On a cold, windy day in the middle of the countryside, two groups of men with very different backgrounds and beliefs lined up next to each other. Unnoticed but by a few in the outside world, these men shared a common bond that has stood the test of time. More than 90 years later, a similar group of 22 men stood in the same field outside of Ypres, Belgium to commemorate where British and German troops laid down their arms and played football to celebrate Christmas away from home. Just like the soldiers from several generations before them, these modern-day warriors set aside their differences and played a symbolic match where the greatest achievement was not the final score but the continued memories of how mortal enemies were able to come together in the middle of a war.
This post presents the question: how does the memory of significant sporting events, such as the Christmas Day Truce of 1914, animate contemporary sport-related peace-building initiatives through memory and conflict?
To understand how memory can be an integral variable in sport-related peace-building initiatives, we can look towards one of the first recorded instances of the use of football in an organically-created, grass-roots effort that created a small window of peace during an era of conflict. The 1914 Christmas Day Truce, is one of the few moments in modern military history where both sides in a conflict laid down arms and met in ‘no man’s land’ to celebrate a common event.
Upon hearing of the ‘unofficial armistice,’ the high command from both sides were enraged by the actions of their non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and sought to end ‘this Elysian [almost divine] situation’. The Truce began on Christmas Eve with German soldiers singing ‘hymns and tunes common to both nations… understandably, [according to one British soldier] a wave of nostalgia passed over us.’ Frank and Michael Wary, two members of the 1st London Brigade who were present in the trenches on the night reported:
A battalion of the 10th Division on our left [flank] arranged a football match against a German team ─ one of their number having found in the opposing unit a fellow member of his local Liverpool football club who was also his hairdresser! Many souvenirs were exchanged… A joint working group party was formed for burying the dead men and animals… A distant improvement in the atmosphere was made, in which we were to continue to live until Easter.
Even though the fleeting peace that evolved in the middle of war during Christmas Day has not been replicated since 1914, peace-building organisations and, to a limited extent, researchers have sought to understand how the memory of peaceful events affects divided societies.
Memory and Conflict
Drawing on Bell’s definition of collective memory as the ‘widely shared perceptions of the past, linking the past-present-future to a collective, simplified narrative.’ It is through a group’s collective memory that we are able to use past events to help formulate policy and develop tools for peace-building. The last section presented an observation from two brothers of a monumental event. Unfortunately, since the event was spontaneous and led by NCOs, it was never properly documented and the events of the day were pieced together through the accounts of wounded soldiers who were taken from the front line.
Taking the accounts of the event as recalled by other soldiers and written about by historians, collective memory of the event has enabled researchers to piece together the events of the Christmas Day Truce. In other words, in this case, the vast number of soldiers’ accounts validate this historical event.
When dealing with memory and conflict, it is important to address the role of trauma and the shared traumatic experience. Alexander states that trauma occurs ‘when individuals and groups feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their consciousness, [because it] will mark their memories forever and will change their future in fundamentally irrevocable ways.’ Applying this to the Christmas Day Truce, it can be argued that that the trauma of trench warfare affected the soldiers on both sides almost equally. Their shared experience, set within the framework of a common holiday, allowed the two sides to unite around sportsmanship while re-humanising the other. As reported by the Wary Brothers, the culmination of this was when the two British and German soldiers who realised they knew each other from before the war and how, even after they were forced to resume fighting, ‘the mood in the trenches changed for the months following’ the event.
When further examining the Wray brothers’ case, it can be seen that the window for engaging with trauma as a tool for unification can be lost as easily as it is established. At the end of the report, it was conveyed that the brothers’ brigade was ‘taken out of the [front] line for a rest period but, unfortunately within a week, we found ourselves involved in the 2nd Battle of Ypres during which the majority of the Battalion became causalities.’
The organically created Christmas Day Truce was an opportunity for official peace-building that was lost by the high command, although it was unattainable in the greater context of this war. It is in these ripe moments that modern peace-builders have to work the hardest to find solutions to conflicts so that opportunities become attainable. Although missing the ripe moment presented in collective trauma can deny opportunities for peace-building, collective memory is not easily lost. This is evident by the commemoration of the Christmas Day Truce many years later: neither side forgot the importance of the truce. The shared trauma, when introduced at the right moment, and the collective memory of an event are two powerful tools that peace-builders have begun to use when developing sport-related initiatives in divided societies.
To commemorate the Christmas Day Truce of 1914, the British and German militaries organised a football match on 11 November 2008 between modern soldiers from the regiments that were said to have played in the original match. Almost reflecting the original outcome (3-2, Germany) the match ended 2-1 with Germany again prevailing. The most important outcome from the commemorative match was not the final score but the relationship and the understanding that was rekindled between two powers that historically were enemies. The Truce was commemorated not only to remember those who gave their lives in the Great War but also to remember those few brave men who were willing to cross physical and metaphoric boundaries and break down barriers that were built to help de-humanise the people on the other side.
Unfortunately, it has to be mentioned that the use of sport in areas of conflict does not come without potential hazards or shortfalls. Practitioners and academics are learning how to minimise the potentially toxic elements (i.e. racism, cultural sensitivity, and entrenchment of rivalries) that are associated with introducing sport into a divided society. For sports initiatives to become truly successful, not only do the grass-roots, individual movements have to be engaged, but the political society needs to understand the importance of the peace-building objectives.
Darnell points out that ‘sport does not ease the importance of a political commitment to peace; at best sport offers an entry point into conversations about, and struggles towards, peacebuilding. This notion is the heart of the debate over the role of sport as a tool of peace-building in divided societies. This does not mean that people should not try to introduce new sport-related initiatives in a divided society without a commitment to peace from the political society.
As the Christmas Day Truce of 1914 has exemplified the effectiveness of sport in the ultimate form of division between relatively similar cultures, sport can produce a unifying force more powerful than war. It is the memory of the event ─ how a simple game unified enemies ─ that has lasted long after that last surviving member has passed on. When active-duty soldiers from both Great Britain and Germany played in the commemoration game 94 years later, the legacy and courage of those brave soldiers in 1914 was solidified as a peace-building initiative. The act of having two historically opposing enemies facing off on the same battlefield with active-duty soldiers is rarely seen in the modern context in such a high profiled event.
In the end, using sport as a peace-building tool is not solely the answer when attempting to unite divided societies. However, even though the use of sport in peace-building initiatives has faced obstacles, the successes outweigh the challenges. It is these successes that need to be built upon by practitioners and studied by academics to find the most effective uses of sports initiatives in divided societies.
Letter: Vice Admiral B.B. Schofield, London, 13 March 1968. Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College London. (LH 15/2/50).
‘Soldiers take part in commemorative football match’, Ministry of Defence, 14 November 2008.
Alexander, Jeffrey, ‘Towards a Theory of Cultural Trauma’ in Jeffrey Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka, Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004).
Bell, Duncan, Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the Relationship between Past and Present, (New York: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2006).
Darnell, Simon C., ‘Conflict, Education, and Sport: Responses, Causes and Questions’, Conflict and Education, 1(1), 2011.
Weintraub, Stanley, Silent Night: The Story of the WWI Christmas Day Truce, (New York: The Free Press, 2001).
*Blog post first appeared on: https://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/sport-matters/2017/12/19/football-1914-xmas-day-truce/
 ‘Soldiers take part in commemorative football match’, Ministry of Defence, 14 November 2008. Retrieved: 15 February 2012.
 The following account is by two members of the 1st London Rifle Brigade, the brothers Frank and Michael Wray written in a letter by Vice Adrimal BB Schofield.
 Letter: Vice Admiral B.B. Schofield, London, 13 March 1968. Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College London. (LH 15/2/50).
 Duncan Bell, ‘Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the Relationship between Past and Present’, (New York: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2006), p 2.
 Ibid. p. 2.
 Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the WWI Christmas Day Truce, (New York: The Free Press, 2001).
 Jeffrey Alexander, ‘Towards a Theory of Cultural Trauma’ in Jeffrey Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka, Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), p. 1; Duncan Bell, ‘Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the Relationship Between Past and Present’, (New York: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2006), p 2.
 Letter: Vice Admiral B.B. Schofield, London, 13 March 1968. (LH 15/2/50).
 ‘Soldiers take part in commemorative football match’, Ministry of Defence, 14 Nov 2008, Retrieved: 15 February 2012.
 Simon C. Darnell, ‘Conflict, Education, and Sport: Responses, Causes and Questions’, Conflict and Education, 1(1), 2011.