Monday, December 24th, 2012
A previously unknown letter describing the famous Christmas Day soccer/football game between German and British troops held in No Man’s Land on the Western Front was revealed on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow last month. It was written by Clement Barker of Ipswich, Suffolk, to his brother Montague on December 29th, 1914. A staff sergeant with the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Barker wrote:
A messenger come over from the German lines and said that if we did not fire Xmas day, they (the Germans) wouldn’t so in the morning (Xmas day). A German looked over the trench – no shots – our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in (69) and buried them and the next thing happened a football kicked out of our Trenches and Germans and English played football.
Night came and still no shots. Boxing day the same, and has remained so up to now.
This is an important contemporary eye-witness account of an event that even today is still questioned. Some historians have suggested that the football game was a later romanticization of the Christmas Day Truce events, that it never really happened. Soldiers’ letters testify that the match really did happen in the No Man’s Land between the trenches near Armentières, France, and that the Germans won 3-2.
Christmas Truces, mainly between British and German troops, broke out spontaneously at various points along the Western Front in 1914. The commands on both sides were not pleased. They considered it damaging to morale and a dangerous contravention of their propaganda programs which relied on demonizing the enemy to rally pro-war sentiment. After the events of Christmas 1914, troops were warned that any fraternization with the enemy would result in harsh punishment up to and including summary execution.
The letter was recently discovered by Rodney Barker, Sgt. Barker’s nephew. He found it when he was look through some of his father’s personal effects after his mother died. He never met his uncle who survived World War I but died in 1945 at age 61.
An interesting postscript to his description of the truce is a sadly inaccurate prognostication:
Our batt[allio]n went in the trenches again on Boxing Day. We have conversed with the Germans and they all seem to be very much fed up and heaps of them are deserting. Some have given themselves up as prisoners, so things are looking quite rosy.
It would take four years and more than 16 million deaths before the war’s end.