I suppose what made it possible
Was that no one expected more
Than a day of unhurried hours, better
Food, some free time to reread old letters,
Write new ones. Small Christmas trees
With candles lined both sides of the trenches
And marked the two days’ truce.
Who can explain it? – one minute troops
Are sitting in mud, the next raising themselves
Out of the trenches, as if all they needed
Was a soccer ball to remind them
Of who they were. Imagine a Scotsman
Heading the ball into the air and catching it
On his instep, then flicking it across
The frosted grass to a German smoking
A cigarette who smiles and settles the ball,
Then boots it back. Soon a few soldiers
From both sides circle around the Scotsman
And the ball moves quickly back and forth,
Left foot, right foot, all of the men rocking
From side to side, the ball, the cold,
Making good neighbors of them all.
A game’s begun, a real match without referees,
Attack and counterattacks, the ball crossing
From side to side, a match played,
We can imagine, as if it were all that mattered,
As if the game’s sudden fizzes of beauty –
Three crisp passes or two perfect triangles
Laying end to end and pointing to the goal –
Could erase what they had learned
To live with. Laughing, out of breath, dizzy
With the speed of the ball skipping over
The frozen earth, did they recognize themselves
For a short while in each other? History says
Only that they exchanged chocolate and cigarettes,
Relaxed in the last ransomed sunlight.
When the night came and they had retreated
To their own sides, some of the men
Wrote about the soccer game as if they had to
Ensure the day had really happened. It did.
We have the letters, though none of them says
How, in the next short hours, they needed,
For their own well-being, to forget everything
That had happened that Christmas day.
It was cold, the long rows of candles must have
Seemed so small in the dark. Restless, awake
In the trenches, the men, I suppose,
Already knew what tomorrow would bring,
How it would be judged by the lost and missing.
– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 39–40.
I remember reading about this account in an English Literature class in High School and how it started my thinking about the absurdity of war.
WWI was such a political war, mostly a squabble between royal cousins, and yet the amount of “regular” people, with no real animosity toward each other, that had to die while rich powerful people, on both sides, directed the action is an atrocity.