It is one of the famous of all images of the First World War – the football match played between the Germans and the English on Christmas Day 1914. There has never, however, been a report on the actual game.
No-one knows who did it first, but the Germans sent sauerkraut to the English, who sent mince pies in the opposite direction. After both sides had feasted Oberleutnant Meier from the German side produced one of those old, leaden-grey, leaden-weighted leather footballs and proposed a football match. English leader Major Smythe (a stereotype in twirly-moustaches) accepted, chose an eleven and appointed himself as captain, effectively demoting himself by one rank. Two goals were marked out by sticking four rifles bayonet-first into the field of mud. An old tin-mug was taken from a backpack and was christened the World Cup.
There was then a discussion as to who would referee. Smythe proposed an Irishman, Paddy, from among his own ranks. German scepticism about this was countered by Smythe on the basis that Ireland was neutral in the war and that therefore Paddy, despite the contradictory evidence that he had a rifle and had until this morning been firing it out of the English trenches at the Germans, must logically be neutral too. Throwing logic at the Germans was a mean trick, they had no real answer to it, so they agreed. This turned out to be a wise choice.
The game kicked off and one of the Germans toed the ball down the field towards Smythe, who controlled it with his chest.
The referee awarded a free-kick for handball.
“But why, Paddy?” blustered Smythe.
“Because my name is Maurice,” said the referee. “You’ve never bothered your arse to find that out, you’ve been calling me Paddy for months simply because I’m Irish, and I’m bloody sick of it.”
“Well, that’s a bit unfair,” said Smythe. He turned to Sergeant McDonald, his team’s Centre-Half. “Isn’t it, Jock?”
The game continued on a pitch that got muddier and muddier with a ball that got heavier and heavier. The two sets of spectators shouted, cheered, sang withering songs at each other (“no World Wars and no World Cups, doo-dah, doo-dah”) and slated the referee (“who’s the bastard in the uniform?”).
Just before half-time the ball arrived at height into the English penalty-box and a young German, Schmidt, unwisely met it with his head. This caused him to fall backwards unconscious, the lace of the football leaving a mark like the stitches on Frankenstein’s monster’s head, but the ball rebounded into the English goal.
The German fans went wild and celebrated, as Pathé News footage from the time suggests was customary, by throwing their hats in the air. The upshot of this was that a shower of tin helmets dropped onto a collection of heads that weren’t wearing tin helmets and Maurice had to play four minutes of injury-time while the crowd got treatment.
The second-half was virtually one-way traffic as the English fought for an equaliser, but by sound defence, some great goalkeeping (their keeper, Müller, had played Water Polo for Germany in the 1912 Olympics) and sheer luck the Germans clung onto their lead.
There were only seconds remaining when the ball made its way out to the wing to young Private Higgins. Just four months earlier Higgins had been playing for Tranmere Rovers in League Division Three North and was the nearest thing to a real footballer that either side had. He had never before played on a pitch such as this, but sheer skill and grit carried him past tackle after tackle, the ball stuck to his foot as if it had been stuck to his foot. One boot came off and sat in the mud, and still he carried on down the wing. He vaulted over an attempted sliding tackle, an unwise move by the German defender concerned who continued to slide until his progress was squelchily halted by a recently-dug latrine.
Higgins reached the by-line, bent his foot around and under a football that now had the density of a black hole and somehow lifted it into the German penalty area, where Corporal Adams launched himself acrobatically and overhead-kicked it at unstoppable speed into the goal. The English team leapt in celebration and then rushed to help Adams, whose two legs were the only parts of him visible above the mud.
Seconds later Maurice blew the final whistle. The game had ended in a draw.
“We’ll decide it with a penalty shoot-out,” said Smythe promptly, believing that England, as the inventors of football, would be far better at penalties than anyone else. He had no way of knowing that evidence from years yet to come, quite a lot of evidence in fact, would not back up this theory.
It began well for them, though. Schmidt took the first penalty for Germany and, as the books always recommend, went for placement rather than power, side-footing the ball towards the corner of the goal.
It stopped three feet short.
Adams was first up for England. Having seen the previous attempt he went for sheer power, putting all the might of his seventeen stones and his hob-nailed size-16 regulation army boot behind the ball. It cleared the goalkeeper by about five feet and sped over the heads of the crowd, over the trenches and into a minefield, where it exploded.
“Well, that’s the end of that,” said Müller. “We’ve only got one ball.”
“So we’ve heard,” said Adams. ”In fact, we’ve got a song about it.”
It was two hours later. A campfire had been lit by setting fire to a pot of porridge (it smouldered for days afterwards). Someone had produced a guitar. The Germans were teaching the English the German words to Silent Night.
Meier and Smythe sat side by side, taking it in turns to drink what they refereed to as “Chateau Trench” (a mixture of diesel and the bromide that they put in soldiers’ tea) from the World Cup. Eventually Meier stood up to go. Smythe got to his feet too, holding out the mug.
“There’s still a mouthful left,” he said, “want to finish it?”
Their eyes met, eyes filled with mutual respect and deep, deep sadness.
“I’d better not,” said Meier quietly. “I have to work in the morning.”