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South Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan honors WWI Christmas truce

Ian McMillan, broadcaster and poet from Barnsley, has written a Christmas poem based on the under 12’s Christmas Truce International Tournament, held by the Barclays Premier League.

The tournament in Ypres, Belgium, honours the impromptu football matches which occurred on the western front during the truce of December 1914.

During this 100th anniversary of World War One, 300 footballers from the 20 Premier League under 12 teams were invited to submit poems inspired by their visit to the battlefields, as part of a project with the Poetry Society, called Football Remembers.

The poem written by Ian McMillan was inspired by the ideas and images expressed by the young footballers. The Game: Christmas Day, 1914 was performed at a parliamentary reception at the House of Commons last Tuesday, 9th December and will be performed again in four languages at the final international leg of the tournament this week.

Ian McMillan, poet–in-residence for the Academy of Urbanism and for Barnsley Football Club, was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Midweek programme last Wednesday and said that working with the footballer-writers was exciting:

It combines the two great participation sports, poetry and football.

goal_800 IWM

This photograph shows an officers versus other ranks football match being played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train near the city of Salonika on Christmas Day 1915. Sports such as football were seen as a good way for officers to develop leadership skills and to forge links with their men. Courtesy IWM

THE GAME: CHRISTMAS DAY, 1914
It is so cold.
The lines of this poem are sinking
Into the unforgiving mud. No clean sheet.

Dawn on a perishing day. The weapons freeze
In the hands of a flat back four.
The moon hangs in the air like a ball
Skied by a shivering keeper.
All these boys want to do today
Is shoot, and defend, and attack.

Light on a half-raised wave. The trench-faces
Lifted till you see their breath.
A ball flies in the air like a moon
Kicked through the morning mist.
All these boys want to have today
Is a generous amount of extra time.

No strict formations here, this morning;
No 4-4-2 or 3-5-1
No rules, really. Just a kickabout
With nothing to be won
Except respect. We all showed pictures,
I learned his baby’s name.

Now clear the lines of this poem
And let’s get on with the game.

No white penalty spot, this morning,
The players are all unknown.
You can see them in the graveyards
In teams of forgotten stone;
The nets are made of tangled wire,
No Man’s Land is the pitch,
A flare floodlights the moments
Between the dugouts and the ditch.

A hundred winters ago sky opened
To the sunshine of the sun
Shining on these teams of players
And the sounds of this innocent game.
All these boys want to hear today
Is the final whistle. Let them walk away.

It has been so cold. The lines
Of these poems will be found, written
In the unforgotten mud like a team sheet.
Remember them. Read them again.

© Ian McMillan for the Premier League and The Poetry Society

Courtsey of Ian McMillan/Photograph by Adrian Mealing

Read more about Ian McMillan and his support for Sheffield’s independents here.