A Christmas Tall Tale?

Dispelling More Myths

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The romanticised image of the Christmas Truce of 1914. The reality of what actually happened does not mirror this. Football was not played enmasse by British and German troops during the Christmas Truce of 1914. (Note this picture comes from 2014 and was published in the Independent).

The famous wartime cartoonist, Bruce Bairnsfather, recounted an episode that has been lept on by others and it became one of the focal points for many of the Centenary events in held in 2014. This included the abomination that is now the football memorial that stands close to St Yvon and on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood, known as Plugstreet Wood to the British soldiers who served there.

He stated,

‘Around noon, a football match was suggested. Someone had evidently received a deflated football as a Christmas present.’

This mention of football came 40 years after the event when he was interviewed in 1954 for a television piece.

And, according to Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, two English soldiers brought a football to the German trenches.

The first account is false and the writings of Lt Zehmisch have been misinterpeted. I will come onto those later.

Also in an online article in the Telegraph dated 11th December 2014 the title stated,

‘Belgian monument unveiled to mark “humanity” of British and German soldiers who put down their arms and left their trenches to play football during an unofficial truce on Christmas Day 1914’

These headlines and articles were printed all over the world and there is that romanitised notion that men got out of their trenches and all played a jolly old game of football in no-man’s land when the guns fell silent.

Except that football between the British and Germans never took place at St Yvon and so the memorial to it is citing a piece of history that did not happen there.

The Christmas Truce that occurred on 25th December 1914 is fact and there are numerous accounts from the time that confirm this. 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.

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Bruce Bairnsfather who created ‘Fragments from France’ and who was serving at St Yvon with the 1/R.Warwicks when the Christmas Truce of 1914 occurred.

Sadly this 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 accounts from the time? So sadly there is the misconception that all over the line this occurred.

The accounts and reports about football have to be carefully studied because virtually all of them are false mainly because they came out a good while after the event, e.g. in 1916 or even later on as with the case of Ernie Williams. Or they come from men serving in regiments that if you actually looked at where they were they were not in the same place or can be discounted because of what others said at the time. This is what Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton had to say about it in their excellent book Christmas Truce which was first published in 1984 when we still had veterans who had witnessed the Truce to speak to. I would urge anyone who is interested in reading more about the truth behind the Christmas Truce to read this boo.

‘To many people it has come to be accepted that the central feature of the Christmas Truce was a game, or possibly games, of football in which British and Germans took part. Indeed, to some, the whole event is not so much ‘the truce’ as ‘the football match’. It is, of course, an attractive idea, carrying as it does not only the heart warming thought of enemies at friendly play, but also the appealing if politically niave implication that nations would be far better employed in settling their differences in the fields of sport rather than on the field of war. Yet there are those, including some veterans of 1914, who doubt if any football match took place at all.’

And this is why we have to state that Bairnsfather’s mentioning of football in the TV interview is not true. This came way after the event took place!

There is no doubt Bairnsfather and Zehmisch were serving at St Yvon when the Christmas Truce happened.

In ‘Bullets & Billets’ Bairnsfather gives a very clear account of what happened at St Yvon on Christmas Day 1914 and it does is help to corroborate what others said who were serving with the 1/R.Warwicks at the time.

Captain Robert Hamilton noted that A Company of 1/R.Warwicks would have played the Saxons but were relieved. CSM 6229 George Beck wrote in his diary that the Germans shouted across a challenge to play football on Christmas Eve, but then there is no mention of a game being played. What we can also confirm is that C Company of 1/R.Warwicks played a game among themselves.

This is now generally agreed that this is the the game mentioned by Lt Zehmisch of IR134 whose account from his diary actually says,

‘The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.’

That statement even now could be interpreted as confirming football was played between both sides.

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The hideous memorial to football on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood. Except football between the British and Germans did not happen there! (Image Centenary News)

However, the reality is that Taff Gillingham of Khaki Chums fame met the son of Rudolf Zehmisch and Barbara Littlejohn, the daughter of Bruce Bairnsfather, in March 2002. This is what he had to say about what they said about this incident.

‘…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 Shaefer agrees with Rudolf.’

In relation to Bruce Bairnsfather he went on to say,

‘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.’

 

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The sketch that Bruce Bairnfather drew on Christmas Day where he snipped buttons off a German.

And this is my final argument with regards to Bruce Bairnsfather. He details everything about the day in ‘Bullets and Bayonets’ and the main theme he concentrates on when he sees the Germans in no-man’s land is this meeting.

‘I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. We both then said things to each other which neither understood, and agreed to do a swap. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange.’

The reality is that, of the thousands of men who may have taken part in the Truce, only around 20-30 men may have played football with the Germans.

But we do have accounts from German soldiers, written soon after the truce, to state that they played against their British opponents. But it is one specific incident that only occurred in one specific part of the Western Front.

Two German soldiers, one called Johannes Niemann, both served in IR133 and Niemann recounts 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’.

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 the second 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 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. However, we do not have anything concrete from the 2/A&SH to confirm they played against the Germans.

Now that is perhaps enough to confirm football being played on Christmas Day but there only one is more story that can be corroborated from the 1000s of then out there that cannot and we will look at that on Christmas Eve because it involves the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment.

 

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3 thoughts on “A Christmas Tall Tale?

  1. Great post Steve,

    Any chance of a petition to get that mess removed ? I believe you did say its there to benefit the tourist trade, rather sick when you think of all the lives lost in that area .

    Personally I did not like the mess. Preferred it how it was the first time we visited.

    Have a good Christmas with your family. My son Jason will be home after Christmas so we will have to have a few drinks than.

    He was hoping to come next year on a trip but it seems he will now be at the Army Staff College

    All the best

    Tony

    Tell Claire I don’t do a good selfie as the photo shows.

  2. Great story and entirely accurate. I have a letter from Guy Cave (my wife’s Gt uncle), who was there serving with 1st Warwickshire and a contemporary of Bruce Bainsfather. There is no mention of any football at Plugstreete, just trading souvenirs, smokes and drink. I can send you a copy if you reply with your email address.

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