“The Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project is a gift of the Island of Ireland Peace Process to the European Project and World Peace.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The First World War – “The War to End All Wars” – lasted over four years and planted the seeds for WWII. It consumed the lives of an estimated 18 million people – thirteen thousand 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. Tantalizingly 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 German’s 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 Don Mullan first visited the site, close to the town of Messines and Ploegsteert Woods, Flanders, on 28 August 2008, only a small wooden cross memorialized 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, Mullan asked permission to enter a nearby two-storey house. From an upstairs window he 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 Mullan surveyed the site of this small but momentous and hope-filled moment in history, he 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.”
A Story for All Seasons
The story of the 1914 Christmas Truce has captured the imagination of people across the world. It is not simply a story for Christmas, but a story that touches people wherever and whenever they hear it, irrespective of the season. As such, this story has the power to attract people to French and Belgian Flanders 365 days of the year.
In his poem ‘A Carol From Flanders’, about the 1914 Christmas Truce, the poet Frederick Niven (1878-1944) concludes with an inspiring hope-filled aspiration which the region can help fulfil:
Oh ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.
The American Folk singer, John McCutcheon (1952 – ) states that he first learned about the 1914 Christmas Truce from a backstage janitor during an interval in a Birmingham, Alabama, concert hall in 1984. He states: “I was so taken with the woman’s story, I wrote the entire song “Christmas in the Trenches” during the intermission of my concert that night.”
The popular song is now the subject of a beautifully illustrated book, written by McCutcheon and published by Peachtree, USA (2010). In his Author’s note, McCutcheon echoes the sentiments of the poet Frederick Niven:
I first thought I would only sing the song and tell the story during the Christmas season. I soon learned it deserves –no needs–to be told 365 days a year.
Don Mullan argues we need to grasp the fact that we have an opportunity to develop, unquestionably, the most powerful and hope-filled story of World War I. A story that can help to make French and Belgian Flanders (between Armentieres and Messines) one of the great peace regions 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.
At a time when the European experiment is under enormous stress due to economic and political upheaval, and neo-nationalism is on the rise, Mullan believes the 1914 Christmas Truce is a story to remind the world, and especially all Europeans, of the trauma of two world wars, of our common humanity and our post conflict commitment to a shared future.
It is a sacred story and we have a duty to embrace it with great reverence and respect. It is the story of a seed, planted by ordinary soldiers and low ranking officers, in the fields that Messines and Armentieres overlooks – inspired by the first Christmas – that we must now take and tell:
365 days a year – to… speed the time when every day Shall be as Christmas Day.
The Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project
Inspired by the spontaneous Christmas truces during WWI, Don Mullan’s Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project aims to create a major centenary legacy through the following initiatives:
1. To create a UNESCO World Heritage Site in French and Belgian Flanders, in memory of the 1914 Christmas Truce;
2. To create, with the support of senior academics from the universities of Galway, Penn State, Aberdeen and Harvard, a Centre for the teaching of Human Empathy;
3. To create a major visitors center, likely around St. Nicholas Church, Messines, Belgium, that explores the religious, cultural and trans-national elements of the 1914 Christmas Truce and its relevance for today;
4. A UNESCO and UNOSDP backed Flanders Peace Field in an area to be agreed in consultation with communities representing French and Belgian Flanders, aimed at drawing the youth of the world to explore and experience the role of sport in building a better world;
5. An international UNESCO sculpture trail, inspired and led by the Anglo-Irish artist, Andrew Edwards, and his internationally acclaimed Christmas Truce Monument, linking participating French and Flemish communities.
Much work has already been invested in the realization of this project, with crucial groundwork already done. Considering its Irish roots, a patron of the project, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has described the initiative as:
“… a gift of the Island of Ireland Peace Process to the European Project and World Peace.”
Two relevant documents that outline work already undertaken and accomplished are the following (with particular reference to the 2014 Centenary Report – Christmas Truce Project, which has several supporting links to relevant articles and references):
- The Christmas Truce & Flanders Peace Field Concept Document
- Centenary Report Christmas Truce Project