< Back to File

Ploegsteert

 

Simplified to 'Plug Street' by soldiers stationed there, the Belgium village of Ploegsteert was British controlled and commanded by, amongst others, Winston Churchill. As part of the 'static front', the reduced shelling helps explain why a First World War football match kicked off nearby.

FIRST WORLD WAR FOOTIE

Ernie Williams was a 19 year old serving in the 6th Cheshires at Wulverghem, just north of Ploegsteert. He remembers that as the area was less subject to intensive offensives, No Man's Land was less broken up by shell fire. It was far from perfect playing conditions, being below zero, but the area between the two trenches was as close as they were going to get to a football pitch.

So, on Christmas Day, 1914, the two sides cautiously emerged, and after a mutual inspection of equipment and an exchange of rations, a football match kicked off. Some accounts suggest it was accompanied by bagpipe music, but unlike other football matches reported during the Christmas truce, no score was kept. In common with the rest of the line though, no firing or shelling took place that day.

But this was just five months into the fighting. The huge losses and mutual atrocities were still to come. There would be no more 'football friendlies' on the Western Front. 

At Ploegsteert, there were no major set-piece battles like those at Ypres to the north, or Loos to the south. This area of Belgium, 2km north of the French border, remained in British control throughout the war and only briefly, in 1918, did the Germans take it. Fatalities and casualties did result from small enemy engagements, but largely, losses came from attrition.

Sapper William Hackett won the Victoria Cross for helping to tunnel out three comrades. They were underground when a mine explosion entombed five engineers. Hackett worked for 20 hours and created a hole large enough for three of them to escape. But Hackett would not leave a fourth man, injured in the blast, saying, I am a tunneller. I must look after the others first. Then the hole collapsed. Despite four days of desperate digging by a rescue party, they failed to reach the two men. An experienced underground engineer, Hackett well knew the fate he was consigning himself to by refusing to abandon his injured comrade.

WINSTON CHURCHILL

It was the disastrous Gallipoli campaign that prompted the arrival of Ploegsteert's most famous commander. Winston Churchill took responsibility for the Allied disaster in Turkey and resigned from the Government on 12 November 1915. Determined to atone through active service, he made a farewell speech at the House of Commons three days later, and by 22 November, he was in France, attached to the Grenadier Guards, and in the trenches. He served as Commanding Officer of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers from January to May 1916.

Many of the place names soldiers borrowed from home at the time had a strong London connection, with everything from Charing Cross to Somerset House used around Ploegsteert. Now, a century later, it's the names of the cemeteries that commemorate the large number of Londoners stationed there. There is the Hyde Park Corner Cemetery (which also contains four German war graves) and just west of the wood is Strand Military Cemetery. It contains over a thousand fallen. One records Private Thomas Cordner who died trying to save a wounded friend. His sister put the following on his plaque, 'A good name is better than fame or riches.' Other graves remember a soldier who died aged just sixteen, another, executed for desertion.

South of the town, there is the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing commemorating over 11,000 men with no known graves. The sounding of the Last Post still takes place on the first Friday of every month at 7pm.