Football, war and the meaning of silence

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At the end of the First World War, the whole of Britain was in a state of numbed paralysis. After four years of bloodshed and carnage, in which almost an entire generation of young men was wiped out, the only response available to the nation was silence. It was to silence that people turned when they made their first memorials to those they had lost. On 11 November 1919, when the Manchester Guardian wrote of the first Armistice Day commemoration, it spoke of “silence which [is] almost pain … And the spirit of memory brood[ing] over it all.”

The men who survived the trenches also chose silence. For several generations, their families knew that they would not speak of the war, that the father, grandfather or great-grandfather, with the musty box of medals and the Old Comrades’ Association mug in his cupboard, was not minded to talk about it, but preferred to remain silent, although perhaps he might have shared a few memories over a pint if he ever ran into a pal who’d been through the same.

Silence is there in the work of our war poets like a shroud. In Siegfried Sassoon’s The Death Bed he writes of “silence and safety…” while for Wilfred Owen it meant danger (“Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . / Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . . / Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . . / Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, / But nothing happens.” (Exposure)

For all of them, silence is also death.

So it is strange now that we live in a time of such clamour and noise, made for the most part by the overpaid attack dogs of Murdoch and Rothermere, demanding everyone pays appropriate tribute on Remembrance Day. Those shouting the loudest are unlikely to have seen war at first hand. Similarly people who work in what they would probably call the football industry appear to have decided that they too have a role in shaping our collective memory. Only a few days ago, the Premier League posted this on their website, despite there not being one iota of consultation of supporters who are expected to participate in or watch these rituals (which is hardly suprising given the general attitude of the football authorities to fans).

The introduction of the one minute of silence at football matches has been a slow process. I’ve tried to find out when it first began but I haven’t been able to. It’s difficult to know exactly how our football grounds became places where the nation gathered for such commemorations. It’s fatuous to suggest that football has replaced religion but sports events are often the only place where communities come together. I can see that. What I can’t see is who decides who, what or why we remember and how we go about it. We are – at least we’re told we are – “the football family” and like every family we have things that we share, but we also quarrel, squabble and don’t necessarily all agree on very much at all.

Silences were once held to remember former players or club officials who died. Sometimes a silence was observed for a member of the Royal Family who had died, although this was always controversial. Occasionally they were held because of a local tragedy. I remember a particular occasion at my club’s ground, Portman Road, which was both moving and comforting. It felt right. Since then, however, it seems that we are being called upon to hold silences for all kinds of things, without being consulted on whether we agree with them or not. The assumption that we must all agree about these things is contemptible in my view, and I decided long ago that, although I would never be disrespectful if I were present at any such event, I would not participate in it myself unless I happened to agree with it.

This is made easier, of course, by the inability of many people to remain silent for as long as sixty seconds, which has resulted in that interesting phenomenon “the minute’s applause.” We are not a generation that has known much of war or death, and the “silence that is almost pain,” and so, perhaps, silence is difficult for some.

I am told that holding silences to commemorate our war dead at football matches came with the Help for Heroes campaign and that seems about right, at least in the timing of it. The militarism that has become more and more prominent in our public life has been obvious to anyone who has regularly attended football matches in the last ten years. It seems that to even question this will result in accusations of anything from not caring about injured troops to treason, so hysterical has our public discourse become in recent times. However, the imposition of the commemoration of war – rapidly morphing into a celebration of war as this egregious photograph of children in this year’s British Legion press release demonstrates – is simply wrong.

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It’s wrong because it forces people to participate in something they may not agree with, or may even find objectionable. It’s wrong because it presumes a social cohesion and shared beliefs that ultimately results in the dangerous mentality that “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” It is wrong, particularly in the context of a football match, because it’s based on a fantasy about war itself, and a fantasy about the relationship between war and football. From the Christmas card imagery of the fabled match between Fritz and Tommy in the First World War trenches onwards, football is increasingly being used to sanitise the experience of war.

In 1914, there was in fact tremendous hostility in Britain towards professional footballers. Football club chairmen, ever with money at the forefront of their minds, insisted that players kept to their contracts and most footballers, understandably reluctant to be blown to bits for their country, declined to join the army. The bravery that consumed some journalists as they sat behind their typewriters encouraged them to attack the players. The Times thundered: “These professional footballers of England are the pick of the country for fitness. Nobody has the right to say that any body of men are not doing their duty… but when the young men week after week see the finest physical manhood of the country expending its efforts in kicking a ball about, they can’t possibly realise that there is a call for every fit man at the front.”

Eventually the pressure was so great that most young footballers did join up and many were killed or maimed so badly that they never played again. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, things were different, players were determined to “do their bit” and were able to carry on playing football as well as serving their country. Aware of the importance of football for public morale, the government made it easy for top players like Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Frank Soo and Joe Mercer to be stationed in England where they could continue to play as guest players for other clubs, if they couldn’t play for their own. Very few star footballers of the time ever saw open warfare.

Unlike now, there were no loud demands for footballers to wear poppies or for commemorative silences to be held at football grounds after either of these wars. Players who had lost comrades or family members did what everyone else did and remembered in church, or at their local war memorial, or alone in silence. They had their own thoughts, feelings and memories and it wasn’t necessary to make a public show of them. So why now? Why do the people who write newspaper columns, or football administrators, feel they have the right to insist that players and supporters participate in such events? It is a compelling part of the romanticisation of war, this conflation of the football player and the soldier, but it is not one that bears much scrutiny when faced with the realities of combat: the severed limb, the pitiless impact of war on the lives and minds of survivors, or – to go back to Wilfred Owen’s poem, Exposure – “The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp, / Pause over half-known faces. / All their eyes are ice, / But nothing happens.”

I have written before about the social pressures associated with poppy wearing and this year the controversy continues but I would question why any footballer should wear a poppy on his shirt while playing. Why has this suddenly become an issue for football when for decades, no one felt the necessity of asking players to commemorate war, certainly not the people who actually fought in one? My answer is that there are people behind it who have political motives to encourage an atmosphere of nationalism  and its concomitant hostility to “outsiders,” and the public celebration of war, rather than the private mourning of those affected by it which is, in fact, more traditional in this country.

I’ve also written about the digitisation project which I worked on in 1999/2000, Picture Norfolk, in which the extant portrait photographs of every Norfolk serviceman killed during the First World War were made available online. These images have had an immense effect on me. In the age of the selfie – the preening and posturing of the shallow and the self-obsessed – they seem even more poignant. The lack of self-awareness, the direct, honest gaze, the unpretentious stance, these were images quite consciously made for the loved ones who were left behind. Each silent face preserved so that it would be remembered over the long years to come, when all that remained of the subject was a treasured sepia photograph, hanging above a quiet fireplace.

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5 thoughts on “Football, war and the meaning of silence

  1. Thank you. This makes more sense than anything I have read, on what the aftermath of the wars of the elite actually means. My grandfather had to fight in WW2. He was silent, I don’t remember him saying anything really, he just sat in his chair in his shed with his pipe when we visited. My dad was silent after Malayia.

    I will light a candle for all of those that suffered and died as a result of these disgusting rich mens’ wars.

    A few years ago, I overheard a very well dressed Eton accented youngish guy in the street in Edinburgh, on his mobile. He was talking about how to get (young) people to join the army.
    One thing he said, ‘we have to somehow make them think it’s attractive and fun’, or words to that effect. Not surprising.

    The image with the kids holding the poppies and t-shirts in your article is shocking. The WM UK right wing, including Labour, (red tories) will no doubt introduce national service when brexit is done and dusted. The low wage, no wage economy that they impose on our young is quite deliberate, it is designed to ensure that there is plenty of cannon fodder for their phoney wars.

    May those who promote, cause and create wars, simply rot in hell.

  2. Unfortunately you are so right, IMO the photograph in the article should be replaced with one showing the true horrors of ANY war, not one to serve as a recruitment poster

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