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Plugstreet - St-Yvon 1914 Christmas Truce

A truce stranger than any fiction

The devil is often said to be in the detail, but not in this story. On 24 December 1914, something extraordinary happened amid the hellish killing fields of the Western Front. German and Allied troops, mercilessly slaughtering each other just hours earlier, laid down their arms and embraced Christmas together.

In one of the most poignant events in human history, sworn enemies dropped their weapons, clambered out of trenches and crossed the shell-blasted mud of no-man’s land to shake hands, sing carols and exchange gifts. The British brought Bully beef, rum and cigarettes to the party. In exchange, the Germans traded sausages, coffee and cognac. Then, famously, a football match was played.

To be precise, a small number of football matches were played, up and down the length of the 500-mile front line. Out of necessity, many deployed a rolled up sandbag or tin can as an emergency football. But here and there a genuine leather ball was produced and a more serious match attempted. The largest shell craters were hastily filled in, referees were picked and military helmets or caps were placed as goalposts.

The most famous of these impromptu international football matches occurred at St Yvon in southern Belgium, around eight miles south of Ypres. Here, in the fields of the Walloon village of Ploegsteert - known to the Tommies as “Plugstreet” - Saxon troops played their British counterparts on the slender strip of soil dividing the two armies.
     
The Germans had started it. The unofficial truce began on 24 December - the day they traditionally celebrated Christmas - when they began decorating the frosted parapets of their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. 

Carols followed, including a rendition of ‘Stille Nacht.’ The British responded from across no-man’s-land with ‘The First Noel.’ And so it continued until, when the British sang ‘O Come All Ye Faithful,’ they heard the Germans joining in with the Latin words. Finally, a German messenger raised a white flag and strode boldly across the lines to broker the Christmas ceasefire.

In a letter home, Staff Sergeant Clement Barker from Ipswich described the extraordinary scene that subsequently unfolded. “Our men went out and brought the dead in and buried them,” he wrote to his brother. “The next thing, a football kicked out of our trenches - and the Germans and English played football.”

The official war history of the German Army’s 133rd Saxon Regiment describes the Plugstreet match beginning after Scottish and German soldiers chased hares - emboldened by the sudden cessation of gunfire - across no-man’s land together. As they laughed and joked, another Scot booted a leather football into their midst.

“This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid down as goals,” records the Saxon’s official history. “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 polite, affable Saxon troops - who some historians contend had far more in common with the Anglo-Saxons they faced across the trenches than they did with their militaristic Prussian countrymen - were astonished to see The Argylls playing in kilts, without any underwear beneath them.

Despite this element of surprise - presumably revealed in a sliding tackle - both sides agree on the final score that day. As the official Saxon account has it: “Das Spiel endete 3:2 fur Fritz.”

Some accounts have the game only ending after the ball struck a strand of barbed wire and popped, but all agree on the narrow German win - and the greater victory for both chivalry and humanity. No less of a contemporary commentator than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously described it as “one human episode amid the atrocities which have stained the memory of war.”

When it came to planning commemorative events for the centenary of war’s declaration in 2014, a re-enactment of this fabled Plugstreet football match was considered a ‘no brainer.’ Still at the planning stage, it will feature players, media representatives and serving soldiers from Britain, Belgium and Germany. The addition of kilts is yet to be confirmed.

The symbolic Christmas truce of 1914 wasn’t just about football, of course. The majority of the 100,000 British, French, Belgian and German soldiers who lowered their weapons and emerged from the trenches simply talked, told jokes and swapped keepsakes. Apart from the basic food, cigarettes and alcohol, these keepsakes also included buttons and belts from each other’s uniforms, Christmas puddings and Princess Mary Boxes: the small brass boxes sent to British soldiers in the run-up to Christmas containing pipes, lighters, cigarettes and bullet pencils. (The popular boxes had been the idea of the 17-year-old Princess Mary, the daughter of King George V and Queen Mary.) 

During the ceasefire, one British Tommy supposedly met his German barber from High Holborn and had an impromptu short-back-and-sides between the lines. Another German strutted about theatrically in a blouse, skirt and top hat taken from a nearby abandoned Belgian house, causing gales of laughter on both sides. Plenty of photographs were taken of the fraternisation between troops, with a British officer writing to his family that another truce had been fixed for New Year’s Day as “the Germans want to see how the photos come out.”

Although the Christmas Truce was utterly unofficial and went against direct orders from both armies’ high command, a number of the officer class inevitably succumbed to the festive spirit too. The commander of a guards battalion strode out to join a mixed group of British and German soldiers with the greeting: “Well my lads, a Merry Christmas to you! This is damned comic, isn’t it?” He then passed round a bottle of best rum which, one attendee noted, was “polished off before you could say knife.”     
For many, the truce was a surreal experience. “Just think,” Oswald Tilley of the London Rifle Brigade wrote to his family, “while you were eating turkey, I was talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before. It was astounding!”

There were more sombre scenes between the lines during the ceasefire too. On Christmas morning, a British chaplain performed a joint burial service in no-man’s-land for a number of fallen from both sides. The prayers and readings were recited first in English and then in German by a young divinity student. “It was an extraordinary and wonderful sight,” wrote one witness. “The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.”

In some places along the Western Front the truce lasted a number of days after Christmas, but in most the soldiers returned to their positions to recommence the bloodshed the following day - albeit with uniforms minus buttons, badges and belt buckles.

Bizarrely, the details of the truce were not reported in the press for a week - an embargo finally broken by the New York Times on 31 December 1914. The British papers subsequently followed, printing numerous firsthand accounts and editorials on “one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war.” By 8 January, The Mirror had printed front page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing in no-man’s-land. Despite the British Government’s official disapproval, the editorial tone was strongly positive across the board. The Times endorsed the “lack of malice” expressed by both sides, and The Mirror voiced regret that the “absurdity and tragedy” would have to begin again after such widespread demonstrations of fraternity. 
 
Aside from the now infamous football match during the Christmas Truce, Plugstreet was to remain significant throughout the First World War, situated on the front line for almost the entirety of the brutal four year conflict. In early 1916, a young Winston Churchill served five months here among the fields of Wallonia, as Commanding Officer (Lieutenant-Colonel) of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. Already a member of the British Government, he had resigned in November 1915 following the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. In his resignation letter he stated: “I am an officer and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France.” Instead, he found himself in southern Belgium, albeit very close to the border.

Plugstreet is also celebrated for its ‘tunnellers’: the specialists who quietly and patiently dug deep under enemy lines for months or even years at a time in order to destroy them from below. Famously, some of the British tunnels that helped to blow up nearby Messines Ridge in 1917 - a major German stronghold since the start of the war - were started from Plugstreet.

Historians have subsequently hailed the Battle of Messines as the most successful local operation of the war, and the Plugstreet tunnellers had helped to lay the foundations of its epic success. When the enormous pile of explosives was finally detonated under the German lines on 7 June 1917, it was the biggest series of controlled explosions ever seen. In Switzerland, seismographs registered a small earthquake, and the bang was heard as far away as the Prime Minister’s Downing Street study.
As a result of its crucial position at the epicentre of the Western Front, Plugstreet is the site of a number of significant military cemeteries today. Within a two kilometre radius are no fewer than 14 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and War Memorials, some 35 concrete fortifications from the Great War (bunkers, command posts and dressing stations), four mine craters and the ruins of Chateau Breuvart, destroyed during the fighting.

Many of the cemeteries bear famous London names - a mark of respect for the tens of thousands of young Britons who lost their lives here. These include the Strand Military Cemetery, the final resting place of 1,000 soldiers, and the (Royal) Berkshire Cemetery, which also contains the Ploegstreet Memorial to the Missing. Built in 1931, this is an impressive, graceful circular temple, supported by pillars and guarded by two stone lions. A mind-boggling 11,369 men with no known grave are commemorated here, and The Last Post is sounded at 7pm on the first Friday of every month in continuing homage to them all.

Just to the north of present day Plugstreet is Prowse Point Cemetery - the site where men who have been discovered in recent times in or near the wood have been reburied. Those laid to rest here include Private Harry Wilkinson of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. His body was finally discovered in 2000 and reburied here in 2001, with full military honours. At the roadside nearby, a cross commemorating him sits near where his remains were found, 86 years after he was cut down in action on 10 November 1914.

Aside from the recreation of the famous football match, there are a number of other plans to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War in Plugstreet. Most prominently, a major new visitors’ centre - “Plugstreet 14-18 Experience” - opened in November 2013. Aiming to reinterpret the area’s crucial role in the conflict, it allows visitors to retrace the experiences of soldiers and civilians in the area during the First World War.

A century on, the Christmas truce of 1914 remains one of the most symbolic events of the Great War: a glimmer of humanity at the core of one of the most vicious conflicts in human history, which saw 16 million people lose their lives over four years. Its message of compassion, brotherhood and forgiveness is one that should never be forgotten. As one British soldier wrote: “This experience had been the most practical demonstration I have seen of peace on earth and goodwill towards men.” It is an enduring sentiment as valid today as it was on that frosty first Christmas of the First World War.





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