No Man's Land stadium will show why football must win over fighting

Sport's capacity to reach across the bitterest divide is exemplified by the events of Christmas Day 95 years ago in the killing fields in Belgium, where British and German soldiers all too briefly laid down their arms and played football instead of fighting.

The last of the combatants from the First World War died this year, but the power of ideas lives on. By the time the centenary arrives in 2014, the site of the most famous game in No Man's Land, at Messines, south-east of Ypres, may be overlooked by a "Flanders peace field and truce stadium" as part of an educational complex where young people could stay and play.

Among the peace campaigners working with the local Belgian authorities are English sculptor Andrew Edwards and Irish writer Don Mullan. Their admiration for Gordon Banks brought them together – Edwards' statue of the great goalkeeper graces the foyer of Stoke's Britannia Stadium while Mullan penned an acclaimed biography – but they also shared a belief in sport's potential to help resolve conflict.

Their research has convinced them a game did take place, or more probably, several games along the Western Front. At Messines, where a young Adolf Hitler was billeted, contemporary sources suggest it started with a Christmas carol being sung in the German trenches. The refrain drifted across No Man's Land to Comines, where Winston Churchill, by astonishing coincidence, was among the British soldiers. Slowly, "Fritz" and "Tommy" emerged to fraternise and exchange handshakes, schnapps, chocolate and cigarettes. Then a ball was produced.

"That's not as far-fetched as it sounds," Edwards said. "There's plenty of evidence that they had balls with them, and there are accounts of young soldiers being so terrified when they went over the top that they ran out dribbling footballs."

The most likely match pitted the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment against the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders, the Germans reportedly winning 3-2. Other versions have the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers playing against the Hun – 200-man kickabouts, no referee, no score and, until their superiors called them in and the slaughter began again, no ill will. It has been portrayed as a mythical event, and yet letters from the front to the press made it clear something happened.

The peace field and truce stadium are more than a pipe dream. Mullan has been in talks to involve the United Nations. He and Edwards envisage a US-style collegiate stadium with players emerging as if from underground like troops from the trenches.

Integral to the scheme would be a 22ft-high statue by Edwards titled Peace Keepers, linking Banks (in his gravity-defying save from Pele in 1970) to his boyhood idol, former German prisoner of war and Manchester City keeper Bert Trautmann.

The sculptor, who is working on a commission from Louisville for a Muhammad Ali statue and Derby for a Clough-Taylor monument, would also produce one of Walter Tull, a Barbadian who braved racial hatred to play for Spurs and Northampton before a German bullet killed him. And he hopes to acquire the cast of his Pride Park statue of Steve Bloomer, the Derby player who was football's first superstar, before going to coach in Berlin in 1914 and being incarcerated as a POW.

Edwards, Mullan and their allies in Messines propose a World Youth Tournament there in 2014. It may be named in memory of John Condon, an Irish soldier who, aged 14, is thought to have been the conflict's youngest fatality.

In the meantime, a Christmas Truce Carol Festival is planned for next year. "Music drew them out of the trenches," said Mullan. "In the same way, sport can heal the hurts."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones