During the first Christmas of World War I, warfare took second place to an unlikely match. As notes from "Silent Night" floated across the Western Front, German soldiers lit candles on Christmas trees. Troops on opposing sides of the front lines called for a spontaneous ceasefire. And then, in the spirit of goodwill, the men decided to play a match of soccer.
The Christmas truce of 1914 was a unique moment in history. During the ceasefire, German, French, British, and Belgian soldiers met in the middle of No Man's Land in Flanders, Belgium. They shook hands, buried the remaining dead, and even exchanged rations and gifts, including chocolate cake, liquor, and tobacco.
In this atmosphere of goodwill, soldiers decided to throw down their caps and helmets and use them as goalposts. As one soldier recounts in Stanley Weintraub's book Silent Night: The World War I Christmas Truce, "No Man's Land had seemed ten miles [16 kilometers] across when we were crawling out on a night patrol; but now we found it no wider than the width of two football [soccer] pitches."
After trying to catch rabbits hiding under cabbages, British and German soldiers (called "Tommy" and "Fritz" respectively) began playing soccer on the frozen ground. One letter later published in a newspaper describes a British soldier who was "given a bottle of wine to drink to the King's health," from a Saxon. Then his regiment "actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them [the British] 3-2!!!" The 133rd Saxon Regiment recorded this game in its official history.
Other matches occurred that day. "Everywhere you looked, the occupants of the trenches stood about talking to each other and even playing football," said Hugo Klemm of the 133rd Saxon Regiment.
"It was hard to think we were at war with one another," wrote another soldier quoted in Weintraub's book.
Some soldiers wanted to continue the truce beyond the Christmas holiday, but officers on both sides were becoming anxious for their missions to continue. Lt. Gustav Riebensahm of the 2nd Westphalians wrote in his diary, "The English are said to have told the 53rd Regiment they are exceedingly thankful for the truce because they simply had to play football again. The whole business is becoming ridiculous and must come to an end."
With calls for renewed combat, the truce was mostly over before New Year's Day. The war would last another three Christmases, but there would never be another such truce.