Widely remembered as the unofficial cease-fire between British and German troops at the start of the first World War, the details surrounding the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 have become muddled over time.
As might be expected with any story passed down through generations, new narrative threads emerge, much like the recently discovered letter written by General Walter Congreve, who described the act as “one of the most extraordinary sights anyone has ever seen.”
When British and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land, it “was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”
The most enduring image out of the cease-fire is the impromptu game of soccer that apparently occurred between enemies. And although historians continue to debate whether a soccer match ever took place — Congreve’s letter doesn’t actually mention a game of soccer — the public has embraced the symbolic possibility that tired soldiers sought a respite from hellish war with something as leveling as soccer.
To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Christmas Truce, the Open University poured through the Imperial War Museum’s archives and put together a photo gallery showing the role soccer played in the lives of troops in World War I.
Researchers have said that the troops — Allies or Central Powers — enjoyed playing soccer in breaks between fighting, a distraction from the horror of war. The Imperial War Museum said the sport was used as a recruitment tool. Grantland’s Brian Phillips, noting the ever-present soccer ball in many wartime group photos, said soccer meant something deeper than a “morale-boosting pastime”:
It’s a way to hide the horror under one layer of spectacle and another layer of moral virtue — a way to pretend that war is like a game, that there are rules, that there is safety. A way not to look into oblivion. We missed the cruel irony in all those soccer balls that show up in World War I photos. Nothing is a metaphor for war. War is a metaphor for nothing.
One hundred years since the Christmas Truce, Phillips’ words may resonate, but the world has also chosen to remember what brief moments of joy soldiers could embrace in the midst of nightmare.