Written by Natasha Silk.
The Christmas Truce forms one of the central focal points for the modern memory and commemorations of the First World War. Terri Blom Crocker in her exploration of the subject, has suggested that behind this myth that all soldiers ceased hostilities in rebellion against war is actually a complicated story. She argues that through its mythology and position in modern memory it has become a reflection of modern anti-war sentiment. Within the cultural memory of this event, the idea that British and German soldiers played football up and down the frontline is the dominant narrative. As Stanley Weintraub explored in Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 (2001), there is evidence to suggest that there were a number of football matches in no man’s land between the British and the Germans, however, it was not widespread. Weintraub pointed to examples where the Germans refused to participate and the British played the matches alone. Yet, the idea that soldiers ceased hostilities and played football during the season of peace and goodwill to all men holds a certain charm for modern audiences. It allows for the myths and widespread interpretations which have existed since the war to endure. This being, that the soldiers of 1914 were just ordinary men fighting a war that they did not want, forced to fight by politicians who did not understand, or care, about the horrors of war.
However, it is important to consider that Christmas itself as a concept, both during and after the war, was a fixation for soldiers and civilians alike. Although the idea that everyone in Britain really believed the war would be over by Christmas 1914 was itself a myth, Christmas for every year that the war continued became the arbitrary end date that soldiers hoped for. This was driven by a desire to return home and spend the festive period with loved ones, especially as winter at the front was cold, wet and miserable for all. Whilst soldiers remained in the trenches however, it became a time of reflection and to take stock of those who had been with them the previous festive season who had been killed throughout the year. A number of Regiments produced special editions of their Trench Journals or published a one-off annual to mark the end of another year. The Trench Echo reported in its editorial of December 1917, ‘The terrible ghastliness of War strikes us with special force at a time when all our thoughts should be associated with friendlessness, kindliness and love for our fellow men… With pride we salute the memory of our heroic dead!’ This was a common theme throughout the war for many journals as they took time to reflect on the year which had passed. Moreover, it was an opportunity to juxtapose the continuing war with the Christian message of the festive season.
Some soldiers fondly recorded and recalled their fraternisation with the Germans, as it had given them hope that war would come to the end sooner rather than later. Conversely, others still looked upon their enemy with suspicion, refusing to partake in the festivities with those who had been trying to kill them the day before, and would again when the time came. For many, it was an opportunity to recover and bury the dead in no man’s land, exchange souvenirs and cigarettes before returning to their trenches ready to take up arms again. For others, it was an opportunity for a rest above ground where the enemy position could be reconnoitred and intelligence gathered ready to fight the war afresh. This idea of short, or in some cases extensive truces, was common throughout the war itself. As Tony Ashworth has explored fully in his book, Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System (1980), soldiers often entered into unofficial truces and promised not to kill each other. However, this very much depended on which part of the line a soldier was in and who the enemy was opposite. Therefore, the Christmas Truce of 1914 within the context of the conflict on the Western Front was unremarkable, nor was it entered into in the same spirit of goodwill by all.
Despite the evidence of the war suggesting that the Christmas Truce was not unique, nor was it widespread, it has retained its cultural pull for broader society as a beacon of hope to counteract the mud, death and futility on the Western Front. The English Football Association has ensured the continued connection of football to the Christmas of 1914 through their work during the Centenary, with commemorative matches and the installation of a memorial at Prowse Point in the old Ypres salient. However, the most significant manifestation of the Christmas Truce during the Centenary was the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert of 2014, which perfectly captured the cultural tropes which surround the Truce. The singing of Silent Night in both English and German, a spontaneous football match, the exchanging of gifts and enemies becoming friends only to be forced to fight again against their will are all present in the advert. Thus, demonstrating that the pull of the Christmas Truce for audiences with all the emotionally charged ideals of this moment of ‘pure peace’ within the violence remained significant one hundred years after the event. Furthermore, these two aspects alone have ensured that these cultural tropes have been cemented for another generation.
Overall, it is perhaps more important to consider why this myth endures and why it has become integral to the British memory of the war, rather than attempting to expose the fallacy behind it. The reasons lie in the integral aspects of the Truce which constitute the myth. This moment of the war has retained its cultural relevance because it occurred at a time of year that has been important to British people for centuries. Moreover, football also holds its own significant position for British society throughout the twentieth century as a central part of British identity. These two aspects, coupled with the popular tropes of the futility of war, have created a potent myth central to the publics’ understanding of the Great War.
Natasha Silk is a PhD Candidate at the University of Kent researching the First World War soldier’s experience of death and mourning on the Western Front.
Image Credit: The first world war Christmas truce – British and German soldiers at Ploegsteert in Belgium by Primera Guerra Mundial/Flickr, License: Public Domain.