The story of a soccer ceasefire in the First World War

The real story behind the fabled Christmas Day football match in the First World War


Pehr Thermaenius

The localized truces, perhaps 100 in all, that marked the first Christmas of the Great War in 1914, are the stuff of both hopeful myth and plain fact. Dozens of soldiers on both sides wrote home about the joy, the strangeness—a British officer recalled “one of my machine gunners, a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche”—and the ultimate sadness of the respite. But the Christmas football games have been disputed for decades. Given the shell-pocked state of the ground between the Western Front’s opposing trenches, many historians think, at best, a few soldiers might have kicked around a bully-beef tin, before going back to trading alcohol and tobacco.

Thermaenius, a Swedish journalist and First World War aficionado, is having none of the debunking. He focuses on one of the likely spots—the French village of Houplines, where the 2nd battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders faced the German army’s 9th Saxon regiment. Crucially, Thermaenius notes, aerial photographs of the time show that No Man’s Land was relatively undamaged. As for the presence of an actual football—something numerous historians think unlikely—the author points out the presence of professional players in the opposing forces, and the way British officers complained about their soldiers playing too much soccer behind the lines.

Reports of a Scotland-Saxony international comes from two German sources and one British, all of whom record a schoolboy-style match with caps marking the goals (“Tommie did the same,” recorded one German) and an uneven number of players. The Saxons won, at least according to them, 3-2. (Probably true, since the Scot didn’t report the score.) The accounts won’t add up to enough for doubters, but they are sufficient for Thermaenius, who is primarily interested in a heart-warming story and in what might have happened if the soldiers had continued to refuse to shoot one another.

In his most interesting section, Thermaenius records his discussions with various peace mediators, some of whom say ceasefires arranged around common religious holidays have the best chance of holding. Skilled negotiators could have worked with what they had at Christmas 1914, the author judges, and the truce could have come to more “than exchanging Christmas presents and playing football.” But, of course, it did not. Alarmed higher authorities in both armies clamped down on the fraternization and, as one Black Watch veteran recalled of the truce in his sector, “the silence [of the guns] ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again.”