World War I Enemies Played Football During A Christmas Truce – Except Maybe They Didn’t

Published: 14 December 2023

By Andrew Hamilton
via the HISTORYNET web site

All Together Now sculpture

Andrew Edwards’ famous sculpture called “All Together Now” at the garden of St. Luke’s Church (the bombed-out church) in Liverpool. (Juergen Schwarz, Ed Rooney, PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Evidence casts suspicion on a famous Christmas Truce story and several monuments.

Over the Christmas period in 1914, fraternization took place in No Man’s Land between British and German soldiers at St. Yvon in Belgium. Memorials in the Belgian villages of St. Yvon and Messines commemorate a football game played between the British and the Germans during the Truce. Whenever this author mentions that his grandfather Robert Hamilton, a captain in the 1st Battalion of the British Army’s Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was involved in the Christmas Truce at St. Yvon, he is invariably asked whether Hamilton played in a game of football against the Germans.

It is a fair question given that it is now widely accepted that there was an ‘international’ match there. However, evidence from accounts by those who took part in the Truce casts doubt over whether such a game took place at all and calls into question the justification for the installation of the three memorials, one on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood and two in Messines.

Where did the story come from?

Captain Robert Hamilton

One of the most compelling accounts of the Christmas Truce and the warfare that preceded it, is to be found in Hamilton’s diary which he kept throughout his five months on the Western Front. It offers a graphic and harrowing account of mobile fighting before the onset of attritional trench warfare.

He vividly described the rain, mud, dangers and discomforts of life in the trenches and the daily fight for survival against shelling and sniping. His descriptions of life behind the lines, billets, estaminets and local hospitality are detailed and perceptive. His record of the humor and comradeship of his fellow soldiers is also heartwarming and entertaining.

At the war’s outbreak in 1914, Hamilton was 37 years old. He had been brought up in Tiddington, a village near Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, England and was educated at Glenalmond College in Scotland, after which he became a regular in the British Army. He joined the Norfolk Regiment with whom he fought as a 2nd lieutenant in the Boer War 1899-1902.

By 1914 he had been transferred to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, whose men were commonly known as the Royal Warwicks. It is clear from his diary entries that he was a good friend of Bernard Law Montgomery, the future Field Marshal and architect of notable victories over Germany in World War II. On Aug. 8, 1914, Hamilton recorded when at Shorncliffe in Kent waiting to cross the Channel to France that, “Bernard and I walked down to get our valises, which they refused to let us fetch. This was the first major piece of red tape rot, which Bernard and I quite made up our minds must cease.”

Thirty-mile marches and ducking German shells exacted a toll on the Royal Warwicks. Hamilton complained on Sept. 12 that, “This is the hell,” and on Sept. 19 that, “I am sure I look fifty, I feel seventy.” Hamilton was promoted to the rank of captain after his superior, Charles Bentley, was court martialed for constant drunkenness, much to his and Montgomery’s relief.

This artistic interpretation of the Christmas Truce of 1914 depicts German and British troops mingling on the battlefield to exchange tokens of goodwill. (Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

On Oct. 13, 1914, in one of their first major actions of the war, the Royal Warwicks fought in the battle of Meteren, losing 42 men killed and 85 wounded. The battle ended Montgomery’s front line action when he was hit in the lung and knee. He was hospitalized in St. Omer and returned to Southampton, England via Boulogne on Oct. 18 to recover.

Prior to the Christmas Truce, Hamilton and the Royal Warwicks were based in trenches on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood which on Nov. 22 were, he wrote, “in a shocking way. Dead bodies everywhere and the stink awful.” On Dec. 11, he wrote: “It rained all night and the whole of today. When I went round the sentries, I found them quite resigned to another flood. They were amused. One Private Carter said “it will lay the dust, sir, won’t it?” at which I laughed heartily and so did they. But poor fellows were on their last legs for this trench trip.”

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