After the declaration of war against Germany in 1914, it only took a few weeks to realise that the battle would be long, hard and savage. The Great War is known today as one of the bloodiest in history.
Badly equipped men, both young and old, had been conscripted into the army and thrown into hastily-dug trenches in France. These trenches became freezing, mud-filled death traps, continuously raked with machine gun fire.
Human slaughter had reached new heights. Bloodshed, suffering and death were an everyday occurrence.
Out of this unimaginable carnage, on Christmas Day 1914, came an event so extraordinary that it defied the whole concept of war.
Soldiers in the trenches of Ypres and Salient who had spent days trying to kill each other downed weapons and put aside any hatred to join together in ‘No Man’s Land’ for a game of football.
Despite being on different sides, these men had a lot in common. No one really wanted to be there and a lot of the soldiers had no idea why they were trying to kill each other in the first place. What they did know was that they shared a cold, wet, terrifying existence and many of them would not survive the winter.
In some places, the trenches were less than 60 yards apart, and the soldiers could see that their enemies experienced the same appalling conditions as themselves. In the midst of the carnage, a sort of understanding had developed.
Every morning a board was put up above the trench line that indicated the hour for breakfast. All hostilities were halted for that hour so that men could get water to wash in, prepare breakfast and eat their meal without having to worry about being shot.
It was the Germans who made the first move towards a truce on Christmas Eve 1914. First the cold air was split with the sound of Christmas carols, followed by light-hearted jibes. Slowly, Christmas trees appeared above the German trenches and before long the British followed suit. The two sides started to talk to each other and a cautious level of trust was established.
The British and German soldiers returned to the trenches at the end of Christmas Eve after shaking hands and sharing tobacco. Informal ceasefires were arranged between the units. On Christmas Day itself, both sides put away their differences and celebrated in full. Food, gifts and tobacco were exchanged and several football matches were arranged.
Although these ‘matches’ were more or less a mass kick-about with over a hundred men on either side, there were no ill feelings among the players. The whole day passed in good spirit and gave both sides a glimpse of what it was like to be normal again – but only for a few hours. Boxing Day saw the hostilities recommence in earnest.
Unsurprisingly, the British and German commanders roundly condemned the truce, issuing orders for it not to be repeated: “Fraternization with the enemy has no place in the trenches.”
Of course, they were not with their men on the front line when they gave these orders; the generals issued their commands from the warmth, comfort and safety of the rear.