War, football and the 1914 Christmas truce

War Game, directed by Dave Unwin

Based on the book War Game by Michael Foreman (ISBN: 185 793 7139)

This short animated film follows four young men from their village in southern England as they join up to serve in the British Army at the outbreak of the First World War to the battlefields of the Somme. With an almost playful innocence they join the ranks. At first they liken the possibility of fighting on the front to a game of football, which they all enjoy playing. But their initial enthusiasm is soon drowned out by the slow, drudging misery of trench warfare.

On Christmas Day, drawn by empathy for the men in the trenches of the opposing side, both the German and English soldiers cautiously emerge from their dugouts. At first they exchange gifts, then a football is produced, and the two sides come together to play an historical game in No Man’s Land.

Alarmed generals order both sides to resume hostilities. On the German side, the friendlier Saxon Germans are replaced by battle-hardened Prussian troops. In a final hopeless attack amidst a colossal loss of life, all four young men are killed.

Foreman’s War Game

War Game is based on a story by the popular children’s author, Michael Foreman. The story is based loosely on true events during the First World War. Foreman’s book has been described as one of the most powerful anti-war stories in children’s literature. It opens with an old Punch cartoon: “The Greater Game...there’s only one field today where you can get honour.” This is followed by a dedication to his uncles killed in the Great War, aged just 18, 20, 20, and 24 (the last died of his wounds on Christmas Day 1918, a month after the Armistice). The four characters in the story are based loosely on them.

War Game recalls both the innocence and the heroism of the young soldiers who fought in the First World War, and the mutual understanding that grew up between the two armies as they suffered together on the front line. Implicit in the story is the tragedy of the many “Pal’s Battalions” throughout the British Isles that enlisted in units formed up from members of the same villages, towns and neighbourhoods, and which were devastated when their young men were slaughtered on the major battlefields of the Western Front.

Foreman illustrates his own books. War Game combines simple water colour illustrations with photomontage reproductions of wartime recruiting posters, broadsheets, advertisements, and the like. They range from the soft greens of the countryside of Suffolk, the bright colours of the crowds and bands, to the khaki and grey shades of war that later merge to dark and ominous colours when the young men are on the battlefield. One haunting illustration is of a destroyed cathedral, the broken rubble resembling the form of a huge human skull.

The film’s animators have used Foreman’s illustrations as an inspiration.

Towards the end of the story, when Will, one of the four young soldiers, lies fatally injured in the final attack, Foreman writes:

“...he saw a pale ball of gold in the misty sky. ‘There’s a ball in Heaven,’ he thought. ‘Thank God. We’ll have a game when this nightmare’s over.’

“Perhaps if he closed [his eyes], the nightmare would end.

“He closed his eyes.”

The last two pages depict a nighttime snowfall on an empty battlefield with four little red flowers. The last page shows hundreds of these flowers as far as the eye can see.

The Great Game

In War Game, the relationship of football and war is not an incidental one. One of the four characters in the film kicks a football as he leads his company over the top—believed to be based on real experiences such as that of Captain W.P. Nevill on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. [1]

The film does a compelling job in exploring this theme.

During the Victorian period, successive imperialist wars of plunder were eulogised by the military and political elite as a worthy social challenge and likened to a game played between great powers. The term “Great Game” was coined to describe the decades-long military rivalry between the empires of Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia—a rivalry that employed subterfuge, spying, murder and bloody wars in which both powers sought to subjugate entire peoples and carve out colonial areas of influence.

The idea of British “sportsmanship” was peddled for popular consumption in the years leading up to the war. As one historian of the period put it, “Decency, fortitude, grit, civilisation, Christianity, commerce, all blend into one—the game!” [2]

A popular poem before the war by Sir Henry Newbolt went:

The River of death has brimmed its banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

These lines appear in the film as a song, just as the young men are deciding whether or not to enlist. In an incisive touch, the chorus is sung by the miniature figure of an army general who appears on the shoulders of the hesitant and undecided men, spurring them on to war.

The film attempts to show the mountain of war propaganda that was directed at a generation of young men, complete with the promise that the war would be over before Christmas. The game of football is subsumed into war propaganda to help enlist young men. But it also becomes one expression of the trench soldier’s desire for peace.

The Christmas truce

The experience of the First World War continues to provide a rich seam of material for the world of fiction. The swift change of mood from a patriotic fervour at the initial declaration of war to a general social unrest and war weariness; the gulf between the army generals and the ordinary trench soldier; the apparently senseless and unrelenting waste of an entire generation of young men—these are experiences that have inspired many writers over the years.

But the story of the Christmas Day 1914 fraternisations has not been examined often.

During the war, the allied governments kept up a constant propaganda campaign that equated Germany with an imaginary “evil Hun” who would stop at nothing until he was stopped. The rise of fascism in post-war Germany gave this lie an extended lease on life. Deviation from this version of events—that the allied powers had fought a necessary war against a malicious foe—was rare.

Until relatively recently, it was not unusual to find “respected” historical works either questioning that the events surrounding the Christmas truce ever took place or allowing them only the most episodic character. In recent years, however, a number of studies have appeared that throw a greater light upon this period of history.

The Christmas Day truces were not as uncommon or short-lived as traditionally thought. After only four months of fighting, the Great War was already proving to be one of the bloodiest wars in history. Adhering to the Schlieffen Plan, Germany envisaged a war on two fronts; attempting to defeat its western foes before the Russians were able to mobilise their forces in the east (estimated to take six weeks). As the fighting moved across the French border, it became clear that neither the German nor Allied armies could make any more headway. A stalemate had been reached on the Western Front.

Both sides dug into the earth, creating a large network of trenches. Not long after the trenches were built, the winter rains almost obliterated them. The rain not only flooded the dugouts, it turned the trenches into mud holes.

Added to this was the unbearable cold. The trenches of both sides were only a few hundred feet apart—the sounds of singing, as well as food smells easily carried between the lines—buffered by a relatively flat area known as No Man’s Land. The stalemate had halted all but a scattered number of small attacks. Thus, soldiers on each side spent a large amount of time dealing with the mud, keeping their heads down in order to avoid sniper fire—newly developed machine guns had already proven their worth in the war, tearing down men in their thousands—and watching carefully for any surprise enemy raids on their trench.

In this atmosphere of cold, miserable monotony, a pragmatic “live and let live” attitude developed towards the enemy soldier. Typical of many journal entries at this time is the following:

“We hated their guts when they killed any of our friends; then we really did dislike them intensely. But otherwise we joked about them and I think they joked about us. And we thought, well, poor so-and-sos, they’re in the same kind of muck as we are.” [4]

Andrew Todd, a telegraphist of the Royal Engineers, also recorded an example of this battle-weary mood in a letter sent from the front:

“Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the soldiers in both lines of trenches have become very ‘pally’ with each other. The trenches are only 60 yards apart at one place, and every morning about breakfast time one of the soldiers sticks a board in the air. As soon as this board goes up all firing ceases, and men from either side draw their water and rations. All through the breakfast hour, and so long as this board is up, silence reigns supreme, but whenever the board comes down the first unlucky devil who shows even so much as a hand gets a bullet through it.” [5]

Sometimes the two sides would yell things to each other. Many German soldiers had worked in Britain before the war, so they asked about some place in England that an English soldier knew well. Sometimes they would shout rude remarks to each other as a way of entertainment. But even the coarser language recorded was more often than not boisterous rather than hostile.

“Retaliating” with carols

Singing between the trenches also became a common pastime, and increased as Christmas approached (a popular song on both sides was “Silent Night”/”Stille Nacht”). If the song were considered particularly good, the other side would applaud and shout for an encore:

“They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang ‘The first Noël,’ and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, ‘O Tannenbaum.’ And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fidéles.’ And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” [6]

An additional factor in the situation was the increase in the volume of mail in the run-up to Christmas. According to contemporary newspaper reports, in the six days preceding December 12 (the last date for Christmas delivery), 250,000 parcels were sent to the troops from home. In the following week, there were 200,000 more, in addition to two-and-a-half million letters. [7]

Both sides decorated their muddy trenches as best they could. The German soldiers even had a line of little Christmas trees along the parapets of their trenches. Frank Richards, a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, told of how both sides erected signs wishing the other a Merry Christmas. [8]

In numerous separate instances down the front line, mainly initiated by German soldiers, a series of yells would be heard calling for a meeting between sides.

Although most accounts of the Christmas truce detail the famous meetings of German and British forces, French and Belgian troops also took part. At first, both sides were understandably very cautious about breaking cover. Not all invitations were warmly received. There are several reports of renewed shooting following attempts at a truce. In some parts of the line, however, representatives of each side met in No Man’s Land.

“We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans—Fritz and I in the centre talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street-corner orators.

“Soon most of our company (‘A’ Company), hearing that I and some others had gone out, followed us... What a sight—little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs. Where they couldn’t talk the language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!” [9]

For the most part, the soldiers went out with their hands raised to meet their counterparts in the middle of No Man’s Land on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. Some agreed to end the truce at midnight on Christmas night, while in some places it was decided to extend it until New Year’s Day.

It appears that one of the main reasons the soldiers made the agreements was to bury the dead. Though many men had died recently, there were corpses out in No Man’s Land that had been there for several months. In a few rare instances, such as at a site near Lille, joint services were held for the British and German dead.

The soldiers were amazed at last to meet the mysterious “enemy.” After the relentless war propaganda, they were surprised to discover that they were more alike than they had dared to imagine. They talked, shared pictures, and exchanged items such as buttons for foodstuffs. Some British soldiers even took shaves from the Germans who had worked as barbers in England before the war.

There were also examples of football matches (apparently no great heed being paid to the rules) played in the middle of No Man’s Land such as that between the Bedfordshire Regiment and the German soldiers of the 19th Corps. A member of the Bedfordshire Regiment produced a ball, and the large group of soldiers played until the ball was deflated when it hit a barbed wire entanglement. The regimental records of the 133rd Saxon Regiment also recount a football match, which it won 3-2.

Something of the chaos and exhilaration of these football matches is caught by Foreman’s story:

“...from somewhere, a football bounced across the frozen mud... Immediately a vast, fast and furious football match was underway. Goals were marked by caps... Apart from that, it was wonderfully disorganised, part-football, part ice-skating, with unknown numbers on each team. No referee, no account of score. It was just terrific to be no longer an army of moles, but up and running on top of the ground that had threatened to entomb them for so long...”

Within 24 hours of the first open fraternisations, impromptu ceasefires occurred throughout the Western Front. In his book, Silent Night, Professor Stanley Weintraub of Harvard University records that as little as a quarter-of-a-mile distance along the front could separate continued fighting from an unofficial truce.

It seems that at first most superior officers at the front were unsure of how to react to this new situation. The equivocal feeling amongst many senior officers is typified in this letter sent by Major Buchanan-Dunlop to his wife:

“Such a curious situation has arisen on our left. The Saxons all day have been out of their trenches. They only fire four shots a day. Our men were rather non-plussed, as owing to the friendly relations between the two parties they couldn’t very well take them prisoner, when two of their officers and 70 men came into our trenches and have refused to return. They insist on staying.” [10]

There is evidence to show that in some places, officers and captains participated in the truces.

The breaking of the truce

If the commanding officers on the ground were ambivalent, there was no uncertainty in the minds of the high command. The British High Command, stationed 27 miles behind the trenches, was horrified. But at first, little could be done. A military directive was issued that stated, “It [fraternisation] discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.”

This was ignored. British High Command then informed the front line that an attack by the Germans was expected on Christmas Eve:

“It is thought possible the enemy may be contemplating an attack during Christmas or New Year. Special vigilance will be maintained during this period.”

This too was ignored. In an early foretaste of the historical cover-up to come, Field Marshal Sir John French’s HQ issued a statement that explained the lack of firing on the Western Front as “a comparative lull on account of the stormy weather.”

But gradually, through threats and further orders, the generals broke the truce. Instrumental was the ruthlessness of such men as Billy Congreve of the 3rd Division, north of Kemmel, who wrote, at the height of the truce:

“We have issued strict orders to the men, not on any accounts allow a ‘truce,’ as we have heard they will try to. The Germans did try. They came over towards us singing. So we opened rapid fire on them, which is the only sort of truce they deserve.” [11]

But inducing men who had become friends to kill each other was not such an easy task. Many units on both sides were reluctant to restart the fighting. And even as shooting resumed, apologies and coded messages were being exchanged. On December 30, following an anti-fraternisation order from the German High Command, the following message was relayed by German soldiers to the trenches opposite:

“Dear Camarades, I beg to inform you that it is forbidden us to go out to you, but we will remain your comrades. If we will be forced to fire we will fire too high... Offering you some cigars, I remain, yours truly...” [12]

Many accounts of the truce finish with the soldiers returning to their trenches and then fighting again the next day, but in many areas the peace lasted much longer. So deep ran the sentiment of friendship between the opposing sides, born out of this experience, that in some places the truce carried on throughout the month of January 1915. In other areas, it even continued through February. In some places, such as Ploegstreert Wood, the truce held stubbornly into the month of March.

Later attempts were made to re-establish the truce, with limited success. During Christmas Day 1915, there were isolated cases of fraternisation, but never on the scale or for the duration of the year before.

Never before had such poisonous hatred been poured upon an entire population, nor such huge bloodshed been witnessed. For these reasons, it was hard for many to comprehend that such an armistice could ever take place. As Weintraub puts it:

“...what gives it [the truce] greater historical interest and significance is that it happened so soon after a violent explosion of nationalistic hatred, the result—and the intention—of which was to inspire the peoples at war with loathing and contempt for their opponents.” [13]

Despite the very real desires for peace felt amongst significant numbers of soldiers, the war continued. The most notable achievement of the fraternisations was to present the Army command with temporary military difficulties and a sober lesson to watch their troops more carefully.

Partial truces were not enough. To stop the slaughter, a struggle had to be taken up against the warmongers in control, on both sides. But the soldiers and workers throughout Europe had been abandoned by their traditional leaders on the eve of war as they joined in common cause with the belligerent governments.

It was almost three years later, in October 1917, that the Bolshevik Party led the Russian Revolution to victory, bringing to power a government of workers’ and soldiers’ representatives that was committed to an end to the war.

The revolution changed the balance of power in Europe. Twelve months later the armistice was signed; bringing the fighting, in the bloodiest war yet known to humanity, to an end.

Unwin’s film

In a talk given after a recent screening of War Game, director Dave Unwin said a few words about what had moved him to attempt a film of the story. He said that he had immediately identified with the main characters and “felt a huge sympathy for them.”

In researching the history, he said that he had read and been much impressed by the book by Weintraub, which includes a concluding chapter entitled “What If—?”

Referring to the spontaneous truce, Unwin said, “It was like a candle flame, which flickered and then went out.”

Unwin spoke on the significance of the whipping up of nationalism both in recent history and today.

Soon after its initial release, War Game had been screened in Berlin to audiences of up to a thousand school children. Unwin said that although some parents had thought the material “too strong,” the children had taken a keen interest in the film, and the young audience asked many questions about the nature of the First World War.

Unwin also spoke about the difficulties of obtaining funding to produce the film. At one point, due to financial restraints, work on the film was abandoned in Britain and up to a third of the animation had to be completed in New Zealand.

Unwin was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1947. He studied at Newport College of Art. In 1970, he left school and became a trainee animator for the Halas & Batchelor Animation Studio. Since 1973, he has worked in a variety of jobs (animator, designer, scriptwriter, director) for different companies, making commercials and TV series. In 1992, he founded Jumping Jack Animation, becoming a freelance producer. Among his films are When the Wind Blows (1990), a Raymond Briggs tale of an old couple living through a nuclear attack; The Adventure of Lucky Luke (1990); and Willows in Winter (1996).

War Game has been on the international festival circuit. Despite the difficulties involved in its production, it has won honours at the British Animation Awards, Annecy, and the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy last year. More recently, War Game has won the Golden Butterfly Award for Best Short Film at the International Festival of Film & Video in Tehran. It has received wide acclaim in many other countries, including France, Canada, Switzerland, Japan and Finland. Most of these countries intend to screen War Game as part of their national Remembrance Day commemorations.

This short yet moving film deserves a wide audience.

[1] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. New York and London: Oxford UP, 1975.

[2] Modris Eksteins Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. (pg.122)

[3] Sir Henry Newbolt. From Vitai Lampada (They Pass On the Torch of Life)

[4] Leslie Walkington (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) quoted in Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce—The Western Front, December 1914. London: Papermac, 1984. (p. 22)

[5] Telegraphist Andrew Todd’s letter from The Scotsman 26 December 1914

[6] Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. (p. 97)

[7] Christmas Truce (p. 39)

[8] Frank Richards, from the December 2000 edition of BBC History Magazine.

[9] Corporal John Ferguson (Seaforth Highlanders) published in The Saturday Review, 25 December 1915.

[10] Christmas Truce (p. 164)

[11] Stanley Weintraub. Silent Night—The Remarkable 1914 Christmas Truce (p. 146)

[12] ibid. (p. 169)

[13] ibid. (p. 1)