Did WWI really stop for a Christmas Day soccer game?

PLOEGSTEERT, Belguim -- Nearly 100 years to the day, men dressed as German and British soldiers gathered in Ploegsteert , Belgium to reenact one of the most storied episodes of World War I. It took place on Christmas Day 1914, when men from opposing armies briefly stopped trying to kill each other and met to exchange Christmas greetings, and even, the story goes, to play soccer.

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Chris Barker speaks to Mark Phillips CBS News

For Chris Barker, whose three great-uncles were killed along a stretch of the front, the idea of the truce must be passed on.

"In any conflict, in any part of the world, ever in time, have you ever had two warring parties suddenly lay down their arms and be pals," Barker told me.

The truce happened early in the war, which may explain why it happened at all. The gas attacks and wholesale slaughter that would cause such bitterness and hatred would come later.

There are varying accounts of what happened in the trenches along the front lines. Some diaries of British soldiers say they heard calling from across the way from the German line saying, "if you don't shoot, we won't."

Many WWI memorial plaques and monuments in poor condition

It's unclear who stuck their heads up first -- the British or the Germans? But before long troops were flooding out of trenches on both sides of the line and moving through the wire into 'no man's land,' and boys being boys, pretty soon, a ball appeared.

Now, on the anniversary, balls are appearing all over the place: on a monument that's just been unveiled, in school games with the kids dressed the part, in a replay between current British and German army teams, and in a feel-good Christmas ad for a supermarket chain.

Yet there's a problem. The famous game probably never took place.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, they've studied the evidence and found plenty of photos of fraternizing between enemies, but no photos or other proof of a game. Yet, the lack of proof hasn't stopped the tale from being passed on.

"It's become the defining the image of the Christmas truce," historian Alan Cleaver told me.

He agreed it's because it encompasses the idea of the futility of war, that left to their own devices these men will play games, not shoot each other.

And 100 years later, if most people think the game happened -- it happened.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.