British and German soldiers recreate a World War I Christmas truce football match Wednesday in a feel-good ending to a year of 100th anniversary commemorations of the start of the conflict.
As the truce took hold on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914, enemy British and German troops emerged from their trenches along the Western Front to talk, joke, share cigarettes and kick a ball about in no-man's-land. It has come to represent a fleeting moment of humanity in a four-year conflict which killed more than 16 million troops and civilians. Kick-off is at 1930 GMT in the British garrison town of Aldershot, southwest of London.
The match is open to the public and a few thousand spectators are expected to attend. The proceeds from ticket sales will go to military charities. The teams are to play in modern kit with a modern ball. They will be led out by one German and one British soldier in World War I uniforms. Britain has held a host of public commemorations this year to mark the centenary of the war's outbreak. In perhaps the most popular, millions flocked to look at a sea of 888,246 ceramic poppies installed in the moat around the Tower of London, one for each British forces member killed.
The mythology around a Christmas truce football match has also grown, with the event featuring in everything from a Yuletide advertisement for supermarket giant Sainsbury's to a festive Royal Shakespeare Company theatre production. There have been a string of other events commemorating it.
UEFA president Michel Platini, the European football chief, unveiled a statue of a player in a field in Saint-Yvon, Belgium, last week, while the English Premier League organised a "Christmas truce" tournament for youngsters whose countries fought in the war.
Fleeting encounters in no-man's-land
However, experts say there is no hard evidence that a formal game took place during the truce.
Matt Brosnan, a curator at the Imperial War Museum in London, said the pause in fighting was more useful to soldiers as a chance to recover and bury the bodies of dead comrades than to play football.
"The perception often is that it took place across the board with organised matches, whereas it was much more isolated than that," he told AFP. "What was more typical was soldiers meeting, exchanging gifts and sharing a few moments. The incidents were sometimes fairly fleeting."
Brosnan believes that fewer than 100 soldiers probably took part in impromptu kick-abouts on the day. Alexander Hess, 27, captain of the visiting Bundeswehr team, said many Germans had only become familiar with the Christmas truce football story "in the last two weeks" due to media coverage.
"Today I hope we can remember and have a good match," he added. Keith Emmerson, 31, captain of the British army side, said it did not really matter whether football matches actually took place between the trenches in the way that has become commonly perceived. "I think for a lot of people it doesn't (matter)," he said. "For us, we believe it did and it's a magical thing that we get to commemorate this evening." He said many of the players and spectators would likely have relatives who served in World War I.
A letter which recently emerged from a British general to his wife describing the 1914 truce also sheds light on the reality of the situation. While General Walter Congreve did not join the truce himself for fear of being targeted, he wrote that one of his men "smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army, then no more than 18." He added: "They say he's killed more of our men than any other 12 together but I know now where he shoots from and I hope we down him tomorrow."
Emmerson did tours of duty in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2008, but could not imagine playing football against the Taliban. "Probably not," he said. "The enemy still remain the enemy and it's not something where you have common ground."