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World War One Christmas truce football match triggers battle among rival Belgians

A Christmas football match between England and Germany during World War One has become a battleground for rival Belgians one hundred years on, writes Justin Stares.

The 1914 “Christmas truce” match, which saw soldiers from both sides down their weapons and leave their trenches to kick a makeshift ball around in no man’s land, is pitting French-speaking Belgians against Dutch-speaking Belgians ahead of this year’s centenary celebrations.

Both linguistic factions claim the match took place on their land, with the French-speakers accusing the Dutch-speakers of “usurping” celebrations for political ends.

French-speakers in the country’s southern half point to the crucifix erected by the English at Saint-Yvon, near Ploegsteert, as the site of the famous football match. But the town of Messines (Mesen in Dutch), in Dutch-speaking Flanders – Belgium’s northern half – has taken the limelight with a series of events the mark the match.

In September, the “Flanders peace field” football pitch will be unveiled; in November, there will be a “Christmas Truce Exhibition”; in December, Desmond Tutu is scheduled to oversee a “goodwill gathering”. Programme highlights include an under-12 football tournament for children from Germany, England, Ireland, Belgium and France.

Le Vif, a French-language Belgian news magazine, ran an article this week entitled “Messines, the usurper” in which it claimed the town’s football match truce programme was the latest in a list of Flemish attempts to steal thunder from French-speaking towns. Messines “has already, in the recent past, tried to usurp the envied title of Belgium’s smallest town, which the entire world recognises as belonging to Durbuy”, in the French-speaking Ardennes, the magazine claimed.

Matti Vandemaele, manager of the Flanders Peace Village and one of the organisers of the truce programme, said criticism must have come from “people who have too much time” on their hands. “I couldn’t care less,” Mr Vandemaele told this website. “They [French-speakers] can claim the whole of World War One happened in their backyard if they want. They can have it all. What is important is that we work with children and teach them about peace”.

The fact that Belgium’s linguistic border has moved several times over the years complicates claims to ownership of the site. Historical evidence is also less than clear, Mr Vandemaele points out. Museum documents in Flanders make reference to the famous football match taking place in the Douve valley – right on the linguistic border – though it is difficult to say exactly where. There were several Christmas truces along the frontline stretching right across Belgium, to the coast. There are also reports of several football matches having taken place.

Language-based cultural (and perhaps ethnic) rivalry in Belgium is such that the country seems to be periodically on the verge of breaking up. In its latest editorial, Le Vif likened Belgium’s federal govenrment to the top floor of a building floating in the air, with no walls to connect it to the on-the-ground political, economic and social realities of the country’s diverse regions.

You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinStares or on Tumblr here

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