A unique way to remember the fallen

Mark on Christmas Eve at the Menin Gate.
Mark on Christmas Eve at the Menin Gate.

Playing football along the lines of the trenches on Christmas Day is known to most as a tale from 1914.

But for Kirkland High School librarian Mark Russell and 180 others from across the UK, it was a unique modern-day reality that will be forever etched into their memory.

On December 23, 2014, Mark made the four-day trip to Ypres with hundreds of other ‘Christmas Pals’, as part of a scheduled tour organised to commemorate the Christmas Truce.

“For me, it was a really interesting thing to do personally, as a historian. It was a chance to go to the battlegrounds at a special period.

“There were people there from all over the UK, from Edinburgh, the north of England, right down to Hull. For most, it was because they were interested in that period in history and World War One, and because they wanted to do something truly unique. For me, it was defintely a unique way of celebrating my fortieth year.”

Mark noted that the playing of football on the trenches was a way of recreating, reflecting and remembering an important day in history.

“The Christmas Truce is well documented - it was a unique day as part of the war, and showed that the humanity had not disappeared totally.”

Ahead of the commemorative football match, the participants were given the chance to take part in a walk from the German line to the British line on Christmas Eve.

“Everyone walked in silence,” said Mark. “It was such a unique experience to be out there in the trenches and out in the cold - everyone was quite sombre. There was such a respectful atmosphere.”

Following the walk, the group placed a poppy on the nearby grave of a British soldier. On Boxing Day, there were plenty of celebrations to be had. In the morning, everyone had the opportunity to visit Sanctuary Wood (Hill 62), Tyne Cot cemetery and Langemarck, while in he afternoon, many of the group took part in singing Christmas carols in the main square in Ypres. Despite Mark’s claims that he is “tone deaf”, the singers helped to raise over 200 euros for Poppy Scotland, who had a representative on the trip.

Reflecting on his experience, Mark said he believed everyone should have the chance to experience the battlefields.

“Just to be there, and to visit the Menin Gate and hear the bugles at the Last Post,” he said. It was a really nice experience and definitely a very different way to spend Christmas.”

Des Brogan, director of Mercat Tours which organised the trip said: “I am sure 100 years ago both German and British soldiers would have wondered if anyone would remember them and their Truce.

“We did. We were there. We did remember.”