Both sides came together for war's Christmas truce.
THE old-school British general Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and a certain Cpl Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarians were in unlikely agreement with each other. For them the Western Front was no place for Peace and Goodwill on the Christmas Eve of 1914.
Not if it meant German and British soldiers sharing sausages and chocolate, handing out cigars and beer, even playing football. Why, fumed the general and the corporal, they were meant to be killing each other not joining together for an impromptu carol service. But that's what happened 100 years ago in what we call the Christmas Truce.
And it is an imperishable reminder of what might have happened had television been around to capture the moment when enemy soldiers left their trenches to shake hands with each other - a moment, incidentally, commemorated by a sculpture showing just that, German and Brit shaking hands in No Man's Land. It will be exhibited in Liverpool and Germany before moving to Belgium, to the site of the famed Flanders truce.
But back to Horace and Adolf. When the general, comfortable in his quarters a long way back from the line heard of the fraternisation he was incandescent and issued an immediate order.
"On no account is intercourse to be allowed between opposing troops. To finish this war quickly we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse."
A quick finish? The war would go on for another four years.
Meanwhile the corporal condemned his comradesin-arms for what he called their "unmilitary conduct". Such things should not happen in wartime, he foamed.
"Have you Germans no sense of honour at all."
Remember, he was an Austrian. Just 20 years later, as Chancellor, he would tell Germans he was restoring their sense of honour following humiliating defeat.
The high commands of both armies agreed with Smith-Dorrien and Hitler. Such goings-on could lead to mutiny and refusal to keep on killing. Again, had television caught the moment, showing it in, say, Splott and Canton and across South Wales, the British people might have realised that the enemy was not the slavering gorilla nor the ravaging Hun of propaganda but a man like their own husbands, sons and brothers.
Vietnam was the first "TV war" taking the horrors of that conflict into American living rooms, turning public opinion against the war and, say historians, hastening its end. But no TV or radio in 1914 and so it began unseen, unheard, this manifestation of the true seasonal spirit with as many as 100,000 men joining in across the battle-fields. Some left behind memories of how it was.
Private Albert Moore recalled "a beautiful moonlit night... and then from the German trenches they sang Silent Night, Stille Nacht. I shall never forget it."
Graham Williams of the London Rifle Brigade saw lights appear above the enemy trenches, makeshift Christmas trees adorned with lighted candles "which burned steadily in the still, frost air.
"Then the Germans sang one of their carols and we would sing one of ours until when we started 'O Come All Ye Faithful' the Germans joined in with the Latin words, 'Adeste Fideles.' .' Two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war."
At one point the famous Wagnerian tenor Walter Kirchoff, visiting the troops with Crown Prince Wilhelm (Little Villi) stood up to join in. And so it went, all along the line. Captain Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian regiment shouted across that, "We don't wish to shoot, and we make a Christmas truce."
It happened. Soldiers left their trenches, a little cautiously, and met in the middle of No Man's Land. Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, the cartoonist who created Old Bill, archetypal grumpy soldier, remembered seeing his men swapping tobacco, alcohol and souvenirs such as buttons and badges "while one of my machine gunners, a bit of an amateur hair dresser in civilian life, cut the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche who was patiently kneeling on the ground as the clippers crept up his neck".
Yes, they did play football in No Man's Land, hundreds of 'em chasing balls like kids in a playground. But perhaps the most memorable game saw the 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh Fusiliers play the Saxon Infantry. Lt Kurt Zehmisch of the Saxons wrote of the match that "eventually the English (Welsh?) brought a soccer ball from their trenches and pretty soon the game ensued. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time".
At 7.30pm tomorrow a match will be played at Aldershot's ground between the British and German army teams. Billed as the "Game of Truce" it commemorates the 1914 kickabouts, showing how deep an impression those fabled meetings between men of war so briefly at peace was made.
But it couldn't last. Business as usual, decreed the generals, time to kill a man not kick a ball. At first soldiers fired into the air until they were moved away from the front to be replaced. There would be no more football games or handshakes. Smith-Dorrien and Hitler had won.
Soldiers from both sides playing football during the truce on the Western Front |