Football Remembers – hands clasped within a giant football frame

This post discusses a very new memorial opened at the National Memorial Arboretum, near Alrewas, Staffordshire. The NMA is one focus of my interests in memory and material culture in the past and in the present. I have blogged about the NMA previously here, here and here.

The memorial subject is ‘The Christmas Truce 1914 Football Remembers’ and the memorial was opened just ahead of the 100th anniversary of this event. It is at the far end of the renamed Falklands Memorial Way, close to the railway line. It is comprised of a shelter containing a series of information boards explaining the historical events of the Christmas Truce as a positive message for peace and reconciliation. It has further messages explaining the memorial and its historical context, including football’s relationship with the recruitment of soldiers for the British Army.

Outside, the main focus is a large metal sculpture of two clasped hands with a spherical (football-like) frame, denoting friendship between the British and German troops who came out of their trenches and met in No Man’s Land for Christmas 1914 to (among other things) play football.

As such, the memorial celebrates and immortalises one of the great stories (embellished and manipulated by literature, legend, song and even tasteless Sainsbury’s advertisements last Christmas) of the First World War and the fact that both football supporters and footballers were among the dead and wounded of the conflict. Moreover, it helps to promote understanding of the events and their potentially positive message about the nature of the human spirit and the nature of war.

The selected design is moved above reproach in two fashions. First, it was designed by a child: 10-year-old called Spencer Turner. Second, the ‘seal of approval’ came from the Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and footballer Theo Walcott selecting Mr Turner’s winning design.

In its final form, it was opened in December 2014 by Prince William and supported by four principal organisations: The Football Association, The Premier League, The Football League and the British Council

The hyper-realistic giant hands within the football frame. Peace is swallowed by the greater goal: football!

Celebrating peace and friendship between men and nations inspired by the celebration of Christmas, even in the maelstrom of bitter fighting, it might be difficult to be critical of such a powerful memorial and its subject. You can see about its opening on the BBC website here.

Every organisation in the UK tried to find ways to suitably mark the centenary of the start of the First World War as well as specific events within the early stages of the conflict. I do not wish to criticise the attention to the anniversary by all and sundry in this particular blog. What I do feel needs stating is that memorials such as this one are problematic.

I feel it is somewhat self-serving and insidious as a memorial because of its use of the rhetorical assertion through sculpture that an inanimate spherical artefact can ‘remember’. Of course when the memorial says ‘Football Remembers’ this isn’t precisely what is meant in a literal sense; it means that the ‘game’ remembers: its organisations, its players, its supporters, its places. ‘Football’ remembers. Still, it is claimed that ‘football’  remembers, but doesn’t state what is remembered. It also sets up ‘Football’ as somehow a ‘player’ in the conflict and now a custodian of its collective memory. Moreover, it elevates the act of remembering in itself as the important thing, not what is remembered. This form of memorial serves to sublimate our attention away from more important issues to focus simply on the act of remembering itself. To prevents us from exploring who and what is remembered, and (most important of all): why is it remembered! 

This memorial prompts many questions in my mind at the time of the centenary of the First World War and the use of material cultures in its commemoration. Among my questions are the following:

  • Is this really a memorial for peace, or celebrating a moment of peace within a war that is itself seen as noble and necessary?
  • Is this really about remembering the Christmas Truce or about promoting football today?
  • Is ‘football’ apologising for its institutional support for the wars past and present?
  • Is it actually also (or more) about legitimising the obscene wealth and corruption of a national and international sporting industry that creates wealth for a tiny minority: a situation even die-hard football fans frequently find impossible to justify and condone?

I’m not a great fan of football, but I would argue that is incidental. The subject of the memorial may be beyond reproach. Its designers are certainly sincere and well-meaning. However, let’s not pretend such memorials are politically neutral and employ material and textual conceits to promote a particular vision of the past in the present.