Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister.
I hope that we will soon hear more about the remarkable contribution that football made to the unofficial truces which took place up and down the front during the first Christmas of World War One.
The stories are familiar, but repay retelling: how in more than one place between the trenches, the cautious process of testing out the willingness of soldiers to greet one another in the spirit of Christmas peace was augmented by the playing of the world’s most popular and simple game – football.
Not all the games were between British forces and Germans. A number were amongst soldiers from the same army: officers and men took the chance to relieve the misery of their present existence through the game, with all the memories it was likely to invoke of more carefree times at home, and what the conviviality of sport meant at such a time. The pity of it is almost unbearably added to by our knowing what they did not – that they were in for an awfulness of existence beyond any of their experiences in the next few years to come.
These games are simply the best known of football’s involvement with the war. Less well-known is the remarkable story of Ruhleben internment camp, in which civilians working in Germany at the outbreak of the war were held. They included an extraordinary collection of gifted players for club and country, including Scotland’s John Cameron and the great Steve Bloomer of England and Derby County. They founded a football association and a league, and gradually used the power of the game to improve their conditions and their relations with their captors.
In the UK, a number of women’s teams were created as factories lost male workers, and women’s recreation at work gained importance. Kerr Ladies FC of Preston, founded at a munitions factory, were the best known and most successful, having an existence full of ground-breaking achievement right up to 1965.
And on 1st July 1916, as we will be remembering in due course, men who went over the top on that first morning of the battle of the Somme kicked their precious footballs before them. Even to write it brings tears to my eyes.
I love football, but elements of the modern gilded world it has become, with FIFA’s pomposity and corruption, and the carelessness of its stars with those who idolise them, require moments of reflection about what the magic of the game truly is which in turn can merit a footnote in one of history’s most momentous events. All those connected with modern football might like, for a moment, to pause and think, in memory of those past, just what they might do for the honour and reputation of the game to deserve even to lace the boots and stand on the same pitch as those will shall remember this Christmas.