Greatcoats for goalposts: celebrating the Christmas truce of 1914
Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football considers different ways of marking the centenary of the World War One 1914 truce
THE 1914 CHRISTMAS truce was a courageous effort by rank and file British and German soldiers that managed to temporarily stop the bloody carnage of World War One.
On the Western Front at Pont Rouge, just like countless other outposts along the line of battle on Christmas Eve, German troops decorated their trenches with trees and candles. They sang Stille Nacht, a carol most of the British troops knew too. Astonished by this moment of commonality they applauded and then joined in with songs of their own.
Football on the frontline
25th December, dawn. The guns are silent. A German NCO advances across No Mans Land carrying a Christmas Tree towards the British lines. A British soldier goes to meet him. Soon others join him. Gifts are exchanged.
A football is produced. Greatcoats, caps and helmets are used for goals. The ‘match’ ends 3-2 to the Germans.
By lunchtime on Christmas Day the guns had fallen silent on two-thirds of the British sector. More games were played before hostilities recommenced.
The fact that football was this means of connection amidst such a bloody conflict is the perfect illustration of its centrality to working-class life in Britain, and across Europe too, by the early 20th century.
A very different expression of this core meaning of football was at the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, when Captain Nevill of the East Surreys offered a prize for the first platoon to kick a football up the enemy trenches. This moment of senseless slaughter is immortalised by this popular poem from the time.
On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them,
Is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them,
The Surreys played the game
- Mandrake, Daily Mail 1916
The Christmas Truce still matters
Does this sobering change in what football meant for WWI mean the Christmas Football Truce Centenary is not worth bothering about. I would argue it most certainly is worth the bother for three reasons.
Firstly, however briefly (for ninety minute perhaps), those footballing soldiers did stop a war. Their sport – football – represented the common humanity which was (and remains) a powerful bulwark to division, hatred and conflict. Symbolic certainly, but no less powerful for that.
Secondly, any progressive politics worth its name needs such symbols, means of starting a conversation, a popular language. Think of race. There are few moments that touched the nerve of a multicultural Britain more effectively than London 2012’s ‘Super Saturday’ when Mo Farah, an asylum seeker, won Gold, followed by the mixed-race Jessica Ennis winning Gold in the Heptathlon, not forgetting Greg Rutherford’s Gold won in the long jump pit too. Were Jess and Mo's medals celebrated any the less than Greg’s, a white athlete? No of course not. Together they came to represent what GB, the team and the state, has become.
Did this mean a discourse framed by anti-immigration rhetoric was stopped in its tracks? No athlete, no sport, can do that on its own. But such moments, the football truce included, can help initiate a process towards challenging not only racism but also the imperial and martial tradition from which it emerges. The rest, however, is up to campaigns and politicians. The former too often lack a popular imagination; the latter lose any convictions they might once have had as soon as a UKiP-led backlash takes ugly shape.
Thirdly, without any kind of intervention and challenge these moments are left to the establishment to shape to their own ends. The resistance of those soldiers to war can be removed from any anti-war message, without any questioning of why and how on one day a game of football takes place, but the next day the two teams are blowing each other to smithereens (and to what end, to what good?).
Or, even worse, this moment of history is scrubbed up and dusted down to make a supermarket commercial for flogging their choccie bars. What did Marx say? ‘All that us solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’ This is a commodification of history that deserves to be contested. A popular cultural politics needs to locate, revisit and celebrate the art of the possible that the establishment and the TV adverts would rather we wouldn't mention.
Christmas Truce Centenary Party
It is this subversive message - Football vs War - that Philosophy Football will be celebrating at our Christmas Truce Centenary Party on Saturday 20 December. It will be opened by football writer and spoken word artist Musa Okwonga debuting a specially-written poem to honour Walter Tull, one of the first Black British footballers (a commissioned officer in the British Army, killed on active service in 1918). Comic genius Kate Smurthwaite will be offering her own particular interpretation of the meaning of Lord Kitchener's infamous recruiting poster 'Your Country Needs You'.
Folk legends Finlay Allison and Jimmy Ross have compiled a song list from the period, songs of resistance, against the carnage of war, ‘Never over by Christmas.' Comedian Simon Munnery provides his own surreal commentary on the meaning of 1914-18. And a headlining set from the finest of a new generation of protest singers, Grace Petrie and her band, The Benefits Culture.
It is an internationalist celebration too - acclaimed US sportswriter Dave Zirin talks about the meaning of the 1914 Football Truce and a centenary of sport as resistance, in conversation with David Goldblatt (author of the football book of the year Game of our Lives) and, talking about work with young footballers in Palestine, will be Sanaa Qureshi of Football Beyond Borders. From Germany Uli Hesse, author of Tor! The Story of German Football, and Birgitt Gloeckl of Gerrmany's Academy of Football and Culture. And from Belgium Jurgen Vantomme’s extraordinary photographs of former World War One battlefields turned into the football pitches of Belgian grassroots football today.
Greatcoats for Goalposts? A game of football that stopped a war should leave us all with something to savour, apart from the holly and the ivy, this season of not much peace and too little goodwill.