All was quiet on the Western Front when the kickabouts started

The guns fell silent, out came a football, a jolly good time was had by both sides - before the industrial slaughter of modern warfare resumed and carried on for the next four years.

While that narrative is familiar to many of us, is it an accurate description of what actually happened in the mud of no man's land on the Western Front?

World War I in numbers

  • Eight million soldiers were killed
  • Nearly one million of these were from the UK or countries then in the British Empire
  • Nine million civilians died
  • Along the Western Front, 300k homes were destroyed

In 1914, World War I was entering its first and what many hoped would be its only winter. Prayers for peace were answered as a spontaneous truce resulted in the fighting being replaced by football.

Historian Iain Adams from the University of Lancaster even told the BBC World Service's Sportshour programme that the Christmas truce marked a watershed in human history.

"We look back on it and think of it as a tremendous display of humanity and this was perhaps the final instalment in gentlemanly warfare," said Dr Adams.

"We don't have any truces in warfare after this. In 1915 we have the horrors of flame throwers being introduced, gas, much heavier artillery, the lines moved further away from each other so you can no longer see who you are killing. This change in warfare marked the end of an era."

So how did the truce come about?

"In December 1914 the static war was just starting, the war that we always think of the First World War as being, the trenches.

"It was very wet and very cold over Christmas, very depressing times.

Christmas truce illustration

The Christmas truce: Drawing is based upon a rifleman's eye-witness account

"The war had come to the end of the campaigning season. Both sides had nearly run out of ammunition, both wanted new troops at the line."

As for the football itself, Dr Adams believes the idea that on Christmas Day the guns fell silent to be replaced by an organised match is fanciful.

"I'm not convinced it was anything like we saw in the movie 'Oh! What A Lovely War', with stretchers being put in the ground as goalposts.

"Nothing like that really happened. What I think we had were scores of little instances where men played football; they didn't play a football match.

"In different places along about 16 miles of the 25-mile frontline, truces broke out. We now call this the Christmas truce, but there were lots of truces that just occurred.

"Most of these trenches are less than a football pitch apart and they can shout to each other.

Continue reading the main story

There were instances of Germans shouting 'How did Chelsea do this weekend?'

Iain Adams University of Central Lancashire

"There were instances of Germans shouting 'How did Chelsea do this weekend?' and 'How are Tottenham doing?' because a lot of them used to live in London."

It seems unthinkable that soldiers who just a day before were trying to kill each other should appear in no man's land, unarmed, and looking to play football, but they had much more than just being enemies in common.

"In some places they just quit firing at each other but didn't emerge from the trenches, in others the Germans got out of their trenches and sat on their barricades and waved and sang carols backwards and forwards.

"In other places the troops went out and held a joint service and buried their dead. Once that had happened the troops were milling around in no man's land.

"If you think about thousands of young men who can't communicate very well, and if you are bored and you've looked at each other's uniforms and exchanged buttons, someone kicks a can and somebody kicks it back and little games of football break out.

"In a few instances real footballs emerged from the backpacks of British troops."

The truce held in some places for as long as 10 days, but eventually the fighting resumed and, along with the football, a chance for a quick end to the war vanished.

"If more and more of the men had said 'We shouldn't be fighting each other; let's have a revolution against the hierarchy of the army in our countries', would the war have stopped?

"If we think back it would have been an incredibly different world if the First World War had ended in December 1914.

"But for the men it was a holiday. Sadly, when the troops were ordered back to the trenches, they went."