July 1st, our fateful day

More from Great-uncle Roland’s diary:

Friday 30th June 1916. 7pm.
I have just got back from the trenches, which were squelching with mud … It was a lovely afternoon with a fresh wind blowing. Some of the trenches were badly knocked about. I looked over into Hunland as I came out – the wood in front looking like currant bushes with the blight.

Some trees were down in our wood. I passed the cemetary, as I came back, and looked at [Lt. Wilfred Dent Wroe’s] grave. I am moving up by myself at 8.30, having a little time here to wash and have a meal. I had three letters tonight and the Observer, rather delayed, all posted on Sunday.

This ends the diary before the “push” as I must pack up.

Thirteen hours later 2nd Lt. Roland Ingle was dead. He is buried in the same Becourt Military Cemetery he had visited the day before.

Fast forward ninety years. The World Cup is building to a crescendo, and we are bombarded by war-time allegories. Meanwhile, The Times carries a picture of Wayne Rooney in a Kitchener style pose, accompanied by the famous slogan “Your Country Needs You.” My brothers have answered the call, and are in Germany. They have been mingling with the German fans, jubilant after their victory over the Argentines.

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Bill Shankly’s famous quote persists. I hope he said it firmly with his tongue in his cheek, because it is, of course, utter tosh. Football doesn’t matter like wars matter. Actually, I think most fans know this, despite the hyperbole. There are those who would say that clearly, I haven’t been visiting the right sort of pubs in the wrong parts of town… and yet today in Edinburgh, arch-rivals Hearts FC and Hibernian FC have joined together to commemorate The Somme.

The fun of the game is precisely giving yourself over to a set of arbitrary rules, and ‘buying into’ the theatre that ensues. Sure, one has to suspend disbelief, pretend for a moment that it does matter. But the party atmosphere that my siblings have reported back can only exist if one ultimately acknowledges that is all a game. Something done purely for fun, for enjoyment, for escapism. Those who allow the boundaries to be crossed, as Shankly suggests, are idiots. They are just like those who believe that soap-opera characters are real people.

Contrast the “a game as a war” analogies, with the attitudes of the men at The Somme. I read today that some British soldiers there had a competition, to try and kick a football into the German trenches as they went for the big “push” at 7.30am. No-one claimed the prize, because all those who had competed were killed. As Roland Ingle wrote, they took chances of life and death as all being “part of the game”.

And so over ninety years the analogies are mirrored, reversed. The ball kicked over the trenches in 1916 lands at Rooney’s feet. His “shot” is fired back through the decades, and men fall over, never to stand again. We use the language of war, words like “this fateful day” and “our hero,” to describe events and people that are no such thing. The real heros have already met their fate. And now, because of The Fallen, we are free, to play a game with the Germans and the Portuguese, united by a complete triviality, the one excuse for a party. This is how we honour them.

Look, Uncle Roland! Now they are our friends.

English and German Fans mix in Cologne, before a World Cup 2006 fixture

5 thoughts on “July 1st, our fateful day

  1. I think the “football as war” analogy is interesting. For our generation, and our parents’, the experience of WWs 1 and 2 was not a reality. Uncle Roland’s diary is a testament to that reality, one which thankfully is foreign to us now. The application of the analogy today, and the pleasure derived from engaging in an interest to which such an analogy is deemed apt tells me something about human/male/english nature.

    I shall lay aside for a moment the insult to the memory of those who fought and died and were maimed and/or bereaved in the course of our war-time history, that such an analogy entails… The idea of heroes, of national pride, of domination, of defeating one’s opponent, of courage, daring, skill, and endurance under attack – all these things apply both to war-time and to football. Does football then fulfill a need in our psyche in the absence of a war? And is that need something which really should be fed? If this is what we need (to defeat another) to feel good about ourselves, then maybe something is amiss. If our very self-esteem depends on the subjugation of another, then I don’t think that is terribly edifying, or ethical.

    England may have been defeated today, but to my eyes, they still played a tremendous game, under less than ideal circumstances, and that is something the players (and we, on their behalf) can be proud of (not counting Wayne Chav Rooney). Why does it have to be about winning and losing, and not about how we play the game?

    I also think it is interesting (and perhaps convenient) that the war-time references relate to wars where England was not the aggressor. Would we use the same metaphors had we been playing against Iraq, for example? Is it a convenience or a coincidence that the war-time metaphors make no reference to our wars of aggression?

  2. A lovely piece Rob. Quite suddenly your last line made me cry.
    Clarice’s response raises interesting questions. I think that perhaps biologically we are endowed with an aggressive instinct which was necessary at an earlier time in mans history and now has to be directed elsewhere, or as they say sublimated. And yes its not about winning or losing but how you play the game, we all need to remember that. Sadly I think this attitude has been blamed for a lack of success in british sport and so fallen out of favour.

  3. Have just seen ther extract of the diary of your great-uncle. I am the archivist at the King’s School Ely and have written a book about the history of the school where he and his older brother were pupils. Roland’s story is featured in the book and we have many pictures of him as a schooboy here. If you are interested in coming to see them at some point please contact me.
    Lynne Turner.

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