Welcome to a special Xmas edition of my Guest Feature where I’m gladly joined by Battlefield Guide, Author & Santa lookalike, Steve Smith, who’s here to dispel the myths & tell the real truths about the Christmas Truce of 1914. Anyone for a game of Footie?
I’ve been a battlefield guide since 2004, having left the RAF in 2003, where I served for 18 years as an RAF Police NCO at various bases in the UK and abroad and completed tours in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and in Macedonia on a NATO Peace Keeping mission. At present I assist students in attaining diplomas at various levels of education.
I’ve had an interest in military history since the age of 13 when I was introduced to my Great Grandfather Private G/5203 Frank Smith who served in the 7th and 8th Buffs in the Great War, was killed in the last year of the war and who is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial on the Somme. Since then I have traced his war from 1915 to 1918 and I now assist others in doing the same thing. It is both a passion and a calling to me.
I’m also lucky enough to conduct battlefield tours with school groups and I also specialise in taking adult groups across as well. One of my main areas of focus is taking families on small bespoke battlefield pilgrimages to locate where their family members served. It is something I love to do.
I’m an author having had two books on Norfolk in WW1 and WW2 published in 2012 and 2014 and one of my other passions is learning about Norfolk in both wars where living in the county provides me with access to these subjects. My next book will look at the Norfolk Regiment on the Western Front and will be published by Fonthill Media in 2021. Part of that will look at the Regiment’s participation in the Christmas Truce, where I separate the truth from myth surrounding the stories of football played during that time. Some of this blog comes from that research.
It’s December 2020 and here we are again…
Social Media is already beginning to fill up with duff history images of supposed evidence of football games played on Christmas Day 1914 and the usual suspect photos of Fritz and Tommy lighting up a smoke are doing the rounds.
From 2014 to the present I have made it a personal crusade to try and disprove these attempts of telling a story about the Truce that just did not happen in any massed way. I am not the only one who does this and people like Taff Gillingham and Simon Jones are also great crusaders in trying to put people on the right lines.
First of all, please don’t think that I’m challenging that it never happened, I’m not, I’m just challenging aspects of it.
British and German troops did come out of their trenches and meet in no-man’s land. This is fact and there are numerous accounts from the time that confirm this. One of the main reasons they did it was to bury the dead that had lain out in no-man’s land, especially when the British had launched a very localised attack around Ploegsteert on 18th December which had failed with heavy casualties. They also did it in order to repair their trenches due to the terrible weather they had experienced prior to Christmas Day. These reasons ended up with both sides fraternising and exchanging gifts.
There were also spontaneous meetings such as the one that happened between the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment and the Germans off the Messines-Wulverghem road. This is the report made by Lieutenant George Philip Burlton,
“On December 25th I was in command of the right-hand fire trench of the Norfolk Regiment’s position. During the morning I noticed groups of the enemy and British Troops belonging to units if the 4th Division meeting half way between their trenches. At about 1 p.m., one of the enemy left the trench opposite our own and came unarmed toward us. I sent a Corporal to meet him half way. After a time more Germans crossed towards us and I allowed an equal number of my men to meet them. Seeing a German officer also out in the open I went to meet him myself. At about 2.30 p.m. all our men under my command were back in the trench.“
But what is not as easy to confirm is the notion that both sides played football against each other. Certainly, many of the veterans who were there that day refute this and there are few primary sources that mention this occurring.
But we do have accounts from German soldiers, written soon after the truce, to state that they played against their British opponents. Johannes Niemann served in IR133 and he recounted his experiences whilst serving in trenches on a frozen meadow at Frelinghien.
“… Then a Scot produced a football … a regular game of football began, with caps laid on the ground as goalposts. The frozen meadow was ideal [to play on]. One of us had a camera with us. Quickly the two sides gathered together in a group, all neatly lined up with the football in the middle … The game ended 3:2 to Fritz.“
This comes from the History of the Saxon IR 133: Das 9. Koeniglich Saechsische Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 133 im Weltkrieg 1914-18 at p 32
The second account comes from a letter discovered more recently where another soldier from IR133 wrote to his Mother and mentioned, “playing ball with the English“ so this helps to confirm the account by Johannes Niemann and the position mentioned by Niemann correlates to his regiment playing against the 2nd Battalion Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.
However, we do not have anything concrete from the 2/A&SH to confirm they played against the Germans and that is perhaps not enough to confirm football being played but there is more!
With that mentioned, it has not been helped because we also have accounts from veterans recorded later on, such as that made by Ernie Williams in 1983, who had served with the 1/6 Cheshire Regiment, where he states,
“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. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kick about. 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.“
This is now widely considered by experts to be a fabrication of the truth where Ernie Williams was almost prompted into saying what he felt the interviewer, Malcolm Brown, wanted to hear. It is reputed that Malcolm Brown himself did not believe Ernie’s tale. And certainly, when he is trying to intimate that football was played by 100s of soldiers on both sides, surely if that were so there would have been more accounts about that from the time? So sadly, there is the misconception that this event occurred all over the line.
But, with that said, Albert Wyatt’s account comes soon after the Truce occurred and he recounts that they went into the line on 24th December with no firing and began to hear Christmas hymns being sung which came from the German lines and that eventually they joined in with the singing. On Christmas morning with thick fog and frost on the ground the Germans called over to them to come over and that wouldn’t fire and that eventually both sides met up and ended up wishing each other Merry Christmas. To Wyatt’s surprise he noted that they had been facing men old enough to be their fathers. He ended the account by stating,
“We finished up in the same old way, kicking footballs about between the firing lines. So, football in the firing line between the British and Germans is the truth as I was one that played.“
In order for this to be corroborated, in my mind, you have to have at least one other account to back it up. And luckily, we do. In an interview at the end of December 1914 with Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment noted,
“On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff.
The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.“
This came from the Evening Mail in Newcastle on 31st December 1914. So again, soon after the event.
What is significant about this is that Wyatt and Naden would have been serving with the in the same place because the 1/6th Cheshires were attached to the 1/Norfolks to be trained in trench warfare. Naden’s accounts also backs up a lot of what Albert Wyatt stated and to me confirms this aspect of what occurred as being accurate and it has become very apparent that this battalion did play football in no-man’s land between the lines just to the north of the Wulverghem-Messines road.
But there is one huge myth that still needs to be addressed whenever it rears its ugly head.
Bruce Bairnsfather was serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment and provided a detailed account in ‘Bullets & Billets’ which gives a very clear account of what happened at St Yvon on and around Christmas 1914.
“On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist…. Walking about the trench a little later… we suddenly became aware of the fact we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced…. A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself….
This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man’s land. I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.“
Note there is no mention of football and this is backed up by all the other accounts recorded from the Royal Warwickshires, men like Captain Robert Hamilton who noted that ‘A’ Company of the 1/R.Warwicks would have played the Saxons but were relieved, or CSM Beck who noted in his diary that the Germans shouted across a challenge to play football on Christmas Eve, but he doesn’t mention football again.
We know that ‘C’ Company of 1/R.Warwicks played a game among themselves before going to meet the Germans. This is almost certainly the game mentioned by Lt Kurt Zehmisch of IR134 whose diary actually says,
“The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.“
And sadly, that one observation is where others keep on pushing that football was played at St Yvon between British and German soldiers.
But as Taff Gillingham notes,
“On 20th March 2002 I was very fortunate to be able to meet with Rudolf Zehmisch and Barbara Littlejohn, the daughter of Bruce Bairnsfather, and show them the spot where their Fathers spent Christmas Day. The two men may have met but there is no evidence for that. However, both Rudolf and Barbie were very clear on one thing – that there was no football between 1/R Warwicks and IR134 at Plugstreet. Rudolf made it very clear that his Father’s diary refers to British soldiers playing a game amongst themselves. At no point does he refer to a game between the Warwicks and his own men. The German military historian Rob Schaefer agrees with Rudolf. The passage from Zehmisch’s diary has been continually misquoted (as at the National Memorial Arboretum’s new football memorial) to twist his words into saying something he did not write. Barbie was equally adamant. As she pointed out, had there been any football there her Father would have mentioned it in his book and almost certainly drawn a cartoon of it as, in her words, “My Father loved the absurd things in life”. Both were at St Yvon to be filmed for a documentary I was working on that was shown on Channel 5. As both were adamant that there was no football there, neither mentioned it in their interviews.“
For me, there is one word that is used in another account and that’s the word ‘proposed’. Henry Williamson wrote about the Christmas Truce several times. He mentions football once in a fictional novel, ‘A Fox Under My Cloak’, published in 1955.
“…a football was kicked into the air, and several men ran after it. The upshot was a match proposed between the two armies, to be held in a field between the German lines.“
As we have seen all efforts to play football between the two sides at St Yvon were suggested or proposed but never actually happened. And yet all of these accounts have been leapt upon by others to prove that football was played at St Yvon. So much so that UEFA placed a memorial to this fictitious act at Prowse Point in 2014.
This memorial was put there against the advice of an expert and has now become a tacky shrine for people to lay footballs and team scarves at a site where no football was actually played and it has been given the nickname of the ‘Rusty Bollard’.
So, what we now have to do is challenge these duff history memorials and accounts about football and if this is mentioned then it goes to the accounts where we know it was played.
I have written about it purely because we must try to get this out to a wider audience. That, to me, is now predominantly football fans and teachers. The reason I say those two is because they seem to be the largest groups who still post up images of where they have either taught their class unwittingly duff history, or where a football fan or group post up the infamous picture of soldiers playing football in Salonika in 1915, or they post up a picture of the Rusty Bollard at Prowse Point as they proudly wrap a scarf around it or place a football in the tray below it.
This has to stop because as Taff Gillingham noted last year,
“This year, football has totally hijacked the true story of the Truce and the men who took part. In 1914, of the 30,000+ men who may have taken part in the Truce, maybe 20-30 may have had a kickabout with the Germans. After this December, the 1914 Truce will never be remembered for anything other than football, all the true stories will be totally wiped out and the participant’s real history robbed forever. That is utterly disgraceful.“
I am sure the debate on all of this will rage on but ultimately as a battlefield guide and author I must try to ensure that what I am writing about this accurately and showing my groups what is the truth and myth about football and the Christmas Truce. So, I have every intention of doing that as much as I can.
Editor: Well wasn’t that a superb piece, so what some of you may have thought was true isn’t but as Steve has said some aspects did indeed occur and other bits have become twisted or embellished over the years
Thanks again to Steve for taking the time to share his work & for agreeing to take part in this blog. If you want to know more this blog links in nicely with daily posts that Steve has been doing on his twitter feed. Please do follow him @stevesmith1944
I’ll be taking a slight break over the festive period so until we meet in 2021, A very Merry Christmas to you all & your loved ones