleged to have hosted a football match during Christmas 1914, while they also visited war graves and memorials while learning what life was like in the trenches.

They also laid wreaths at the Menin Gate, the memorial dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during battle.

“I think it’s really important that young people learn their history and lesson that can be learned from events such as the war,” Martin Heather, head of education at the Premier League told CNN.

“Being able to use the Christmas truce element of the First World War is really important. It gives some really key messages around reconciliation, friendship and respect.

“It’s not about glorifying the horrors of war, far from it. It’s about fantastic acts of humanity amongst such horror.

“This is the fourth year we’ve held the tournament and each year they clubs and players become more and more engaged. It has been incredible to see how much these kids engage.