THERE was a glimmer of humanity in the horror of the First World War, and it started with a makeshift ball. The Christmas football matches are remembered at a memorial unveiled by UEFA at Ploegsteert, Belgium. In 2016 the Bus to Bradford group left a Bradford City football there, from the League Cup Final at Wembley against Swansea.

Local historian Dave Welbourne writes: “In Blackadder Goes Forth, Rowan Atkinson staggers into the dug-out complaining that a perfectly good goal he’d scored was offside. He’d taken part in a football match against the Germans, the Christmas Truce 1914. This ‘international match’ has become legendary, depicted in pop videos (Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace), films (Oh! What a Lovely War), adverts and literary works. Historians have argued about the reality of it, yet there is evidence from soldiers’ letters, diaries and accounts of the war.

This unofficial ceasefire on or around Christmas Day 1914 was in several places along the Western Front, as troops indulged in gestures of goodwill. Research by Dr Ian Adams at Lancaster University suggests ad hoc truces occurred along 17 miles of British Lines.

The idea had been suggested by Pope Benedict XV on December 7, but was flatly turned down by various countries in conflict. But to the soldiers, the misery of the trenches was enough to initiate a truce. Carols were sung across the trenches, and cries of Merry Christmas exchanged. The Germans sang Stille Nacht which British soldiers recognised as Silent Night, followed by British and German soldiers climbing out of trenches and sharing cigarettes, alcohol, food and gifts. At first many thought it was a trick and they’d be at risk. A German lieutenant described it as a wonderful yet strange experience; Christmas bringing enemies together for a short time. Lieutenant Charles Brooksbank of the Cheshire Regiment described how, at 2.30 pm, Germans started shouting: “Come out and share a drink.” They found a small ball and a football match took place. An estimated 15 matches took place, one in a turnip field named ‘Stinking Farm’ near Mesinnes on the French/Belgium border. Private Ernie Williams said it was between the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment and 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry. At first officers ordered the men back, shouting: “You bloody fools. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Singing and exchanging cigarettes seems common. One soldier had his hair cut by a ‘German barber’. Others mention a pig roast and kickabouts with makeshift balls or tin cans. The truce allowed bodies on both sides to be retrieved and trenches reinforced. In some places truces lasted until late Christmas afternoon, in others it was New Year’s Day before fighting broke out again.

The High Command was furious and ordered no ‘unofficial truce’ should take place again. Adolf Hitler, a corporal in the German army, said it should not happen in war. But there were rare further matches, such as in Salonika, Greece, when the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on Christmas Day, 1915. The Germans won 3-2.”