Prince William today unveiled a memorial of two giant shaking hands to commemorate the Christmas Truce, which took place on Christmas Day 1914, and saw scattered truces and occasional soccer games take place between German and Allied soldiers on the Western Front.
Although across many of the trenches of the Western Front, fighting continued unabated throughout Christmas Day 1914 (notably in Ypres), a series of unofficial ceasefires really did take place in the very first Christmas of the war. German and Allied forces emerged from their trenches, walked into No Man’s Land and shook hands. Some even exchanged gifts such as cigarettes and food, in a now-legendary display of simple humanity.
Prince William’s involvement today comes as president of the Football Association, which has created a “Football Remembers” memorial to honor the 1914 Christmas Truce. According to contemporary reports, at several of the truces, there were rough soccer matches between the German and British sides.
The image of soldiers playing football on Christmas Day with men who the previous day they had been trying to kill, and the next day they would try to kill again, has become one of the most haunting memes of the Great War.
But brotherly love among enemy combatants was not something that the high command encouraged.
When reports and even photographs of the Christmas Day truces and football matches were published in newspapers in the UK, the generals reacted with fury, fearing that such displays of fraternity and solidarity could lead the men to question the war or even mutiny and refuse to fight.
According to the excellent BBC archive, The London Rifle Brigade's War Diary for 2 January 1915 recorded that “informal truces with the enemy were to cease and any officer found to have initiated one would be tried by Court Martial.”
The truces never happened again.
However the Christmas Truce remains a powerful notion in the popular imagination, encapsulating as it does the powerlessness of the individual when the machine of war is in motion. It has been the subject of numerous books, an ill-judged advertising campaign by a British supermarket and a moving ballad by the Irish songwriter Cormac McConnell (keep your tissues handy).