.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The real story of the Christmas truce

There is a fascinating article in yesterday's Independent relaying the true story of the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches:

It is the diary of Lieutenant Charles Brockbank; page after page of tiny, immaculately even handwriting in which the Cheshire Regiment soldier laid out his daily testimony in black ink, capable, as he was, of stepping outside the physical agonies which were befalling the 6th Battalion and consigning them to paper. His Christmas Day entry is testament to a night the likes of which we will not experience – “the most agonising I have ever had,” as Brockbank described it, enduring what reads like the onset of frostbite until 4.30am, when even the threat of sniper fire cannot deter him from stamping around in the mist of the frozen dawn.

Then, a momentary release, rounding up hens with his compatriots on a deserted farm behind the lines. And then “the most extraordinary incident”, Brockbank wrote. A cease to the firing at 2.30pm and “the Germans started shouting to us to ‘come out’ and ‘have a drink’ and also climbing about in the trenches. One of them came out in front without rifle or arms, as one of ours went out too. A huge crowd formed... We had found a little rubber ball so, of course a football match came off and we exchanged various things...”

Note the casual description of the object which served as a football because it was not the laced-up pig’s bladder which belongs to the legend of how two sides played out a game of football 100 years ago tomorrow, perpetuated by the film Oh! What a Lovely War, the Sainsbury’s TV advertisement this Christmas and countless others in between. Although up to 15 ad hoc matches took place along the Western Front, the evidence of an organised meeting between the British and Germans in no-man’s-land to play football a century ago is thin – as the new exhibition reinforces.

Its artefacts also include one of the best known images of the so-called Truce match – taken, it transpires, 1,500 miles south-east of the trenches at Salonika, in Greece, when the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played the Argyll and Sutherlands Highlanders on Christmas Day 1915: a 3-2 win for the Germans. The evidence of an arranged Christmas Truce game is equally slim in the testimony of Private Ernie Williams, who served in the place where the game is thought most likely to have taken place – a turnip field on the vividly named “Stinking Farm” near the village of Messines, on the France/Belgium border where the 1st Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment and the 16th Bavarian reserve infantry regiment laid down arms. Williams talks of the commanding officers – with whom the soldiers did not circulate – ordering the men back when the fraternising started. “One officer was shaking his hand, saying, ‘Oh, bloody fools, you don’t know  what you are doing,’” Williams relates. “They thought it was a trap.”

The doubts the exhibition raises bear out the testimony of Lancaster University’s Dr Iain Adams, whose research points to ad hoc truces along 17 miles of British lines, though nothing organised. Neither did they did start with a football and Stille Nacht on Christmas Eve. The Argylls and Highlanders were opposite the 134th Saxon Regiment before Christmas 1914 when a nearby river flooded and with it the trenches, too, forcing both sides to climb out and rebuild, less than the length of a football pitch away from each other. “They didn’t shoot at each other but started sharing tools,” said Adams, whose research featured on the BBC World Service’s Sportshour. “When you are working with people and are face to face, it is quite hard to shoot them.”

Interesting stuff.
Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?