Sainsbury’s Christmas Truce Ad – What Really Happened?

December 10, 2014

Written by Steve Smith, Adaptable Travel Battlefield School Trip Guide and Author.

There has recently been much debate about the Christmas Truce that occurred on 25th December 1914. This is where British and German troops came out of their trenches and met in no-man’s land. This 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.
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.

But we do have accounts from German soldiers, written soon after the truce, to state that they played against their British opponents. 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 Argyle 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 not enough to confirm football being played but there is more!

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. Over a discussion about the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment and their involvement in the Truce it has become 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 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 the in the same place at Wulverghem 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, 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 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 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.

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.

All groups travelling on an Adaptable Travel school trip to the WW1 Battleifleds will be given the opportunity to visit this site, which will be accompanied by information in the Project Battlefields resources.