Monday 15 December 2014

The myth of the myth of the Christmas Truce

I don't think I realised how much the 1914 Christmas truce has become mythologised until I saw this year's Sainsbury's Christmas advert.

It's a heart-warming affair, not terribly accurate - everyone dashes out too quickly (which  they didn't), the impetus seems to come from the British (which I don't think it mainly did), they have a real football (which they hardly ever did), and the trenches are too sophisticated - this was the very beginning of trench warfare.

But still, it is right that we are talking about it - because, as I wrote in the Guardian on Saturday, we need to take the truce seriously as history, rather than as an isolated moment of magic (though it certainly did feel magical to those at the time).

The article I wrote gathered more than 300 comments underneath over the first few hours after publication - though it was also in the main paper - which, in true Guardian tradition, were often not that friendly.  Many of them were friendly, on the other hand, and really engaged with the issues I raised, pointing out my own little inaccuracies (which I don't necessarily agree with).

A couple of the messages said they believed the whole truce was a myth, in the sense that it never actually happened.

This is not so.  There are hundreds of first-hand accounts and more come to light every year.

Others said that the idea that there was a football match in No Man's Land was a myth.  Strangely, this seems to have been the prevailing story in the media in the last few days.  There seems to be a whiff of positivism abroad, and - unless we can find confirmation from both sides about each football game - they therefore didn't happen.

It is true that 'match' is an exaggeration.  These were hastily contrived kickabouts, usually without proper balls.  It is true also that, for some reason, the score is usually remembered as 3-2.

The Lancashire Fusiliers near Le Touquet ended with a score of 3-2 to the other side. That was also the score of the match between the RAMC and the Saxons. A later game on New Year’s Day, organised by a major in the Medical Corps, which ended with the Saxon soldiers playing God Save the King , also ended 3-2 to the Germans. So did the Seaforth Highlanders game against the Saxons outside Ploegsteert Wood.

Not all had that score, and it is true that the repeated 3-2 implies an element of mythologising.  But there are so many accounts in letters home, which still exist, or which were sent to and published by local newspapers, which mention football, that you can't dismiss the games that easily.

Football was a repeated theme because so many of the Germans the British met spoke English because they had been living in England before the war.

One account explained that the German soldier he spoke to had lived in Alexander Road in Hornsey, and had really wanted to see Woolwich Arsenal play Tottenham the following afternoon.

So don't let's dismiss the football too sanctimoniously.  It happened, and surprisingly often - which is why the celebrations continue at the weekend.

But if you really want to know what happened during the Christmas Truce, and what it led to, download my ebook Peace on Earth (it costs £1.99).

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