a Don Mullan Concept
“… a moment of humanity in a time of carnage… what must be the most extraordinary celebration of Christmas since those notable goings-on in Bethlehem.”
– Piers Brendon, British Historian
The Island of Ireland Peace Park stands on a gentle slope overlooking the site of one of the most extraordinary events of World War I, and indeed, world history. On Christmas Eve 1914 the guns fell silent and, as darkness descended, British soldiers heard the sounds of Christmas carols rising from the German lines. The British ranks responded, first by applause and cheering, and then by singing themselves.
Being curious, some soldiers raised their heads above the trenches. In the distance they could see the glow of candles on small Christmas trees. German
heads were also seen peering above the trenches. No shots were fired. Some soldiers raised their heads higher. Shoulders, trunks and entire bodies soon
stood above the trenches.
Soldiers on both sides began to inch closer and eventually met at the heart of No Man’s Land, poignantly surrounded by their fallen comrades, frozen rigid by, and clothed in, frost. They shook hands, exchanged gifts and drinks, swapped cap
badges and buttons, and showed one another photographs of their families and loved ones.
This extraordinary encounter continued throughout Christmas Day, during which the dead were buried. Contemporary correspondence and reports from the period suggest that a football was produced and a game of soccer between German and British soldiers was played with the Germans emerging 3-2 winners.
Today, the debris of war, the hundreds and thousands of corpses and wounded, the mud and wire have all been removed. Apart from a small wooden cross and an accompanying information panel, the memory is all but erased. When I first visited the site, near Ploegsteert Wood, close to Mesen/Comine, Belgium, on 28 August 2008, the cross was dwarfed by an eight-foot-tall maize harvest.
Unable to see the length and breadth of No Man’s Land upon which one of the most moving encounters of human history occurred, I asked permission to enter a nearby two-storey house. From an upstairs window I looked upon neat rows of maize stretching towards the church dome of Mesen and the Round Tower of the Island of Ireland Peace Park, some three kilometres distant.
As I surveyed the site of this small but momentous and hope-filled moment of history, I imagined, by the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce in 2014, a Flanders Peace Field for the children and youth of Europe and the world. A field upon which, over and over again, that moment of humanity would be immortalised through the energy of the young. I saw, not a stadium, but a college-type sports field, surrounded by bleachers, around which the field of maize would continue to be harvested as sustenance for humanity.
The Christmas Truce Project has two main goals:
1. To create a Flanders Peace Field where young people will gather to play sport and reflect on the lessons of the remarkable 1914 Christmas truce for the twenty-first century.
2. To create an International Christmas Truce Carol and Folk Festival in Flanders with satellite services across Europe and the world to celebrate that night of magic when carols, songs and music allowed enemies to become friends and created a moment in history that, today, encourages us to reach across our own No Man’s Land of prejudice, fear and misunderstandings.
The Flanders Peace Field
The Flanders Peace Field is inspired by contemporary correspondence and reports that give rise to the belief that a football match was played close to Messines and Ploegsteert Wood involving both British and German troops during the Christmas truce of 1914.
On 1 January 1915 The Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corp, who described the Christmas truce, stating that his regiment:
‘¦actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2!!!
The British account is supported by the official war history of the 133rd Saxon Regiment, which described the ‘droll scene’ of Tommy and Fritz first chasing down hares fleeing from under the cabbages, then kicking about a football furnished by a Scot:
‘¦ This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid down as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the centre. The result: ‘Das Spiel endete 3:2 fur Fritz.’
On 19 December 2008 Dr Ian Paisley recounted to me the story of an old neighbour from his childhood who told him about the Christmas truce and who claimed to have participated in a football game:
‘¦he told me that at the time of the truce ‘¦ he played in the football match. And he said, ‘We had a great crowd watching, both German and all
Referring to reports that football was played, Dr Paisley continued:
I think it was right. There were too many [who said it happened]. What would they make that up for? They were severely rebuked afterwards on
We know for certain that the Irish took an active role in the 1914 Christmas truce. The regimental history of the 13th London Regiment, the Kensingtons, records:
We were a little embarrassed by this sudden comradeship, and, as a lasting joke against us, let it be said that the order was given to stand to arms. But we did not fire, for the battalion of the Irish Fusiliers, with their national sense of humour, answered the enemies’ salutations with songs
and jokes and made appointments in No Man’s Land for Christmas Day. We felt small and subdued and spent the remainder of Christmas Eve in watching the lights flicker and fade on the Christmas trees in their trenches and in hearing voices grow fainter and eventually cease.
With the active support of the towns of Messines (Mesen) and Comines and the Messines Peace Village, this project will be aimed at drawing the youth of Europe and the world to the region to play football and other sports on the Flanders Peace Field. They will do so in memory of the opposing soldiers who, on their own initiative, temporarily ended a war to explore their common humanity. Their visit to the Flanders Peace Field will also involve introductory talks, audio-visual presentations and exhibition materials that will explore the theme of ‘Sport and Development for Peace’. The young people will be encouraged to actively engage in projects that contribute to local and international peace and development when they return to their respective communities.
Those who play on the Peace Field will be given a commemorative medal and certificate.
Already the memory of the Christmas truce football game has inspired literature and art and an organisation called ‘Truce’, whose patron is Sven-G¶ran Eriksson, the former England, Mexico and Ivory Coast manager, which seeks to make football available to children in poor and conflict regions of the world.
With imagination, other sporting disciplines can also be incorporated. For example, the idea is emerging of an annual Flanders Peace Field Cher Ami pigeon race. It will be in memory of a homing pigeon named Cher Ami which, despite grave wounds, managed to fly back to its loft some twenty-five miles from the front, carrying the coordinates of a lost US battalion, thus saving the lives of almost two hundred men. Considered a national hero, Cher Ami is now preserved at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
The Flanders Peace Field might also inspire visits from foreign dignitaries and international peacemakers.
For instance, the idea of a visit from Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2014 is under consideration. The Flanders Peace Field idea has also helped influence the design concept of a new world trophy ‘ ‘The Fans World Cup’ ‘ which we hope will be presented for the first time to the participating country whose fans are regarded as the most sporting at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Messines Peace Village International Peace School
The Messines Peace Village, an initiative that grew out of the Irish peace process, is a wonderful ‘ though currently underused ‘ facility built for the purpose of welcoming visitors, especially the young, to the region. It is a world class youth hostel that can accommodate up to 140 young people and their leaders. The idea of developing an International Christmas Truce Peace School at the Peace Village is currently under consideration.
I have respectfully suggested that the proposed International Peace School might consider offering something unique and in keeping with the Christmas Truce Project and the Flanders Peace Field. The plan is to link the proposed Peace School with the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace, exploring the role of sport in conflict resolution and international humanitarianism and development.
I am hopeful that, together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pel© will become patron of the Christmas Truce Project and Flanders Peace Field. Archbishop Tutu is remembered for his seminal work in helping to peacefully end Apartheid in South Africa and his skilful chairing of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War, both sides agreed, and honoured, a 48-hour truce so that they could go to Lagos to watch Pel© play in an exhibition game with his team Santos FC.
Christmas carols, folk songs and music
Inspired by the Christmas carols that enticed soldiers to leave their trenches and initiate the 1914 Christmas truce, I have initiated an annual International Christmas Truce Carol and Folk Festival in Flanders. The first Festival opened with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Peace Choir on 10 December 2010.
The date which the festival will be based around is December 6th, the Feast of St Nicholas, which retains a strong tradition in this region of Belgium and throughout mainland Europe. (By coincidence, Mesen church is named after St Nicholas.) It is envisaged that the International Peace School will participate in the Festival by incorporating traditional songs that explore the different cultures present in the trenches in 1914.
Soldiers often listened to ‘the enemy’ entertaining themselves with songs and music across No Man’s Land. Furthermore, we know from research that more than fifty ethnic groups, nationalities and cultures were present in the region, including Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s people, the Xhosa nation of South Africa.
Art and literature
There exists a body of literature and art which explores the theme of the Christmas truce. This all needs to be collected and made more readily available
for research and reflection.
There also exists room for much more. For example, the acclaimed UK sculptor and artist Andrew Edwards has a vision for the Flanders Peace Field that would incorporate a series of donated sculpture pieces from around the world that explore the theme of peace, reconciliation and sport. These might be placed on a walk that symbolically takes visitors across No Man’s Land from, for example, the town square of Mesen to the centre of Comines. A whole tradition could be built around such a walk. Andrew is already in discussions with the English FA about a monument commemorating the Christmas Truce football game.
Irish author, James O’Halloran, author of When the Acacia Bird Sings has just completed a novel related to World War I and the Christmas truce.
International youth events
Youth, boys and girls, will be an integral part of the Flanders Peace Field enterprise. The intention would be to bring young people from across Europe and the world to stay at the Peace Village where they will participate in the International Peace School, learn about the Christmas truce, reflect on its relevance and message for today and experience the joy of sport on the Flanders Peace Field.
The Peace Village is also an ideal location to bring together protagonists from conflict zones around the world, a safe haven where they can encounter each
other’s common humanity and, reflecting on the wondrous gesture of the ordinary soldiers of the 1914 Christmas truce, seek ways to heal the wounds of war and conflict.
International sporting tournaments are also being devised which would see national Christmas truce school and youth club competitions culminate in
international finals on the Flanders Peace Field. These competitions will be about inspiration. They will be about encouraging boys and girls to believe in themselves and to discover that the real joy of sport is in the participating and sharing. Winning is a bonus, but to lose with honour and grace is an indication of a true sportsperson.
What is important is that we work to preserve the memory of when ordinary soldiers, on both sides of World War I, decided to stop fighting and explore
their common humanity. In doing so, they were responsible for an act of fraternisation that caused great disquiet among the high-ranking officers of
both armies. The generals were diligent in subsequent Christmas seasons to ensure that the truce of 1914 never again happened. Why? They understood
better than most the consequences of encountering the humanity of one’s enemy. The soldiers of the Christmas truce realised that they had more in common with each other than they had dividing them. They showed each other photographs of their mothers, fathers, wives, sons and daughters and discovered
that their hopes and dreams were the same, even though expressed in different sounding words. Once we recognise our core human values, it is very
hard to kill with the dispassion required by a military machine.
We owe it to the soldiers of the Christmas truce to explore more deeply the spirit of what seemed foolhardy actions and to reflect on the lessons their encounters bring to light.
Abraham Lincoln once wrote that force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived. More powerfully he noted:
I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.
Albert Einstein captured the spirit of the Christmas truce when he said:
Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.
This, more than any other motive, is what frightened higher command in the great armies of World War I who resolved to ensure that a Christmas truce
never happened again.
Mahatma Gandhi said that there is no way to peace. Peace is the way. He also argued that victory attained by violence is tantamount to defeat, for it is momentary. Perhaps one of his most powerful statements is the following:
I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.
The soldiers of the 1914 Christmas truce have, however, left us a great legacy. Their momentary ending of violence, against the wishes of their superiors, not only did great good at the time, it also did permanent good and, as we approach the hundredth anniversary of their action, it will inspire generations of peacemakers to come.
Visit Flanders Peace Field; bring your family and friends. Play football and games. Encounter other people from round the world and realise that strangers are friends waiting to be discovered. The world needs peacemakers. It needs us all to step out of our trenches and cross the No Man’s Land of ignorance, prejudice and violence. By doing so, we will discover, as the soldiers of the Christmas truce did, that we are all brothers and sisters on a small and vulnerable planet. Peacemaking today is about building friendship. And sport is a wonderful bridge to building a better world.
© Don Mullan, 2011
This concept document was first published as Appendix II, ‘Building Community’ by James O’Halloran, (CURRACH PRESS, 2011), Dublin, IRELAND.
Don Mullan is a bestselling author, filmmaker, freelance journalist, photographer, concept developer, and humanitarian worker.