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Truce football match 'romanticised'


The 1914 football game said to have taken place during a Christmas truce features in the Sainsbury's festive advert this year (Sainsbury's/PA)

The 1914 football game said to have taken place during a Christmas truce features in the Sainsbury's festive advert this year (Sainsbury's/PA)

The 1914 football game said to have taken place during a Christmas truce features in the Sainsbury's festive advert this year (Sainsbury's/PA)

It is the enduring image of Christmas conciliation, but historians have warned that the First World War truce football match said to have taken place one hundred years ago today is at risk of being misremembered.

Experts said the story of the football match has been "romanticised" and was not the organised game many believe it to be. In fact, only a few soldiers may have participated in a kick-about.

The 1914 football game features in the Sainsbury's Christmas advert this year but even the historian who advised the supermarket is sceptical about the legendary kick about.

Military historian Taff Gillingham, who worked alongside the supermarket chain, said: "It's definitely romanticised".

He said: "There were 44 infantry battalions that did take part in the truce in some way or another but they didn't all get out.

"Anything up to 30,000 men got out of the trenches and met the Germans. Of those, probably only 20 or absolutely maximum 30 may have kicked a football about."

Dr Iain Adams, from the University of Central Lancashire, said the truce should not be thought of as one single event.

He said: "There wasn't a Christmas truce, there were quite a few Christmas truces going on at the same time."

Only around two-thirds of British troops took part in a truce and at least 80 soldiers died on Christmas Day. Even some soldiers taking part in a truce were killed.

The truces were negotiated independently and ranged from simply not firing at one another to individuals meeting their opponents. Some truces lasted just a few hours, others for weeks.

Dr Adams, principal lecturer with the International Football Institute, argues that the idea of one large organised game of football on Christmas Day is misleading. He said: "In some places I have no doubt at all that they played football but it was not a football match."

He added: "I suspect what happened in two or three places was the lads would start kicking a can about and someone would have brought a football so in two or three places a real football would have been used."

Mr Gillingham believes there are only two corroborated reports of football games taking place between the Germans and the British forces. He said: "Football has hijacked the truce this year completely".

He explained that football did play an important part in the war, for example in boosting morale and in rest and recuperation, but its role in the Christmas truce was relatively insignificant.

He said: "I just think that it's an absolute tragedy that the old boys' history has been stolen by arrogant football barons.

"Football doesn't need promoting in 2014. The poor old fellows who took part in the truce, their history has been robbed this year just to promote football."

Where football was played, it may not have been with a traditional leather ball. Dr Adams points to numerous examples of soldiers mentioning "ball substitutes".

One London Rifles Officer described "a cap-comforter stuffed with straw", while another soldier said: "Some of our boys tied up a sandbag and used it as a football".

While some soldiers did play football, either on their own or with the Germans, Mr Gillingham says there were plenty of other things happening during the truce, including handshakes, swapping buttons and food, and exchanging names and addresses.

There are even reports of German soldiers giving British soldiers haircuts and vice versa.

Curiosity also played a part in getting the troops out of the trenches and into no man's land. He said: "Those blokes on both sides have spent months being shot at by each other, so here's a chance to actually find out who it was who you had been fighting."

Mr Gillingham believes that understanding more about the nature of troops in 1914 helps to dispel a sanitised notion of the Christmas truce demonstrating "man's humanity to other men".

He said: "You had to know the old pre-war regular soldiers to know what sort of nonsense that is. They were pretty much all professional. They hadn't volunteered just for the war, their job was to go wherever the government sent them. There was nothing personal to them, it was just business."

He said these soldiers were trained professionals and "very rough, hard drinking, hard fighting men" who took the opportunity for a day off.

Mr Gillingham believes the truce is particularly remarkable because it could never have happened in any other year.

He said: "A year later virtually everyone who has joined the army has joined just to kill Germans, so there's no appetite for a truce, so it doesn't happen again."

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