Xmas truce | Hitler, for one, objects to football on front lines

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New York | The New York Times Sunday editions included recollections of the 1914 Christmas truce, during which some 100,000 British and German soldiers sang hymns, exchanged gifts and played football during an impromptu day-long silence (see Nov 23). Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’s 134th Saxons Infantry recalls in a diary entry:

Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as our friends for a time.

Cpl. Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarian reserve unit disapproved: “Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?”

Update: Finding shells and other remnants of fighting near his childhood home helped influence French writer-director Christian Carion in creating a feature film about the Christmas Eve truce, Joyeux Noí«l.

I read a lot of books, and then 14 years ago I discovered in one of these books the story of the Christmas truce. I was really touched and moved by the idea that the soldiers themselves decided to wreck the idea of the war by playing soccer, exchanging tobacco, chocolates and showing pictures of their family. I wanted to know more about this.

In 2006 the film was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden, however, writes that the “visually sweeping film” feels “as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth.” The Washington Post mentions cases in which the film has taken liberties and refers to an earlier account in the newspaper correcting a legend that soldiers had held official matches or kept score. A commemorative match, however, was held 90 years later in Neuville-Saint-Vast, 100 miles north of Paris.

An all-star team of retired French players, Varietes Club de France, beat the international team, which called itself the Selection of Fraternity, 5–2 before 2,000 spectators. It was a clear day with the temperature hovering at the freezing point, like 90 years ago.

The game was held to raise money for a monument to the Christmas Truce. The village was chosen because it was where French soldier Louis Barthas, who proposed such a monument in a famous postwar memoir, was serving in December 1914.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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