As they open their presents and tuck into Christmas dinners today, the schoolboys of West Ham United’s Under-12 Academy squad will no doubt have football on their minds – and a very special match that took place exactly 102 years ago.
Christmas Day 1914 is remembered for a truly remarkable event, when guns fell silent on the fierce battlefields of Ypres in Belgium during the First World War, as German and Allied soldiers agreed an unofficial ceasefire and greeted each other in No Man’s Land, to share gifts and food, before enjoying an impromptu football match.
And the anniversary is of particular interest for our Under-12 players, who flew to Belgium recently to take part in the Truce tournament – an educational initiative run by the Premier League that commemorates the Christmas truce and the lives lost in the War.
Launched in 2011, the tournament sees Academy teams from the Premier League test themselves against some of the best young players from France, Belgium and Germany, countries whose soldiers also fought on the fields of Ypres.
More importantly, it enables them to experience an educational and cultural journey that enhances the history lessons they have been receiving on the sacrifices made by those soldiers.
Having finished above the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton, Leicester and West Brom in the qualifying tournament at Aldershot Garrison Sports Centre, the young Hammers sealed their place in the final tournament and travelled to Ypres over the weekend of 9-11 December.
Despite losing their opening match against Blackburn, West Ham went on to beat Belgian side Club Brugge before a draw against Paris St Germain saw them qualify for the semi-finals, where they unfortunately lost to Anderlecht, who went on to beat Manchester City in the final. The tournament ended on a positive note, though, as the Hammers gained revenge on Blackburn to triumph in the third-place play-off.
Alongside the football, the players made an educational field trip to Ploegsteert Wood, the site of the Christmas Truce of 1914. They also explored a replica British trench and bunker system at the Passchendaele 1917 Memorial Museum and visited the Tyne Cot War Cemetery and the Menin Gate memorial to the missing, where respects were paid with wreath laying and a Last Post ceremony.
The trip had an extremely positive effect on the boys, who all took a real interest in the history of the 1914 Christmas truce and the sacrifices that the soldiers in World War One had to make
U9s-U14s Head of Coaching Dave Johnson
The squad were led by West Ham United’s Academy Head of Coaching for U9s-U14s, Dave Johnson, who spoke to whufc.com about his immense pride in the players.
“It was a fantastic experience,” said Johnson. “Fantastic for football reasons, as it allowed the boys to test themselves against some of the best young players in Europe, but even more so from an educational point of view.
“The trip had an extremely positive effect on the boys, who all took a real interest in the history of the 1914 Christmas truce and the sacrifices that the soldiers in World War One had to make.
“I have to say that their behaviour and attitude was absolutely impeccable and they were a credit to West Ham United Football Club.
“One of the boys was even chosen to read a poem at the Menin Gate Memorial in front of 1,500 people, following in the footsteps of people like Barack Obama and David Beckham.
“Overall, it was a magnificent experience for them and something they will never, ever forget.”
Martyn Heather, the Premier League’s Head of Education, said of the Truce initiative: “We’ve always been very keen to develop holistically rounded people and I think that developing their skills off the pitch, as well as on it, is crucial.
“Tournaments like this are not just about the football, they’re about taking the players out of their comfort zone. They can see the horrors that men not much older than themselves faced in the First World War just over 100 years ago.
“What was quite pertinent was players visiting the graves of former players from their respective club, it just made it so much more relatable.
“The reason we centre the tournament around the Christmas Truce is because we want the players to understand that football is a universal language, and despite the aggression and horrors of war, on December 25, 1914, that was put aside, and we want to learn from that and instil those qualities in these young players.”