Doctor Who: the real history of the WW1 Christmas day truce

Did soldiers really play football in no man's land? Has the Doctor been in World War One before? Here's everything you need to know about the festive armistice

David Bradley and Peter Capaldi in Twice Upon a Time (BBC, TL)

With its story of a long-lost Dalek and time-freezing glass woman, the majority of this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special was far from festive. However, at the close of the episode, we learnt that The Captain was part of a real-life yuletide tale: the First World War Christmas Day armistice.

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But did Twice Upon a Time represent what really happened in the trenches? Did British and German soldiers actually enjoy a game of footie in no man’s land during the ceasefire? And has The Doctor witnessed the truce before? Here’s everything you need to know…

What happened in the Christmas Day armistice?

By Christmas Day 1914, the British, French and Belgian armies had been fighting German forces on the Western front for five months. And since September, both sides had dug defensive trenches – protected by artillery, barbed wire and machine guns – from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. It was the start of a deadly stalemate that would continue for four years.

But according to historian Tony Ashworth, relations between the British and Germans were more friendly than you’d think at first. There are several recorded cases of soldiers exchanging news, mainly football-related, by shouting to each other over the trenches. At some parts of the line, opposing armies would even have a sing-song together every now and then.

Such singing broke out on Christmas Eve, with parts of the trenches enjoying carols together.

A recreation of the Christmas Day truce that took place in 2014 to celebrate 100 years since the truce (Getty, TL)
A 2014 recreation of the Christmas Day truce, celebrating 100 years since the truce (Getty, TL)

It’s not exactly known where the truce started on that sunny Christmas Day over a century ago, how the unofficial ceasefires began or if these ‘live and let live’ occasions were planned days before. But we do know that in many parts of the line, soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches, talked and laughed with each other, exchanging gifts like food, tobacco and hats.

One account from the day mentions a British soldier having his hair cut by his a German barber. Another even notes soldiers enjoying a pig roast between the trenches.

Did soldiers really play football in no man’s land?

Yes. Although historians say most of the football happened between soldiers of the same nationality, researchers Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seatonare have compiled accounts of the truce where Brits and Germans played each other.

This includes a superb story from German Lieutenant Johannes Niemann, who wrote that his fellow soldiers played kilted Scotsmen over the frozen mud. Unfortunately, this record also says the final score was 3–2 to the Germans.

In other parts of the line, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders beat the Germans 4-1, while the Royal Field Artillery drew with their opposition and the Lancashire Fusiliers won 3-2 in their “ration tin ball” game.

'Friend and Foe Join in a Hare Hunt', a Drawing by Gilbert Holliday, from a description by an eye witness rifleman (Getty, TL)
‘Friend and Foe Join’, a Drawing by Gilbert Holliday, from a description by an eyewitness rifleman (Getty, TL)

Did everyone enjoy a Christmas Day Truce?

Sadly not. In some parts of the line fighting still continued and officers even shot their own men for trying to fraternise with the enemy. Many soldiers, including a young Adolf Hitler, also opposed the truce.

How long did the truce last?

In many areas, the armistice lasted only a day, but many sectors enjoyed the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day in peace. Some of the soldiers that enjoyed a kick about on Christmas also repeated their matches on New Year’s Day.

British and German troops make a Christmas and New Year truce in the trenches of the Western Front (Getty, TL)
British and German troops make a Christmas and New Year truce in the trenches of the Western Front (Getty, TL)

Was the ceasefire repeated the next year?

Accounts of truces in 1915 are hard to find, perhaps because High Command on both sides were furious about the events of the previous year, threatening to court-martial soldiers who stopped fighting again.

However, some football matches still broke out on Christmas 1915. Most notably, Brit volunteer Bertie Felstead recalled a 50-on-50 football match in no man’s land. It was a game that lasted half an hour before a British sergeant-major ordered his men back into the trenches.

Has the Christmas day armistice appeared in Doctor Who before?

Not in the TV show, but in Who comic The Forgotten, Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor visits the trenches during Christmas Day with companion Rose Tyler. And in one of the most Doctor Who things ever, The Doctor referees a match between English and German soldiers. 

What was it like filming the truce in the Doctor Who Christmas special?

Emotional. After a screening of the special earlier this month, David Bradley (who plays the First Doctor) told the audience himself and Peter Capaldi had to fight back the tears on set: “When Peter and I were stuck in that muddy field suddenly all these guys came out of the trenches and stood around us. We were so close to blubbing and ruining the take.”

David Bradley and Peter Capaldi in Twice Upon a Time (BBC, TL)
David Bradley and Peter Capaldi in Twice Upon a Time (BBC, TL)

Mark Gatiss, who played The Captain in the episode, also found the scene very powerful: “All these soldiers emerged from the trenches and started singing. We all started crying. It was fantastic.”

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