Lancashire and Cheshire, Western Front Association

Chairman’s Notes

Good Evening and welcome to the February meeting. As I cannot make the meeting, please support Phil Hamer this evening. I am sure you will enjoy Peter Hart’s talk on Jutland. I am sorry I will miss it. It has been agreed that Phil will not provide any graphics for tonight’s meeting. Those who saw his cartographical representation of the Gallipoli Peninsula will know exactly to what I am referring.

Peter has been a regular speaker on the Great War and I am sure you will be fully entertained this evening. Jutland was the only major battle between the two main fleets in the war. It was very much a battle of what if’s?  However, counterfactuals are basically useless. Those who try to envisage an alternative scenario if only something had or had not happened are deluding themselves that an alternative scenario would have occurred. Any of the component facts could have been altered, so any interpretation merely reflects the personal whims of the proposer.    

Enjoy the meeting.

Terry Jackson, Chairman 

Last Month’s Talk

The Christmas Truce 1914 has long been the subject of reports and articles. The common theme was associated with the apparent ‘international’ friendly football match between the British and Germans. However, Taff Gillingham delved deep into the legend to ascertain the true facts of the case.

The match has been notated on several media programmes and sources throughout the years. Various bodies have reported as fact the international match on 25th December. In all there are nearly 30 versions of a match, so much so that UEFA has been involved in the commemoration.

Given his track record, the enthusiasm of Michel Platini to celebrate the truce match can be taken with a pinch of salt and possibly a pass back. (Football’s equivalent of a back hander).

Films such as the appalling ‘Joyeux Noel’ had exaggerated this fallacy.  Chris Baker, former Chairman of the WFA showed by research, that there was no such evidence for any football international.

As Taff pointed out, although in some areas hostilities may have ceased, there is no evidence for an Us v Them match. Some Tommies may have kicked a tin can about, but there was no organised competitive game.

In the areas occupied by North Eastern units, there was no feeling of collaboration with an enemy that had only two weeks previously shelled residential areas of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough.  Even photographs purporting to show the game had only British participants and a famous still was in fact taken in Salonika.  

Thus the real truce has been pushed aside and although some soldiers do mention a game, these are usually by men who were not near the front and often just saying what the interviewer wanted to hear. (Tonight’s speaker Peter Hart, as Oral Historian of the IWM has said this is a factor that an interviewer has to bear in mind).  

Taff evoked many contemporary accounts of the truce. The most reliable relate to some fraternisation and possible covert attempts to have a peep at the others’ trenches. Most credible accounts present an informal kick about by the British, sometimes observed by the Germans. Kurt Zehmisch IR134 recalled observing an informal football match by the enemy only.

In his involvement with the Khaki Chums, Taff quoted numerous approaches to him from various bodies seeking information on the famous match. He was able to prove to them this had not occurred. Whether this persuaded them not to continue with a spurious report is another matter. 

Unfortunately, the myth will continue, but it is up to the WFA to ensure that glib commentators do not steal the true facts of this nor any other Great War myth.

I was right in my preamble to last month’s UTL. As the Sun says.” Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. Taff’s research has fully dispelled any such match. Ed

100 Years Ago

On 3rd February 1917, President Woodrow Wilson spoke for two hours before a historic session of Congress to announce that the United States was breaking diplomatic relations with Germany.

Due to the reintroduction of the German Navy’s policy of unlimited submarine warfare, announced two days earlier by Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollwegg, Wilson stated that his government had no choice but to cut all diplomatic ties with Germany in order to uphold the honour and dignity of the United States. Though he maintained that America did not desire any hostile conflict with the German government, Wilson nevertheless cautioned that war would follow if Germany followed through on its threat to sink American ships without warning.

Later that day, Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the U.S., received a note written by Secretary of State Robert Lansing stating that the President had directed him to announce to his Excellency that all diplomatic relations between the United States and the German empire were severed, and that the American Ambassador at Berlin would be immediately withdrawn. In accordance with such an announcement, Bernstorff was guaranteed safe passage out of the country, but was ordered to leave Washington immediately. Also in the wake of Wilson’s speech, all German cruisers docked in the United States were seized and the government formally demanded that all American prisoners being held in Germany be released at once.

On the same day, a German U-boat sunk the American cargo ship Housatonic off the Scilly Islands. A British ship rescued the ship’s crew, but its entire cargo of grain was lost.

In Berlin that night, before learning of the President’s speech, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann told U.S. Ambassador James J. Gerard that everything would be all right. America would do nothing, for President Wilson was for peace and nothing else. Everything would go on as before. He was proved wrong the following morning, as news arrived of the break in relations between America and Germany, a decisive step towards U.S. entry into the First World War.