Memory and History: Christmas Football in No Man’s Land

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by Tim Widowfield

We tend to forget that before the First World War broke out, pundits of all stripes debated as to whether workers in European nations would actually fight. That is, would they align themselves to their nations or to their class? In the end, the socialists decisively lost that argument, with the overwhelming majority of workers marching to the frontlines, dying in unheard-of numbers in a futile struggle.

Culture, language, religion, and the land itself bound workers to the nation-state, whether or not the existing governments protected their interests. The common bond of labor meant little in comparison to the granfalloon of the state.

Still, one can hardly blame the intelligentsia, the ruling classes, the capitalists, the bankers, and others for doubting whether the lower classes would fight. After all, the upper classes of Europe and America had enjoyed a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual understanding. The Tsar of Russia had much more in common — culturally, economically, and politically — with a factory owner in Paris than with some faceless peasant breaking his back in Ukraine.

One can easily understand the French workers’ response in 1914 since the very survival of France was at stake. But what of the British? Would they fight for “the integrity of Belgium”? In short order it became clear: They would fight and die in the trenches alongside the French.

From the start, the fighting was furious and deadly, with casualty rates unknown in previous wars, including the American Civil War, which had hinted at the coming horrors of mechanized, industrialized warfare. So when the nations in the Western Front agreed to a Christmas truce, the combatants on the ground appreciated the time figuratively to lick their wounds.

Neither side, apparently, had expected what happened next.

Tentatively at first, and then in large numbers, men from both sides of No Man’s Land ventured forward to meet, talk to one another, and trade items. According to some later reports, impromptu football (aka “soccer”) matches broke out.

If you’ve followed our posts on social memory, you may be wondering whether such games actually took place. After all, the ground in No Man’s Land was notoriously rough, pitted with shell craters, strewn with barbed wire, covered in mud. And we’ve seen many examples of comforting memories conjured up for various social reasons.

A few days ago, the website of the BBC History magazine reprinted a 2014 article called “Did the First World War Christmas truce football match really happen?” Despite what you may have heard or read, even at Snopes, the answer seems to be probably not, although some lads may have kicked a ball about for a few minutes. As co-author Mark Connelly put 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. (Mark Connelly)

Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the 1914 truce did happen and an extraordinary amount of fraternization took place on that Christmas Day. In later years, the high commands on both sides tried to make sure nothing like that happened again. But for one flickering moment, people discovered that their enemies weren’t as different or as evil as their leaders had said they were.

Co-author Taff Gillingham writes that various “kickabouts” probably did happen.

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]. . . .

. . . The kickabouts at Wulverghem and Frelinghien are the only two places where 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. (Taff Gillingham)

On this Christmas day, let’s remember that when we meet our fellow human beings face to face we often find we have more in common than we would suspect, and that those who seek to divide us and make us fight one another usually have their own interests at heart and not ours.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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2 thoughts on “Memory and History: Christmas Football in No Man’s Land”

  1. In later years, the high commands on both sides tried to make sure nothing like that happened again.

    This reminds me of specific points in two books I once read. From Gwynne Dyer:

    When U.S. Army Colonel S. L. A. Marshall finally took the trouble to inquire into what American infantrymen were actually doing on the battlefield in 1943—45, he found that on average only 15 percent of trained combat riflemen fired their weapons at all in battle. The rest did not flee, but they would not kill—even when their own position was under attack and their lives were in immediate danger.

    The thing is simply this, that out of an average one hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, only fifteen men on average would take any part with the weapons. This was true whether the action was spread over a day, or two days or three. … In the most aggressive infantry companies, under the most intense local pressure, the figure rarely rose above 25 percent of total strength from the opening to the close of an action.

    Col. S. L. A. Marshall

    Marshall conducted both individual interviews and group interviews with over four hundred infantry companies, both in Europe and in the Central Pacific, immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops, and the results were the same each time. They were, moreover, as astonishing to the company officers and the soldiers themselves as they were to Marshall; each man who hadn’t fired his rifle thought he had been alone in his defection from duty.

    Even more indicative of what was going on was the fact that almost all the crew-served weapons had been fired. Every man had been trained to kill and knew it was his duty to kill, and so long as he was in the presence of other soldiers who could see his actions, he went ahead and did it. But the great majority of the riflemen, each unobserved by the others in his individual foxhole, had chosen not to kill, even though it increased the likelihood of his own death.

    Gwynne Dyer. War (Kindle Locations 829-844). Random House of Canada. Kindle Edition.

    Surely it would have been impossible for soldiers in the days of mass formations and black-powder muskets to shirk their duty to fire, for they had to go through a complex sequence of actions to load their muskets, which produced a visible kick and a cloud of black-powder smoke when fired. Subsequent research, however, suggests that a very high proportion of soldiers did not fire even in these circumstances: of 27,574 abandoned muskets picked up after the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, over 90 percent were loaded, although the nineteen-to-one ratio between loading time and firing time would logically argue that only about 5 percent of the muskets should have been loaded and ready to fire when their owners dropped them. Indeed, almost half of them—twelve thousand—were loaded more than once, and six thousand of them had between three and ten rounds loaded in the barrel. The only rational conclusion is that huge numbers of soldiers at Gettysburg, both Union and Confederate, were refusing to fire their weapons even in stand-up, face-to-face combat at short range, and were presumably going through the act of loading and perhaps even mimicking the act of firing when somebody nearby actually did fire in order to hide their internal defection from the killing process. And very many of those who did fire were probably deliberately aiming high.6

    Gwynne Dyer. War (Kindle Locations 855-865). Random House of Canada. Kindle Edition.

    But for the infantry, the problem of persuading soldiers to kill is now recognized as a centrally important part of the training process. . . . . These days soldiers are taught, very specifically, to kill.

    Gwynne Dyer. War (Kindle Locations 894-901). Random House of Canada. Kindle Edition.

    The training works. “We are reluctant to admit that essentially war is the business of killing,” Marshall wrote in 1947, but it is readily enough admitted now. When Marshall was sent back to make the same kind of investigation during the Korean War in the early 1950s, he found that, with the new training, 50 percent of infantrymen were firing their weapons—and in some perimeter defence crises, almost everybody did.9 By the Vietnam War, with further modifications to the training, around 80 percent of American soldiers were shooting to kill.

    Gwynne Dyer. War (Kindle Locations 945-949). Random House of Canada. Kindle Edition.

    War: The Lethal Custom, by Gwynne Dyer

    (my bolding throughout)

  2. And from An Intimate History of Killing by Joanna Bourke:

    Much more serious was the realization that no matter how thorough the training, it still failed to enable most combatants to fight. No amount of military training could deal with volunteers, conscripts, and even Regular servicemen who simply lacked that elusive offensive spirit’. During the First World War, it was commonly believed that only 10 per cent of soldiers could be called brave, and many military commentators deplored the ‘live and let live’ principle in which servicemen on both sides came to agreements not to shoot if the other side restrained themselves too. ‘Live and let live’ relied upon approximate perceptions of the relative strength of each military unit and was therefore strongest when both sides were evenly matched. Refusing to ‘go over the top’ unless forced to do so at gunpoint, and malingering, were commonly observed.

    By the Second World War, concern about ‘passive combat personnel’ reached almost hysterical levels, largely due to widespread commentary and to shocking statistical information which made it very apparent that many ‘stable’ men (that is, men not at risk of breaking down under stress of combat) simply did not kill. It was relatively easy to cope with the rare recruit who unexpectedly showed himself to be a ‘belated conscientious objector’, refusing to go through with bayonet drill or a bombing run. ׳ Immeasurably worse – and infinitely more common — were soldiers who completed their training and went into battle, yet never fired their weapons. This lack of offensive spirit was frequently commented upon. The average Jack ’was quite amazingly lethargic’ noted one report in 1943. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert G. Cole (the man in charge of the 502nd Parachute Infantry which was considered to be one of the best units in the U.S. Army) was horrified to find that when his men were being attacked along the Carenton Causeway on 10 June 1944 it was impossible to make them fire back. ‘Not one man in twenty-five voluntarily used his weapon’, he lamented, despite the fact that they could not dig in or take cover so their only protection was to ensure that the enemy kept ‘his head down’. They ‘had been taught this principle in training. They all knew it very well’, Cole continued,

    but they could not force themselves to act upon it. When I ordered the men who were right around me to fire, they did so. But the moment I passed on, they quit. I walked up and down the line yelling ‘God damn it! Start shooting!’ But it did very little good. They fired only while I watched them or while some other soldier stood over them.

    (pp. 61-62)

    And from pp. 145-6,

    In 1944-5, a unique study in scope and range was carried out. Samuel A. Stouffer’s survey of American infantrymen was a detailed investigation of men’s experiences in wartime. At one point in the survey, he asked infantrymen: ‘When the going was tough, how much were you helped by thoughts of hatred of the enemy?’ Overall, approximately one-third admitted to being strongly impelled by hatred, although this proportion rose as high as 38 per cent amongst enlisted infantrymen in the Pacific and fell as low as 27 per cent of men in the Mediterranean and in Italian theatres of war. ‘When the going was tough’, hatred of the enemy was considerably less important than prayer and a desire not to let ones mates down. For instance, while 38 per cent of the enlisted men in the Pacific were helped by hatred of the Japanese, almost twice as many (61 per cent) kept going because they did not want to let their comrades down.

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