Thinking like Sherlock

With Christmas fast approaching we discussed the Christmas Truce of 1914 in our most recent session. This came about as we’d all recently seen the Sainsbury’s Christmas advertisement which focuses on the Truce and the football match which is supposed to have taken place, and we were keen to discuss whether we thought it right to use such an event to promote a supermarket.

Discussion of this then led us to focus on whether the football match had actually taken place – whether the story of it was TRUE – and how we could establish whether or not it was. Dr Sean Lang told us we had to take each element of the story and test it. Because something sounds unlikely, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is either impossible or untrue. He suggested we think like the police – like Sherlock, in fact, – and work to eliminate all the impossibles so that what we are left with would have to be the truth.

We started by thinking about the things we would want to know:

  • It was winter – how could they play on the ground?
  • Where did they get the football from?
  • Did a match take place, or was it just a kick-around?
  • Was the game between British and German soldiers, or were only British soldiers involved?
  • Would everyone have been happy about such a football match having taken place?
  • There was an unbroken line of trenches all the way from Switzerland to the sea – did the Truce happen all the way along the line?
  • Did the man who raised his hands above his head and climbed out of the trench exist – and if he did, what was his motive?

We discussed what proof we would need to know whether something had taken place. We discussed written documents, such as diaries and letters home, and decided it wouldn’t be enough to have a written account from only one side. This would be evidence but it wouldn’t be proof. You would need independent written accounts from both sides to be sure.

Another way, we learned, to work out if something has taken place is to picture someone doing it. To this end, we tried to imagine ourselves coming out of the trenches to greet the Germans and showing photos and exchanging gifts. We thought the Germans might likely have offered the British soldiers Schnapps.

We learned that the only photographs seen of the Truce show British and German officers together, which made us wonder where the ordinary soldiers were. Perhaps, if any such photos of ordinary soldiers together existed, they were removed from letters home. Officers might not have wanted the people at home to know about such a moment. We also heard that the German account says the British kicked a football around among themselves. We know the Truce wasn’t universal – there were Scottish soldiers who didn’t take part, and we’ve already worked out with Karen that we think her grandfather, Harry Clarke, was taken prisoner on Christmas Day. The first signs of the Truce apparently came at night when the Germans started singing Christmas carols. The British heard them singing and then apparently joined in. However, there are accounts of this from only two places, and there is only one account of the football kick-around taking place.