Across a muddy battlefield, two young men reach out to shake hands over a football – marking one of the most extraordinary events of the Great War…
Normally on Christmas Day you’d find me walking the dogs, cooking a big roast dinner, having a glass of champagne with family, friends and neighbours in my little French village in northern France.
This year though was different.
It was the anniversary of the Christmas Truce of The Great War so I decided to drive to the French border and a few miles into Belgium near Ypres with a few friends and a football…
Christmas Eve 1914, the Great War was in full and terrible swing with many thousands of lives lost. Trenches were gouged into the land for hundreds of miles to form the Western Front. We can’t possibly understand the misery of those cold, wet, wretched men as they contemplated that first Christmas at war. But on Christmas Eve something unexpected happened all along the line of the Western Front. After mercilessly slaughtering each other just hours earlier, men laid down their arms and embraced Christmas together.
In one of the most poignant and unusual military events in history, soldiers dropped their weapons, climbed out of their trenches and crossed the shell-blasted no-man’s land. Throughout the next day up and down the line these sworn enemies shook hands, sung carols and exchanged gifts. A small number of football matches were played up and down the length of the 500-mile front line, the most famous of which occurred in Belgium, around eight miles south of Ypres. Here, in the fields of the village of Ploegsteert, the British Tommies called it “Plugstreet”, men from both sides played a game of football. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) called this short break in fighting “one human episode amid the atrocities which have stained the memory of war”.
I woke up to a clear day but with a bitter wind after a hard frost (very much like the day 100 years before) and I expected to find nothing at Ploegsteert but empty fields. However there were lots of cars there and I was astonished to see people from the UK, France, Belgium and as far away as Australia and Costa Rica – they too had come to pay their respects.
Also there was Tom Butler from Liverpool. He was with his father to place a beautiful sculpture at the site that morning before moving it to other locations around the area. The larger than life-size statue depicts two young men reaching out, just touching at the tips of their fingers to shake hands over a football. An iconic image designed by sculptor Andy Edwards to commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914. Seeing it against the muddy field, with its memorial trenches and barbed wire was an unexpected and very touching sight.
The 8ft statue was originally made out of clay at the Wedgwood factory in Barlaston, but has now been reproduced in fibreglass. Cecil Wedgewood, the chairman of the factory and many of its workers volunteered during the war; Cecil died in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.
It is intended that the sculpture will be cast in bronze at the foundry owned by Tom’s father. The piece is called All Together Now after the song by Liverpool band The Farm, which describes the Christmas truce. Tom told me “this statue is for all humanity”, an incredibly moving and poignant memorial.
We had a bit of a kick about in the field, laid a poppy at the Khaki Chums Memorial and had to retrieve the ball after my friends dogs ran off with it into the middle one of the muddiest fields I’ve ever seen, after which we decided to seek a café to warm up.
In the town of Mesen we came across the Café de Centre, absolutely delightful and with a couple who make everyone feel at home and who were celebrating Christmas in their own unique way. When we came out, the statue that had been at Ploegsteert was now in the town’s bandstand and the people who lived in the town had started to bring candles out and light them at the base – it was quite astonishing to witness the effect that this sculpture has.
After a stop at several more memorials and at Messines Church where my friends lit a candle, we made our way home through the quiet streets of France back to my village in the Seven Valleys to toast the end of Christmas Day 2014…