World War I 'Christmas Truce' football match memorial unveiled

A hundred years after the famous World War I "Christmas Truce," UEFA chief Michel Platini (third from left) unveiled a memorial Thursday to the football match British and German soldiers played in no man's land as the guns fell silent. -- PHOTO: AFP
A hundred years after the famous World War I "Christmas Truce," UEFA chief Michel Platini (third from left) unveiled a memorial Thursday to the football match British and German soldiers played in no man's land as the guns fell silent. -- PHOTO: AFP

PLOEGSTEERT, Belgium (AFP) - A hundred years after the famous World War I "Christmas Truce," UEFA chief Michel Platini unveiled a memorial Thursday to the football match British and German soldiers played in no man's land as the guns fell silent.

Dignitaries from several countries attended the ceremony to inaugurate a simple stone sculpture of a stylised football player set in a field at Saint-Yvon, near the Belgian village of Ploegsteert.

It honours one of the most famous incidents of the war - and one that has become a symbol of peace amid the horrors of war, and of rank-and-file soldiers overcoming the national rivalries that left millions dead.

"I pay tribute to the soldiers who, one hundred years ago, showed their humanity by playing football together, opening an important chapter in European unity and providing a lasting example to young people," Platini said.

That powerful occasion of peaceful togetherness, added the legendary French footballer whose goals led his country to the 1984 European Championship, epitomised the "universal language that is football."

Local children laid footballs, shirts and scarves at the foot of the new memorial.

World War I was entering its first winter in 1914 when, with Christmas on its way, Allied and German soldiers defied the orders of their officers and left their trenches to celebrate with each other.

As the Christmas spirit descended for a few brief hours, the sworn enemies exchanged presents including cigarettes, biscuits and alcohol, and eventually decided to play a football match in the mud of no-man's land.

'GERMANS WON'

In a sign that although the passage of time changes some things others remain the same, the Germans won 3-2, according to the journal of Kurt Zehmisch, a soldier from the 134th Saxon Regiment.

At the time, the truce was condemned by both sides' military leaders as fraternisation with the enemy.

But it has since inspired countless films, advertisements and even the music video to former Beatle Paul McCartney's song Pipes Of Peace, as a symbol of humanity across the lines.

"The ball replaced bullets. In one football match, humanity transcended barbarism," said Ken Skates, sports minister in the devolved Welsh government.

PRINCE WILLIAM

German ambassador Eckart Cuntz added that the match took place when 300,000 soldiers had already lost their lives in the war.

"Despite that savagery, the magic of Christmas took over. Christmas Truce - what a magical (term) to remind us that all soldiers are people, far away from their families," Cuntz said.

The ceremony finished with the screening of a film in which former footballers including England's Bobby Charlton and France's Didier Deschamps read out letters written by soldiers describing the Christmas Truce.

France's junior minister for veterans, Jean-Marc Todeschini, added that "the day before the truce, the soldiers had been burying their comrades, but amid the horror humanity managed an improbable ceasefire."

Several other events are planned to mark the milestone.

Britain's Prince William, the second-in-line to the throne, will attend a dedication ceremony for a monument commemorating the Christmas Truce at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, central England, on Friday.

Teams from the British and German armies will then play a special football match at Aldershot, southern England, the home of the British army, on December 17, almost exactly 100 years on from the original match.