The Sporting Life: The best-known football match in history.

By David Flin

England versus Germany, 25th December, 1914. Arguably the most famous football match in history, and no-one knows for sure what the score was.

It was part of the famous Christmas Truce during the First World War. It was even referenced by Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth:

Baldrick: “Remember the football match?” Blackadder: “Remember it? How could I forget it? I was never offside. I could not believe that decision.”

So, what actually happened?

First, it’s clear that there was no single football match. There are several reports of soldiers from either side taking a football, or an extemporised football (such as an empty bully-beef tin), and kick-about games hastily arranged. These generally involved soldiers from one unit, with others joining in. For the most part, they tended to start as either British or German games, although it was common enough for anyone who wanted to join in to do so. Private Ernie Williams of the Cheshire Regiment recalled his memories after the war.

“A ball appeared from somewhere. I don’t know where, but it came from their side. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee.”

Lieutenant Johannes Niemann of the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment, described his experiences.

“The mist was slow to clear, and suddenly my orderly threw himself into my dugout to say that both the German and Scottish soldiers had come out of their trenches and were fraternising along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps, and chocolate with the enemy. Later, a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere, and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goalmouth with their strange caps, and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and we had no referee. A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.

Niemann also found the novelty of getting to know their kilted opposition was equal to the novelty of playing football with them in No-Man’s Land.

“Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts – and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of a posterior belonging to one of ‘yesterday’s enemies’. But after an hour’s play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later, we drifted back to our trenches, and the fraternisation stopped.”

This was only one of many such games that took place up and down the line. Most of the games were informal kickabouts, but there seem to have been at least four more formal attempts. A sergeant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders recorded that a game against the Germans was played between the trenches and, according to a letter home published in the Glasgow News on 2 January, the Scots “won easily by 4-1”.

Lieutenant Albert Wynn of the Royal Field Artillery wrote of a match against a German team of Hanoverians that was played near Ypres, and that the game ended in a draw. According to the regimental history of the Lancashire Fusiliers, the regiment used a ration-tin ball against German opponents, and lost 3-2.

The most detailed story comes from the War History of the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment. According to this, the match emerged from the “droll scene of Tommy und Fritz chasing hares that emerged from under cabbages between the lines”, and then producing a ball to kick about. “Eventually, this developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organised each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the centre. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.”

It is difficult to say exactly what happened during this game between Saxons and Scots. Several reports of the game were written long after the event, and often draw on other accounts, and are unreliable as far as details are concerned. It’s clear that there was a match here, and that it was more or less regulation, albeit somewhat ad-hoc.

In a curious footnote, the British poet Robert Graves wrote an account of the match in a story published in 1962. As historical evidence, it is slight, being written nearly 50 years after the event by someone who, while they were a war veteran, wasn’t at the scene of the original incident. Nonetheless, it has become more or less the accepted version, written in to the mythology of the Christmas Truce. In Graves’ version, the score remains 3-2 to the Germans, but he adds a flourish to the tale. He said: “The Reverend Jolly, our padre, acted as referee with too much Christian charity. Their outside left shot the deciding goal, but he was miles offside, and admitted it as soon as the whistle went.

I rather like to imagine that there was a Saxon equivalent of Blackadder, who, when asked by the Saxon equivalent of Baldrick if he remembered the football match, replied: “Remember it? How could I forget it? I was miles offside. I could not believe that decision.”

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow