Crossing the Field: WWI, Football & the Christmas Truce

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once famously observed: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. But I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ That quote is often invoked by diehard fans to articulate their unswerving devotion to their team, even though in their heart of hearts they would surely accept that the statement is disproportionate and absurd. But there was one occasion, on a muddy battlefield in Flanders a century ago, when football truly did transcend life and death.

Christmas Eve 1914 was just another desperate day on the front-line for the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, hunkered down in their frozen trenches as they maintained their endless vigil over enemy ranks. On that dank late afternoon, peering through the midwinter gloom, they were alerted by signs of abnormal activity in the opposing trenches. But closer inspection revealed that this was not the prelude to yet more bloody and futile combat. Rather, they were astonished to observe German soldiers decorating their trenches and singing carols. This small spark of humanity inspired messages to be relayed between the two sets of troops, and on the morning of Christmas Day they emerged from their trenches and blinked at each other across that slender strip of blackened, crater-scarred wasteland known as no-man’s land. A football was produced and for a few joyous hours the implacable foes became locked in a game rather than a war. After the match the players shared a drink and exchanged seasonal wishes before stepping back into the darkness that would engulf them for the next four years.

Now, one hundred years later, that football match is being re-enacted by young British and German players on the site of the original game. And in a parallel celebration of this life-affirming interlude, three Belgian artists have collaborated to produce an exhibition of football-related art.

Jurgen Vantomme’s photographs show player action and spectator reaction from football matches across Belgium. But, just as with that game played a century ago, these are no scenes from any ‘Theatre of Dreams’. Rather, this is football at its most grass roots. Here we see matches involving junior league players flanked by ‘crowds’ numbering tens rather than thousands, set against mundane, sometimes dystopian backdrops such as a gaunt industrial plant or a power station’s belching chimneys. The shots of these journeyman footballers watched by ordinary Joes, wholly oblivious to their surroundings, recalls that day in 1914 when humble Fritzes and Tommies played out their fantasies, and for a few blessed hours were able to elevate themselves above the brutal and unforgiving environment in which they had become mired.

The ceramics of Robin Vermeersch depict football on a grander scale, played by professionals in proper stadiums. The elements of each scene - the stadium, its stands, the pitch, the players and the spectators – are fused together in a single contiguous piece. The effect is one of wholeness, of cohesion in a self-contained world. In short, the protagonists exist in their very own bubble, which is exactly how we feel upon entering a major stadium – a sense of belonging, of sharing a defined space. And even though we are required to share this space with the opposition’s supporters, it is our space, it is football’s space. On that flickeringly hopeful morning a century ago, those English and German soldiers fashioned their own space, and for a brief and ecstatic moment were able to insulate themselves from the horrors of what had gone before, and what would follow.

Marc Palmer’s paintings present us with a panorama of pure passion, the very embodiment of Shankly’s maxim. But this is the passion of sport, not war, a passion play rather than Passchendaele. We encounter the unflinching devotion of the true football fan with their painstakingly constructed scarves, banners and other paraphernalia which symbolise their heart-on-sleeve willingness to die for the cause. And then we meet the footballers themselves – here a dignified depiction of the single-club loyalty of Steven Gerrard, captain of Shankly’s beloved Liverpool, and there, right in our faces, a vein-throbbing Vinnie Jones entreating us to get behind the team – exactly the sort of guys we’d want as our comrades in arms were we ever to find ourselves marooned in those ghastly trenches.

Three artists, three types of media and three striking interpretations, which, in their unique manner, celebrate what makes football special wherever and however it is played. So why not incorporate this exhibition into your personal commemoration of World War 1. And while you are reflecting upon these intelligently conceived and artfully executed works, why not also use them as a portal back to that extraordinary Christmas morning in 1914 when, for a few sacred moments, football really was more important than life and death.


Les Palmer