Monday, February 17, 2014

From People's Game to People at War

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football revisits the meaning and context of the 1914 Christmas Football Truce

Football in Britain by 1914 was the most popular, nationwide and comprehensive form of male recreation. It was pre-eminent in almost all working-class communities.

An enormous pyramid of footballing activity had evolved, which remains more or less intact to this day.  In England the FA was established as the game’s governing body. An agreed set of rules existed.

But something else apart from a sport had been established . Football in Britain was a key too for reproducing a particular model of masculinity and reinforcing the martial virtues framed by the age of Empire.

As E.A.C Thompson put it in 1901 “There is no more manly sport than football. It is so peculiarly and typically British, demanding pluck, coolness and endurance, while the spice of danger appeals at once to a British youth who is not of the namby-pamby persuasion. He loves the game for the sport’s sake and thrives upon it. A sound mind is produced by healthful exercise and effeminate habits are eschewed. He glories in the excitement of a hard-fought match, disdains to take notice of a little bruise, and delights to be in a vigorous charge, giving knock for knock.” 

It is perhaps no surprise then that some 100,000 volunteers joined the British army during World aWr One via footballing organisations and of 5,000 professional footballers 2,000 joined up.

Of course the most iconic representation of the connection between World War One and football remains the 1914 Christmas Football Truce.

The Western Front, Pont Rouge, on Christmas Eve German troops decorated their frontline with Christmas trees and candles. They sang Stille Nacht, a tune and carol in English known as Silent Night most of the British troops knew too.  Astonished, they applauded and then joined in with songs of their own.

Christmas Day, 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. No Mans Land provides the pitch,  greatcoats for goalposts. The ‘match’ ends 3-2 to the Germans.

By lunchtime on Christmas Day the guns of bloody carnage had fallen silent on two-thirds of the British sector.

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 by the early 20th century.

A very different expression however 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 to the enemy trenches. A poem from the time in the Daily Mail, described the action.

“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.”

For the traditional upper class of landed gentry and the nobility, on the retreat politically in the thirty years before the war, the outbreak of hostilities provided an opportunity to prove their value to society, to show they were still the warrior class. Public schoolboys, serving as junior officers , were the first over the top, and machine gunned down in an instant. Of the 5650 Old Etoninans who served in the war 1,157 were killed, 20%. This old aristocratic elite never recovered.
In football this had already happened. The gentlemen amateurs eclipsed by middle-class owners and the professional footballers they employed.

Football had become a working-class sport, providing passion, excitement and beauty in lives that were otherwise drab and monotonous. It was easy to play and cheap to watch.

From 1918 onwards a growing mass media helped popularise football as a spectator sport. By 1921 the Football League was effectively national in its spread of clubs taking part.

Football rather than being viewed as a threat - gambling, partisan support, a false priority, passive spectatorism - was embraced as part of our national culture. A favourable view of the football crowd was increasingly offered.  Restraint (in terms of public order), humour and liveliness the key characteristics via newsreel footage.

1923, the first Wembley FA Cup Final. At least 200,000 fans gained access to a stadium with a capacity of just 127,000.  Thousands entered without paying, rushing the turnstiles before kick off. Mounted police were used to push the crowd back to the touchlines. However, only a handful were hurt. A small contingent of police was used to clear the pitch. The game took place. Respect for the King, present in the Royal Box , in the crowd was paramount and ever-present. The match entering football’s legend as ‘The White Horse Cup Final;, a crowd of tens of thousands easily controlled by this single mounted policeman powerfully symbolic. The militant and explosive spirit of revolution that was sweeping Europe seemed so far away, scarcely present at all

The football crowd was evolving as a symbol of the stable, disciplined and ordered nature of English society.

In understanding 1914 -18 and its aftermath football is a valuable indicator of shifting social attitudes. The game reflected the formation of class identities, gender relations, the growth of the media as an industry, players' fight or their rights as employees of the clubs they played for. The key point is that football, then and now, is both shaped by, and helps shape, the power relations that exist between different social groups in English society. This is the focus we should adopt in understanding the iconic status of the 1914 Christmas football truce.


Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka PhilosophyFootballOn 20 December 2014 Philosophy Football will be marking the centenary of the 1914 Football Truce with a talk by sportswriter Dave Zirin, '1914 And a century of Sport as Resistance' with music, poetry and comedy from Grace Petrie, Kate Smurfwaite, Simon Munnery, Musa Okwonga and others.