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The Christmas Truce

The story of the Christmas Truce is one that resonates with everyone because it reminds us all that even in the face of unimaginable atrocities we are still human.

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When Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand dead in June of 1914 igniting World War I, the English Football Association had been around for a mere 51 years. Soccer wasn’t the world’s game at that point - FIFA was merely ten years old, and the game hadn’t spread much beyond the British Isles. The Danes played and organized as did the Italians, although Serie A wouldn’t be created until 1929. The Germans played too, although the Bundesliga wouldn’t come along until 1963. Soccer was very young and still very innocent.

The combatants in the Great War wasted no time in getting down to the dirty business of killing one another. By August, the Western Front was established in Belgium and Flanders Fields were getting their first showers of blood. The trenches were dug, and the new industrialized style of assembly-line murder was going full steam. Places like Ypres and the Marne were earning their places in the history books as the sides became more and more efficient at raining death upon each other.

As the winter approached one hundred years ago this year, the body count climbed higher and higher as the temperatures fell lower and lower. A wet December turned snowy just before Christmas of 1914. The conditions were absolutely inhumane. On Christmas Eve, the Germans began celebrating the traditional Fröhliche Weihnachten by singing carols and setting up lit trees above the trenches. Shouting across the lines (which was rather commonplace) became more friendly, and soldiers bravely started going into no-man’s land to exchange small gifts of cigarettes and cheese. The fighting and killing had stopped.

According to a website dedicated to the Christmas Truce, the English and German soldiers on the Western Front in the small Belgian town of Wulverghem (just north of the Flanders-Wallonia border) exchanged gifts, fraternized, and even managed to get in a game of soccer.

In 1983 a former Territorial of 6th Cheshires, Ernie Williams, claimed in a UK TV interview that he had taken part himself in the famous match: "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 kickabout. 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 was a scene that was apparently rather common all across the Western Front. Some truces lasted a day, while others lasted into January of 1915. Unfortunately however, these truces were not going to last forever. The next day, the 6th Cheshires "got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease" however there was no gunfire exchanged between the sides. Eventually though the gunfire would start, the tanks would roll, and the blood would flow freely again. It would flow until November 1918 when an armistice with Germany effectively ended the war. Between fifteen and eighteen million people lost their lives to the fighting, but for a couple of days during December 1914 peace reigned thanks to a simple leather ball.