Christmas 2018 my family visited the famed ground of the 1914 Christmas truce near Ypres.
Here’s a short excerpt from ‘Symphony from the Great War’, where I consider this paradoxical moment in time,
“The field today doesn’t look much like a place for sport. Then again, neither did it in 1914. While the ground is still soggy and uneven, in 1914 it was also filled with shell holes, barbed wire, unexploded bombs, and human body parts. War is an ironic and awfully sardonic affair. “Silent night” hovered over a battlefield. The message of “peace on earth” found a temporary home on that violent soil of Flanders.
The unofficial Christmas armistice lasted for one day, although along some other sectors of the Front, troops were reluctant to fire their weapons for several days. It required officers to threaten their men with disciplinary action, should they not repent of fraternising with the enemy. A snippet of grace amid continual bloodletting. A single day of peace during four years of unspeakable suffering. But like the sudden alarm clock that arrests a serene night’s sleep, peace evaporated with the inevitable, although probably reluctant, first shot fired.
This famous soccer pitch can be visited today, as we did two days before Christmas in 2018. Two markers note what took place on the field on Christmas Day 1914. One is located on the very edge of the ground, placed by the famed khaki chums (an organisation of army enthusiasts). Across the road, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) unveiled a humble yet befitting memorial on the centenary of that game with a modest sculpture. Lying in front is a box filled with soccer balls of all colours, although now faded and deflated with the seasons. Standing behind is a fir tree decorated for Christmas.
What makes this field pertinent for Campbell history is that this is where the 35th Battalion ascended on the morning of the battle of Messines. That morning when the whistles blew, it wasn’t to start a football match, but to announce the launch of an attack; what General Monash referred to as his Magnus Opus.”