Saturday, 31 December 2011

Trench football

Famously, the truces between British and German troops that sprang up spontaneously in December 1914 in the wet fields of Flanders also involved football. With football matches between Germany and England now so loaded - it is interesting to see that this simple game was also to figure between the two sides during the Great War. With some professional footballers subject to approbation for not joining the army quick enough in 1914 the professional game was abandoned during 1915 – yet the spirit of the footballer was to be carried over to the front line. Famously, there were the footballs kicked off by the East Surreys on the opening of the Battle of the Somme - one of which was reputedly recovered from a rubbish dump and restored to the bar of the 'Tommy Cafe' in Pozieres. With the Somme looming large in our impressions of the war it is not surprising that this act of 1 July 1916 has overshadowed that of the 'Footballer of Loos', when the London Irish Rifles, part of the 47th (London) Division led the assault on the town on 25 September 1915 - and did so with the kick of a football, while wearing tube gas helmets - the 'goggle-eyed bugger with a tit' of Robert Graves. The battle has been re-assessed by several authors recently - though few dwell on this small act. The ball was seen bounding towards the German lines - eventually to hang on 'the old barbed wire'.  Amazingly, this football survived, and resides in the small museum of the regiment, a battered but defiant witness to the 'unwanted battle' - and a symbol of the 'greater game'.

I am grateful to Nigel Wilkinson of the London Irish Rifles Museum for his hospitality, and the chance to see the Loos football close-up.

Peter Doyle's book Loos 1915, part of the Battle Story series (History Press) will be published later in 2012 (available for pre-order); it follows his book Gallipoli 1915 from the same series, available here.

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