British, German soldiers play Christmas truce football match
There were no trenches and the only poppies were plastic stadium decorations. But the spirit of a World War I Christmas truce lived on as the British and German armies played a 100th anniversary football match on Wednesday.
The friendly match between the old enemies ended with a 1-0 victory for the British and handshakes all round, safe in the knowledge that they would not be taking aim at each other the next day.
The game was inspired by a truce that took hold on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914, when troops from both sides emerged from their trenches along the Western Front to joke, share whisky and schnapps and kick a ball about in no-man’s land.
It has come to represent a fleeting moment of humanity in a four-year conflict that killed more than 16 million troops and civilians.
“Thinking back to them days and us being able to spend an hour and a half on the football pitch to commemorate that is very special,” said British defender Kev Haley afterwards.
The players, in modern kit and boots, emerged from the tunnel led by actors dressed in British and German World War I uniforms.
Before kickoff, a two-minute silence was held and an opera singer performed the German carol Stille Nacht or Silent Night, which, legend has it, drifted up from the German trenches on Christmas Eve 1914 as a sign of peaceful intent.
The match in the garrison town of Aldershot, southwest of London, drew a crowd of some 2,500 people. Many of them were soldiers in battle fatigues but guests included Bobby Charlton, part of the England team that beat Germany to win the 1966 World Cup.
Haley said the two sides would be going drinking together afterwards, echoing the sense of comradeship across national lines shown during the truce itself.
“There will be some sing-songs, exchanging jokes but it’s good and it’s friendly,” he added.
For German player Milad Omarkhiel, disappointment at the result was mixed with a sense of commemoration.
“We have lost the game but it wasn’t important today. Important today was the people had a friendly game and they can read the historical (significance) of this match,” he said.
A piece of history?
Many watching the game either had military backgrounds themselves or had relatives who fought in World War I.
Jason Bate, 43, who serves in the Royal Navy at the Faslane base in Scotland, travelled down with his wife and 13-year-old son to be there.
“We have come down because it’s a piece of history,” said Bate, whose great-great uncle was killed at the Battle of the Somme.
“There was more gentlemanly conduct in those days, you had respect for your enemy,” he added, contrasting the situation with the insurgencies fought by today’s Western armies.
John Goddard, 48, visited the battlefields at Ypres earlier this year and the game sparked memories of that trip for him.
“It was a hell of a thing, wasn’t it?” he said, shaking his head in awe. “To come out of the trench with your hands up, it’s quite a leap of faith.”
The match came at the end of a year of commemorations to mark the centenary of the war, including an installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, one for each British serviceman killed.
The mythology around a Christmas truce football match has also grown in recent months. In Britain, it has featured in everything from a festive advertisement for supermarket giant Sainsbury’s to a Yuletide Royal Shakespeare Company theatre production.
UEFA president Michel Platini unveiled a statue of a player in a field in what was the Western Front in Belgium last week, while the English Premier League held a commemorative tournament for young players whose countries fought in the war.
Experts say, though, that there is no hard evidence that a formal game ever took place during the truce.
Matt Brosnan, a curator at the Imperial War Museum in London, said the pause in fighting was more useful as a chance for soldiers to bury the bodies of dead comrades than to play football.
He estimated that fewer than 100 players probably took part in impromptu kickabouts.
“What was more typical was soldiers meeting, exchanging gifts and sharing a few moments,” he told AFP.