The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment on 25th December 1914
In November 2014 whilst planning a battlefield tour for Adaptable Travel, I was provided with very strong evidence of a site where we can now state that football was played on Christmas Day of 1914.
The party line laid down by the Norfolk Regimental history has this to say about the Christmas Truce of 1914.
‘On Christmas Day occurred the famous meeting with the Germans in ‘No-Man’s Land’ which drew down the wrath of G.H.Q. and a demand for names of officers, who, it was held, should have prevented it. The matter was eventually dropped, and no harm was, as a matter of fact, done, seeing that our men managed to have a good look at the German defences, and took good care that the fraternization did not spread over to their own trenches.’
It is little wonder when you look at that narrative that the reports of the Germans meeting the Norfolks was reported in a very official way by officers who reported back to G.H.Q.
But over a Twitter discussion about the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment and their involvement in the Truce it became very apparent that this battalion did play football in no-man’s land between the lines just to the north of the Wulverghem-Messines road.
Taff Gillingham, who is a co-founder of the Khaki Chums, sent me a load of information that he was given by Dick Rayner who is a highly respected local historian on the Norfolk Regiment. Within that information was a newspaper cutting detailing the experiences of a soldier called Albert Wyatt, who came from Thetford, and who was in the trenches with the 1/Norfolks on 25th December.
Albert recounts that they went into the line on 24th December with no firing and began to hear Christmas hymns being sung which came from the German lines and that eventually they joined in with the singing. On Christmas morning with thick fog and frost on the ground the Germans called over to them to come over and that wouldn’t fire and that eventually both sides met up and ended up wishing each other Merry Christmas.
To Wyatt’s surprise he noted that they had been facing men old enough to be their fathers. He ended the account by stating,
‘We finished up in the same old way, kicking footballs about between the firing lines. So football in the firing line between the British and Germans is the truth as I was one that played.’
And we also have an account in an interview at the end of December 1914 with Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment who states,
‘On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.’
(Evening Mail, Newcastle, December 31st, 1914)
What is significant about this is that Wyatt and Naden would have been serving with each other in the same place because the 1/6th Cheshires were attached to the 1/Norfolks to be trained in trench warfare. Naden’s accounts also backs up a lot of what Albert Wyatt stated and to me confirms this aspect of what occurred as being accurate.
So based on that evidence on a battlefield tour with Hereford Cathedral School in November 2014, and with the use of a German map supplied by the German historian Rob Schäfer, I was able to show the staff and pupils where we can now confirm that football was actually played between both sides on Christmas Day.
I have since been told that I am the first battlefield guide to take an organised tour to the site to show the group where this famous event happened.
I have since taken other groups to this site and the latest was in October 2015. I took the group to the horrendous monument at Plugstreet Wood, which has since been given the nickname ‘The Rusty Bollard’ and explained the myths to the group. We then went to see Robert Barnett. And I would perhaps ask that if you do go to this sector then please miss out the Rusty Bollard and just visit Bairnsfather’s info board which is just up from there and also look at Taff’s cross. That, at the very least, will put you where the actual front was as opposed to the fake trenches that are now sat by the football memorial. Then walk into the wood and visit Robert because very few visitors to this area do.
I am sure the debate on all of this will rage on but ultimately as a battlefield guide I must try to ensure that what I am showing my groups is as accurate as possible so I have every intention of ensuring that this story is told at a site where we can actually state it happened.
I will finish by stating that I have been told that there is a postcard mentioning football being played by the Warwicks on Christmas Day of 1914. But this postcard has not actually been seen by the person who has made mention of this. If that confirms football being played by the Germans and English then so be it. But the main thing there will be when the postcard was written and what it states. Because football was as it stands at the moment was only played between the Warwickshires themselves but not against the Germans as is banded around by others and as is signified with the memorial at Ploegsteert. And I have recently been contacted by someone who has a letter from someone who served in the Warwickshires who was there for the Truce and notes that the letter was written soon afterwards and they state,
‘There is no mention of any football at Plugstreet, just trading souvenirs, smokes and drink.’
As I said in August this year when I looked at the myth surrounding the 5th Norfolks at Gallipoli on 12th August 1915 where I quoted a historian,
‘Let’s get this right for history’s sake.’
To get to the site take the N314 from Messines heading towards Wulverghem. Approximately 1.5 kilometres on you can turn right onto Kortestraat and you are now positioned in no-man’s land between the British and German lines of December 1916.
Thanks once again to Taff Gillingham who provided me with a lot of information and support last year when this all came out.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my followers.