As the UK marks the centenary of World War One, the British Council, Football Association, Premier League, and Football League have come together to produce educational materials for British schools that examine the various local truces that spontaneously occurred along parts of the Western Front during Christmas 1914. As the Guardian comments:
It was spontaneous, reciprocal and became one of the most recognisable moments of first world war.
The fraternisation across no man’s land between enemy troops during the “Christmas Truce” of 1914 saw weapons set aside, yuletide greetings and gifts exchanged and even, it was reported, football matches played on the western front.
Still the subject of debate among historians, the centenary of this historic event is to be marked in schools across the UK through Football Remembers, a national commemoration launched by the Duke of Cambridge today.
Education packs aimed at engaging a new generation of young people in what took place on Christmas Day 1914 in Flanders will be available to more than 30,000 schools from Monday.
A competition for schools to design a permanent memorial to the football played during the truce is also being launched, with the winning design, chosen by Prince William and the Arsenal and England forward Theo Walcott, to be built at the National Memorial Arboretum.
“It promises to be a powerful way to engage and educate young people about such an important moment in our history,” said Prince William, president of the Football Association, which together with the Premier League and the Football League has joined forces with the British Council to launch the initiative as part of WWI centenary commemorations this year.
“We all grew up with the story of soldiers from both sides putting down their arms on Christmas Day, and it remains wholly relevant today as a message of hope over adversity, even in the bleakest of times,” he said.
The Christmas Truce was never repeated. Evidence of football matches, exactly where they took place and between whom, is fragmented. Reports of frontline matches between enemy troops emerged in letters home on both sides. One account appeared in a letter to the Times on 1 January 1915. Other accounts include those of trench-weary troops taking advantage of the unofficial ceasefire to kick a ball among themselves.
Now pupils, aged between 9-14 years, are being encouraged to explore the truce through the perspectives of British, French, Belgian, German and Indian witnesses. The activities include improvisation, short plays, recreating football matches, even finding out about local footballers who fought in the Great War.
The education pack is available for download at the British Council website. Among the materials included in the package is a “Friend or Foe Conflict Simulation” (Activity #10):
What is the game about?
A conflict resolution game for upper primary and lower secondary students based around the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914. The game will challenge your students to think about their actions, as well as the cause and effect of conflicts.
You can see a video of a school playing this game at http://schoolsonline.britishcouncil.org/football-remembers.
Why play the game?
The Friend and Foe game explores a process the two sides might have used to reach a truce. In this game cooperation (playing the Friend card) results in the best pay-off for both sides, even if the temptation to double cross (playing the Foe card) is high.
A version of this game has been used in many communities in conflict including Kosovo, Northern Ireland, northern Nigeria, Sri Lanka and gangs in Colombia.
The Scenario (read this to the students)
It is Christmas 1914 and the First World War started almost four months ago. German, Belgian, French, Indian and British troops have dug themselves into trenches in northern France and Belgium. From the trenches they fight one another across No Man’s Land.
Around this time some enemy soldiers start to share Christmas greetings. Gradually the soldiers begin to rise out of the trenches and meet each other in No Man’s Land. Carols are sung, presents exchanged and it is rumoured that football matches are played. What might have happened if both sides had carried forward this good feeling and tried to sort out their differences? Could the war have ended then, without millions of lives being lost?
The game itself is a fairly straight-forward iterated implementation of prisoners’ dilemma, with increasing levels of communication enabled as the game progresses.
The possible plays in the card game are:
- Two Red Friend cards—both cooperate and are rewarded for cooperation by receiving three points each.
- One Red Friend and Blue Foe card—one cooperates and the other defects. The defecting player gets six points, while the cooperator gets none.
- Two Blue Foe cards—both defect and are punished for their mutual defection by having three points deducted each.
After each round, each team discusses what card to play next.
Rounds 1–4: During the first four rounds students may not communicate with the other team in any way. After each play, record the score.
After Round 4: Each team chooses an envoy or representative to talk to the other team (these are the brave soldiers who first stepped out into No Man’s Land). They spend two minutes talking to each other about how they will move forward but they do not have to stick to what they promise. They then report back to their teams ahead of round five.
Rounds 5–8: Resume play. After each play, record the score.
After Round 8: Both teams meet to discuss how to move forward. The teacher should facilitate this and students should speak only when asked, to avoid a shouting match.
Rounds 9–10: Resume play. The final two rounds are worth double points. Add up the final scores and explain the conclusions below.
Secret strategy advice for teachers: The best strategy is to cooperate on the first move and then repeat the play made by the opponent on the previous move. Students should not find this out until the end of the game.
The latter, of course, is a classic tit-for-tat strategy.
Whether WW I trench warfare and the Christmas truces actually embodied a true prisoners’ dilemma dynamic has been hotly debated among game theorists. For the purposes of classroom use, however, it doesn’t much matter—the simulation seems an interesting (and fun) way of getting students to think about cooperation in context of conflict. More generally, the theme of football and war seems a creative way of engaging students with history and historical materials.
I do think, however, that the module risks overstating the potential role that such localized truces might have played in resolving the underlying conflicts, tensions, and suspicions that created the First World War. In particular, this part of the briefing:
What might have happened if both sides had carried forward this good feeling and tried to sort out their differences? Could the war have ended then, without millions of lives being lost?
…seems problematic, unless coupled with a much fuller examination of the interstate rivalries, suspicions, and competing interests that gave rise to the war.