Sunday 16 December 2018

An extraordinary encounter in Messines that symbolises the spirit of Christmas

Troops mingle in no-man's land in 1914
Troops mingle in no-man's land in 1914

Don Mullan

The First World War - 'The War to End All Wars' - lasted over four years and laid the seeds for WWII. It consumed the lives of an estimated 18 million people - 13,000 per day. Yet, there was one day, Christmas Day 1914, when the madness stopped and a brief peace, inspired by the Christmas story, broke out along large swathes of the Western Front.

The Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines, Belgium, stands on a gentle slope overlooking the site of one of the most astonishing events of WWI and, indeed, world history. An event which the British historian Piers Brendon described as "… 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."

German soldiers had been sent thousands of small Christmas trees and candles from back home. As night enveloped an unusually still and silent Christmas Eve, a soldier placed one of the candlelit trees upon the parapet of his trench. Others followed and before long a chain of flickering lights spread for miles along the German line. British and French soldiers observed in amazement. As the night progressed they heard the sounds of Christmas carols drift across the gulf of No Man's Land. A young British soldier, Albert Moren, near La Chapelle d'Armentieres, France, 12 kilometres from Messines, recalled: "It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere, and ... there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and then there were those lights - I don't know what they were.

"And then they sang 'Stille Nacht' - 'Silent Night'. I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life."

German singing attracted almost as much attention as did the candlelit trees, which another soldier likened to 'the footlights of a theatre'. Many British and French units were spellbound and reacted, as if an audience, with applause. Curious, some soldiers raised their heads. No shots were fired. Tantalisingly shoulders, trunks and eventually entire bodies stood above the trenches.

Troops on both sides began to inch closer and eventually met at the heart of No Man's Land, surrounded by their fallen comrades. They shook hands and agreed a truce the following day.

Shortly after dawn on Christmas morning they met again, exchanging food and drinks, swapped cap badges and buttons, posed for photographs and showed one another pictures of their families and loved ones.

This extraordinary encounter continued throughout the day during which they held joint religious services and helped bury each other's fallen comrades. Contemporary correspondence and reports from the period report several footballs were produced and a strong tradition persists that a regulation game of soccer between German and British soldiers was played, with the Germans emerging 3-2 winners.

We do know 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 on our right, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, with their national sense of humour, answered the enemy's 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 the voices grow fainter and eventually cease."

Today, the debris of war, the mud, the wire and the thousands of corpses and wounded that inhabited the location of the Christmas Truce are but a memory. When I first visited the site, close to the town of Messines and Ploegsteert Woods, Flanders, on August 28 2008, only a small wooden cross memorialised the Christmas Truce. It stood on an embankment, dwarfed against a backdrop of a seven-foot tall maize harvest. Unable to see the length and breadth of this part 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 St Niklaas Church, Messines, and the Round Tower of the Island of Ireland Peace Park, a kilometre or two distant.

As I surveyed the site of this small but momentous and hope-filled moment in history, I imagined, by 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 memorialised through the energy of the young.

Thus was born the idea of The Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project, which the 1984 Nobel Laureate, Desmond Tutu, has described as "… a gift of the Island of Ireland Peace Process to the European Project and World Peace."

We need to grasp the fact that we are developing, unquestionably, the most powerful and hope-filled story of World War I.

A story that can help to make Messines one of the great peace centres of the world.

It is a story that touches people everywhere and which has the seeds of optimism and inspiration that our world so desperately needs today.

It is a story that is laced with the spirit of humanity, human kindness and goodwill: a story for children, youth, young men and women, the middle-aged and old.

It is a sacred story and we have a duty to embrace it with great reference and respect.

Don Mullan is a bestselling author from Derry.

Irish Independent

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