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WWI Christmas Truce football match: Fact or fiction?

By James Masters, CNN
updated 3:23 PM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
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
  • English Premier League has embraced event with educational program

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(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.

The story of the impromptu football match during the 1914 Christmas Truce of the First World War has been well publicized. A number of organizations have used the tale for educational purposes but historians remain split on whether the event actually took place. The story of the impromptu football match during the 1914 Christmas Truce of the First World War has been well publicized. A number of organizations have used the tale for educational purposes but historians remain split on whether the event actually took place.
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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.

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

"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.

Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves -- there was no sort of ill-will between us
Ernie Williams

"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.

"I think we need to educate our future players and we can use football to educate younger players.

"We want to produce all-round people. It's not just about what you create on the pitch, it's about what you create off the pitch too. The modern player needs to be able to cope with both elements. "

Project

The Premier League has teamed up with the English Football Association, Football League and British Council to launch "Football Remembers", an education pack which was sent to 30,000 schools in the United Kingdom.

A number of initiatives have been launched which have seen children design memorials, write poems and help record a version of UK pop act, The Farm's "All Together Now" song, which has been released across the UK.

The project, which officially began earlier this month, will run until 2018 to mark the end of the Great War.

Teams from across the UK, both professional and amateur, uploaded pregame photos to social media with the hashtag #footballremembers in memory of those who fought and died in the War.

Richard Scudamore, the chief of executive of the Premier League, also unveiled a brand new football field for use in Ypres as a lasting memorial.

The 3G pitch, which is used by the residents of Ypres during the day and local Belgian club KVK Westhoek at night and weekends, can also be hired by Premier League clubs if they guarantee that they will provide an educational program while at the venue.

One man who was present at the Menin Gate ceremony was Max von Olenhusen, the great grandson of General Leo Götz von Olenhusen.

His great-grandfather was in charge of the German 40th Infantry Division, which held the line at Ypres on Christmas Day 1914.

He spoke with the children and said that the program could prove crucial to providing a real insight into what happened during some of Europe's darkest days.

The 'football match' has been falsely blown up, especially this year.
Shirley Seaton

"I think you can't start early enough, teaching children about the importance of friendship, fair play and making friends across different cultures and those are tremendous values to instil at a very early age," he said.

"If you can do that through a medium like football, which is so important and so central to these boys, I think that's really, really great. It's a great project.

"It's about the attitude. If they become professional footballers, you are trying to learn from role models and if you can learn about good role models in history I think that's a good thing.

"Also to have an outlook on life, that you say 'actually, I am living quite a privileged life at the moment, I live in a period of peace which has now lasted for more than 60 years, and for these guys it was probably just a day or two'.

"So to recognize your own position and say 'I am enjoying something which these guys had for only two days before they maybe died', that's an amazing educational experience."

Exaggeration

While there is no debate over the Premier League's commitment to education nor the way the truce has been portrayed by the organization, some historians believe the whole story has been grossly exaggerated.

Professor Thomas Weber, author of the book Hitler's First War and a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, says the truth lays somewhere in between.

"I think it is fair to say that the football matches that took place during Christmas 1914 have both at times been downplayed and at other times been blown out of all proportion," Weber told CNN.

"A number of independent reports and sources exist that report on football being played between German and British soldiers during Christmas 1914.

"I find it not credible to argue that they were all fabricated.

"After the war, with millions of soldiers killed, maimed, or missing, it just was not opportune to speak about wartime fraternization.

"There is ample of evidence that subsequent generations tried to write, not just Anglo-German football matches but any kind of friendly encounter of enemy combatants out of the story after the event.

"At the same time, people sometimes have also exaggerated the importance of soccer games in 1914, by sentimentalizing them and by presenting the Christmas Truce as a juncture where the war could still have been stopped."

Shirley Seaton, who co-authored the book "Christmas Truce" with her colleague Malcolm Brown, has also questioned the glorification of the so-called match.

In the book, she claims that the ground on Christmas Day was frozen, destroyed by shells and littered with dead bodies.

"The 'football match' has been falsely blown up, especially this year," Seaton told CNN.

While Seaton acknowledges that there have been accounts of such an event, particularly in the testimony provided by Williams, she remains skeptical, claiming the ground would have been strewn with dead bodies and shells, while the land was frozen because of the cold weather.

"The event of the truce and fraternization over so much of the British sector of the line is what was so remarkable -- not the very few 'kick abouts'," she added.

"Football was a popular sport at the time in Germany and Britain, and often played behind the lines when the men were at rest. The main activity during this 'truce' was the opportunity to bury the dead which had been lying between the lines as well as talking and exchanging gifts.

"It was also a chance to work above ground to dig trenches and build defenses, for both Germans and British."

On the small screen

The story has also been portrayed on television by Sainsbury's, one of the most prominent retailers in the UK.

Its television commercial which shows a version of the Christmas Truce attracted 727 complaints but the Advertising Standards Authority, the country's governing body for such matters, insisted there was no case to answer.

In a statement, the ASA commented: "We recognize that some have found the use of the First World War for advertising purposes to be distasteful, the ad is not likely to break the rules surrounding serious harm or offense.

"We also considered that the ad is obviously distinguishable from editorial content and therefore is not likely to mislead."

I find it not credible to argue that they were all fabricated.
Professor Thomas Weber

In a statement, Sainsbury's head of brand communications Mark Given, said the commercial had been widely lauded by viewers.

"We are very pleased that the ASA have decided that there are no grounds to investigate our Christmas advertisement," he told CNN in a statement.

"We've been delighted with the overwhelmingly positive response we've had from customers and colleagues to our portrayal of the 1914 Christmas Day Truce.

"We partnered with The Royal British Legion, in the 20th year of our relationship with them, to ensure we tell this story with authenticity and respect and to help raise awareness and additional funds for the important work they do."

Footballers' Battalion

While questions remain over the historical accuracy of the football match and the truce, there can be no doubt as to football's commitment to remembering the fallen.

The Premier League and FA have run numerous events, while individual clubs such as Leyton Orient, which played a huge role in the War under its former guise as Clapton Orient, have also marked the occasion with a number of ceremonies.

It was on December 15 1914 when the "Footballers' Battalion" was formed and several players signed up join the army and fight against the German forces.

Many were killed during fighting while those who returned such as Frank Buckley would go on to coach the English national side.

While football's contribution to the Great War is well documented, the story of the football match during the truce of 1914 is relatively new in a historical sense.

"The truce seems to have been popularized only since the 1960s," Chris Barker, author of The Battle for Flanders: German Defeat on the Lys 1918.

"No doubt the men who took part had it as a central part of their memory, but it really does not seem to have featured much from 1915 to the 1960s.

"It was an important event and of course it is a very positive image, but it was short, affected only a small fraction of the 400 miles of the Western Front and made no different to the way the war progressed."

While historians continue to debate over the actual validity of the legendary football match, there can be little doubt of the impact that the educational program and its impact has had on the children fortunate enough to visit Ypres.

Hundreds of youngsters have visited war sites and memorials, while the players they watch each and every week in the Premier League have also taken time to remember.

"If we can get young people to learn their history by using education and football then that will be fantastic," added Heather.

"We want those kids to look at the players from their own clubs who went out to fight in the First World War.

"We want them to know about those who died, those who lived and came back to pursue a career or those who chose another path.

"We want them to learn about this legacy."

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