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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the Jurassic World trailer
film

Video: The official full-length trailer for the Jurassic Park sequel has dropped – two days early

Environment
The plant ‘Nepenthes zygon’ was donated to Kew in 2004
environment
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer snapped celebrities for 40 years - but it wasn’t all fun and games
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital