The Christmas Match

Football in No Man’s Land 1914

By Pehr Thermaenius

Uniform Press, 2014

The Christmas MatchThere seems to be no truce as yet in the ongoing debates surrounding the Christmas Truce of 1914, from the large number of comments (both positive and negative) that accompanied the release of this year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas advert to whether ‘that’ football match did in fact take place (for an expert summary of proceedings, see truce guru Taff Gillingham’s summary here).

With a seemingly widespread popular belief that a single organised match occurred on Christmas day 1914, the evidence to back this up is lacking; yet the ‘myth’ of the football match has taken on a life of its own, perpetuated by the media and official commemorations. This book by Pehr Thermaenius, a Swedish journalist, will do little to dispel it.

His approach is to look at one of the kickabouts that is a strong contender for having actually taken place, between the German regiment IR133 and the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.  He focuses on two soldiers who belonged to these units, Albert Schmidt and Jimmy Coyle; there is evidence that both men played football before the war. The book follows their journeys from the start of the war to Christmas 1914.

The premise of the book following two real people, who may or may not have taken part or borne witness to the events of that day, is a fundamental flaw in my eyes. Thermaenius states this early on in the book, stating “It is not possible to say for sure that Albert and Jimmy played each other or that they met during the Christmas Truce.” Referring to accounts of the truce he admits “Gefreiter Albert Schmidt and Sergeant Jimmy Coyle are not mentioned, so I cannot say they took part. But it is more than a fascinating speculation that they played; it is a distinct possibility.” A possibility, yes, but one that cannot (and should not) be written about in this manner without any evidence to back it up. I do not doubt that kickabouts of some description occurred on Christmas day. A match between the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and IR133 does seem plausible, and is corroborated by more than one source on the German side. But without any first-hand evidence from the Scottish soldiers we cannot assume, as Thermaenius does, that “…Jimmy, as captain of the battalion team, must have also been a leader in this match.”

Thermaenius states that he has found 29 different accounts of football being played on Christmas day. Frustratingly he does not corroborate this with any further details. The historian in me was crying out for references or at least a comprehensive bibliography. There is too much of a re-hash of secondary sources without questioning their provenance or seeking out the first-hand accounts.

Thermaenius acknowledges that football was only a minor part of the truce; the actual ‘match’ between the Scots and the Germans covers barely 15 of this book’s 200+ pages. The truces that occurred along the line were amazing in themselves, and enough first-hand accounts of them survive to make for fascinating reading. Whilst this account is interesting, ultimately it props up the football myth without fully substantiating it.

Buy this book from Amazon here:
The Christmas Match: Football in No Man’s Land 1914

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