A first snow. Not much of one but when the sky cleared yesterday you could feel it getting colder and this morning there was frost on the ground. Then at sundown it started to snow. We’ve had so much rain a bit of snow is almost welcome. All month it’s been mild and damp and the wafting stench of bloated corpses has clung to your garments. Now in the cold the smell of war has been frozen somewhat although the staccato of gunfire seems louder than it did a few days ago and the whole notes of heavy artillery echo longer through the river valley. Sensitivity to one sense exchanged for another, perhaps. I’ll gladly make the trade.
But it’s quiet now except for the singing. Soon after dark we started to hear them, quiet at first, and then emboldened by booze or the fact we hadn’t shot at them, or both. When they got a little braver they stuck branches and small trees atop their trenches and hung lanterns from them. Then we noticed the occasional glow rise up from the earth and go back down again. The beam of their fags, like orange fireflies hovering just above the ground. A man with a fag in his mouth who sticks his head up is as good as dead, but most of our boys don’t feel much like shooting tonight. We’re thinking about home, the home-fires of Chester or Northwich and a better helping of Christmas pudding than we’re sure to get from behind the line in the morning. Besides, I know quite a few of the carols. The tunes, at least. Some of the others are humming along.
Then, at first light, the battlefield is changed. We notice a head poking out from their trenches and a bare hand waving high and slowly. A drunk from last night, no doubt. One of our fellows yells out to him.
“Fritz! Good morning Fritz!”
No answer, but for more waving.
“Good morning Fritz! All sung out, Fritz?”
“Good morning.” A reply.
“We’ve Christmas pudding, Fritz. Come over and get some.”
“If I come you shoot.”
“No we won’t. No fear, Fritz. Come over and get some fags and Christmas pudding.”
“I come part way. You come part way and I meet you.”
Our boy bounds over the top, his pockets stuffed with fags. He shakes the Saxon’s hand and slaps him on the back and exchanges the pudding and the fags for the sausages Fritz has brought. Then a few from their end lift a barrel over the edge and get out and start rolling it toward us. They stop where Fritz and our boy are having a laugh about something and dig a cup of beer from the barrel for each of them.
“Come over, fellas,” says our boy, holding his cup of beer for us to see and taking a long, hearty drink from it. A few go over. Then some more. And then I climb over with some others and we mosey into no man’s land. More from their side are making their way to the barrel as well until there must be a hundred or more, shaking hands and sharing a puff and slapping backs. When the barrel is spent they roll out another one and we send back for more Christmas pudding. We must make quite the sight.
By now I’m properly softened up and in the middle of everything. I hover over a German newspaper with a Saxon and then someone gets one of our Cheshire papers. My Saxon doesn’t speak English and we point at photos in the papers and make gestures with our hands. Ypes. He knows it, too. Was probably there, too.
Around midday someone produces a football. How a football was in a trench along the front I’ll never know but suddenly there is a football and I find myself chasing it. Instinct, really, to chase down a football. When I finally get it I find it soaked and heavy and I cross high and well to a Saxon running cross-field from me. Then the barrels have become uprights and a second goal is made between two piles of topcoats.
By the time everyone joins in we’ve got a right kickabout going and while you hear a “Hurrah!” when the barrels are split or topcoats breached I don’t think anyone is actually tracking the score. I have a few more runs with the ball and manage to do quite well despite the awkward boots and there is a Saxon who likes to keep quite close to me when I have possession. On one occasion I stop with the ball and try to pass it to myself by stabbing it through his legs. Clever, I think, until I slip on the slick surface and land squarely on my ass, the ball having gone nowhere. Laughter all ‘round, and my Saxon takes my arm and lifts me to my feet.
I’m not sure how long we’ve played before the game starts to break up, but you can tell spirits are starting to sink with the sun and by late afternoon many of the men have gone back into the ground. Those of us who remain glance awkwardly at each other, as if only now realizing what we’ve been doing, what’s taken place here today. Our boys form a line and one-by-one shake the Germans’ hands. I’ve come to recognize several of their faces from the match and I slap those ones on the back. Then the quiet really sets in and thoughts of tomorrow, too, and we begin to saunter back to our trenches.
“Frank,” I begin to one my mates, “wasn’t a game of football just the thing? I thought of nothing else the whole time we were playing.”
“Precisely the thing,” he replies. “You work up a sweat like that and after a time forget all about your boots.”
“But wasn’t it funny, too? I mean, in this place?”
“It’s funny now, I suppose. Although when we were playing I didn’t find anything funny at all. I felt restored, like my soul was healed.”
“You’re right,” I add. “It didn’t seem funny at the time.”
Someone calls that there’s hot coffee a ways down the line. Coffee would be wonderful. You can feel the cold again, and it looks as though it might snow. But I want to just rest in the quiet a moment. I peak above the trench and look across the ground we tore up today in pursuit of a football. We’ll tear it up again tomorrow, but much differently.
But that’s tomorrow. Today is Christmas and today is still today. Today we took off our coats and forgot everything and played a bit of football. Tomorrow will come, but today we played upon ground we wish to destroy and had a game with good men who tomorrow will be bad men. Amid death and destruction, a bit of soul restoration. A measure of salvation through song, through Christmas pudding, through football.
Exactly what happened on the Western Front, 97 years ago today, remains unclear. But various accounts, provided by both sides, point to a game of football being played during the Christmas Truce just west of the Belgian town of Wolverghem, near the River Douve. It’s also important to note that the Truce was not followed at every point along the front. I’d like to thank Operation Christmas Pudding for compiling letters and articles related to the Christmas Truce and making them available for public use. One such letter, written by Sergeant-Major Frank Naden of the 6th Cheshires and published in the Stockport Advertiser was particularly leaned upon in writing this story.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer