100 Years Ago, Football Brings Respite from the Killing on the Western Front

In 1883, Hiram Maxim invented the world’s first recoil-operated machine gun, which could fire 500 rounds per minute when properly cooled. Maxim slapped his moniker on his invention and promptly went into advertising. The British fell in love with the 60-pound mounted machine gun and its 250-round canvas belt. So inspired, English poet Hilaire Belloc wrote the military taunt, “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.”

Such optimism would not last. Maxim was redesigned as the Central Powers Vickers gun and the Axis Maschinengewehr 08 gun for World War One. Across the rusted barbed wire and pocked no-man’s-land of the Western Front, men would trade lives for bullets delivered from Maxim, Vickers and Maschinengewehr.

The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 triggered a domino effect of international military alliances. Germany soon trampled through Belgium, Luxembourg and half of France before halted outside of Paris at the Battle of the Marne. By November, a winding line from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier separated the two contenders: France on the west, Switzerland on the east. Stalemated, both sides dug in.

World War One was about mud as much as blood. Men lived in waterlogged trenches filled with spent shells, protected by flaking barbed wire and shellproof dugouts. Some would drown in the quagmire of mud, urine and blood coagulating in the deep craters left by mortar shells and aircraft bombs. Men died from concussion, from gangrene, dysentery, fungus, parasites, and most of all from “going over the top:” do-or-die scurries through no-man’s-land, that featureless limbo bombarded by artillery fire and peppered with the swollen limbs of the dead.  Ironically, four years prior to the German Army crossing the Belgian border, a very popular book by author Norman Angell, “The Great Illusion,” was published and translated into eleven languages.  It’s thesis was that future war would be so full of commercial disaster, financial ruin and individual suffering, that no nation could conceive of initiating aggressive actions.  Instead, submarine and chemical warfare, along with aerial bombardments were introduced in the useless conflict that killed millions upon millions from all over the world, soldiers, sailors and civilians alike, and set the stage for another worldwide conflict only two decades later.

Men of power tried to end the carnage. Erich von Falkenhayn, German Chief of General Staff, called for a diplomatic solution on November 18, 1914. Rejected. Pope Benedict XV asked for an official Christmas truce, “That the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” Rejected.

But hell would have its respite. A gift, a song and a football would accomplish what the powers-that-be could not.

On Christmas Eve, 1914 ‒ exactly 100 years ago this Christmas ‒  a handful of German soldiers delivered a chocolate cake to the British line in exchange for a cease-fire so they could host a Christmas concert. The British agreed. Before long, troops from both sides met between the trenches. English soldier Frank Richards wrote in his eyewitness account, “One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn’t the only one.”

Soldiers swapped buttons, sang psalms, exchanged cigarettes and even booted about soggy leather footballs. In a letter to home, Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’ s 134th Saxons Infantry wrote, “Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was.”

Some of these stories were dismissed as latrine rumors, yet most historians estimate that up to 100,000 men took part in these cautious celebrations under the wing of St. Nicholas.

After discovering the fraternization, officers on both sides quashed the activities. For the remainder of the war, there would be no more large-scale Christmas truces.

But the event would not be consigned to a historical footnote. In November 2005, French film director Christian Carion released the historical fiction, Joyeux Noël, based on the tale of the Christmas truce, which was then nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards (the film is now viewable on DTV or through Amazon Prime). In 2012, Silent Night, an opera reimagining the film, received the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Perhaps most apropos is the Premier League Christmas Truce Tournament, an annual football competition begun in 2011 for youth players from Germany, Belgium, France and England. The year 2014 will mark the fourth year of the tournament and the centennial of the Christmas Truce, that brief escape into Eden, when the staccato shouts of Maxim were silenced by baritone carols echoing in the muddy tunnels and, of course, a shared reverence and enjoyment of the game of football.

(Note: the header image is a still taken from the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel.)

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