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Football remembers fallen heroes of World War One at special Games of Remembrance

British Soldiers playing football in gas masks in 1916

British Soldiers playing football in gas masks, 1916.

It is 100 years since the First World War ended, one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Everyone in Britain felt the effects of the war. Football included. More than 2,000 professional players, from all 50 clubs, were sent away to serve. Around 100,000 fans were also enlisted. Almost 300 footballers and many more fans never returned.

On Thursday 8th of November, a very special football event took place in Nottingham to honour and remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

The Games of Remembrance, held at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground and Notts County’s Meadow Lane, saw men and women from the British Army take on the German Bundeswehr Armed forces.

Over 11,000 people attended – including more than 5,000 school children from 60 schools – some travelling from as far as Germany and Greece.

Although it didn’t go Britain’s way this year, with both teams losing – the men 3-1 and women 2-1 – the day itself was a great success.

British and German Armies female captains shake hands
The British Army and German Bundeswehr female captains shake hands.

29-year-old Corporal Jess Treharne, of Rhondda South Wales, is a section commander and driver in the Royal Logistics Corps. She served at Camp Bastian in Afghanistan, moving 15 tonne trucks loaded with items such as fuel, ammunition, water and vital pieces of equipment. She also plays in Midfield for the British Army football team.

“It’s a huge honour,” she said after the game. “ I feel very privileged and proud to represent not only the Army but also my family. Some of the girls, myself included, have never played in front of a crowd of that size.”

The games were particularly poignant for Corporal Treharne. Her Grandfather was a professional footballer who was also a soldier.

“My Grandfather served in World War Two. He was a Staff Sergeant for the Physical Training Corps. He was also a professional footballer who played for the likes of Preston, Wrexham and Barnsley.

It’s been an emotional day from start to finish. He [her grandfather] was at the back of my mind, before the game, during the game and after the game too.”

Sergeant Yvette Kemp is ambassador of women’s football for the Army. She is an Instructor in the Royal Army Physical Training Corps. Usually she would be on the pitch herself but is currently on a nine month tour of Afghanistan. She took two weeks leave just to fly back and be at the games.

“It is our chance to pay tribute to all of the fallen heroes of World War One and it’s so good that at events like this we can still remember everything that they did,” she said.

For Sergeant Kemp and Corporal Treharne, The Games of Remembrance was a fun, safe and memorable experience. Granted – all those who took part are still serving soldiers – but the actual football matches in Nottingham will never quite equal those played on the battlefields of World War One.

Replica World War One football being signed
A replica football from the World War One era is signed at Meadow Lane.

Football played an important role in World War One. A year after the war began, in 1915, all professional leagues in England were disbanded.

On the frontline, football was used as an escape from the horrors of war. Troops usually spent stints in battle followed by rest periods which allowed them time to play.

The 1914 Christmas truce is the most famous example of football taking place on the battlefield. There are many varying stories about what happened between the British Allied forces and German troops. Some tales recount an organised match, others say impromptu kick-abouts happened along the Western Front. One thing is for certain. Football united men in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Back home, nearly a million British women worked in munitions factories during World War One. Many of these factories created their own football teams. The famous Dick Kerr’s Ladies drew huge crowds and helped raise massive sums of money to aid Britain’s troops.

“The fact that women were working in these ammunition factories and playing football as well, whilst drawing in crowds of over 50,000 at a time, was incredible. Seeing how much they wanted to play football and that they never gave up is inspiring,” said Sergeant Kemp.

Dick Kerr's Ladies F.C line up for a team photo
 Dick Kerr’s Ladies F.C line up for a team photo

When the war finally ended in 1918, the lives of the footballers and fans who return home would never be the same. Things would never be the same for their football clubs either.

Bradford City, one of the UK’s top sides at the time, was severally affected by World War One. Expecting the war to be over by the Christmas of 1914 – Bradford sent nine of their players to the frontline – none of them returned.

Stories such as these are why The Games of Remembrance was created. It is an opportunity to remember, respect and honour those who served. It is an event to say, ‘football remembers’.

Yet The Games of Remembrance also provides an opportunity to look to the present and the future. It allows an opportunity to appreciate what football has and will do for people, whether you’re a soldier, veteran, victim or civilian.

The British Army FA was also keen to deliver education and, importantly, good fun. A special ‘Fanzone’ aimed at children was set up before each game.

Deborah II replica WW1 Tank
Guy Martin’s Deborah II replica WW1 Tank

With live music, interactive stalls and military equipment on show, including Guy Martin’s replica World War One tank, Deborah II.

Captain Matt Spruce is the men’s British Army football Performance Analyst and a Training Officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. For him football is a huge part of Army life:

“Football is a common language and it breaks barriers everywhere we go. They call football a soldier’s game. It enhances moral, helps team building and creates the ethos of working towards a common goal,” he said.

Captain Spruce has served in the British Army for 21 years, starting as a soldier and making his way through the ranks, during this time football has been played in all corners of the globe.

“Wherever we deploy – wherever there’s an operation or exercise in Canada, Kenya, or wherever we are located – soldiers always have a football with them. It’s huge, it’s a real vehicle for leadership in the UK and when we play against our counterparts.”

This common language and breaking down of barriers through football was celebrated at The Games of Remembrance by two former enemies turned close allies. It not only serves as a reminder of our past but also as a reminder that football is – and will continue to be – a common denominator between human beings, even in the most dire of circumstances.

The sacrifices made by soldiers and their families to protect the peace and freedoms we enjoy today will not be forgotten.

The British Army and German Bundeswehr female teams
The British Army and German Bundeswehr female teams pose for a photo after the match (Corporal Jess Treharne, bottom row, sixth from right).

Educational packs for schools, community groups and grass roots football coaches, are available from The Games of Remembrance website to help everyone learn about war and football. If you would like to research more about football and the First World War you can do so here.


Connor Woolley
Connor, 26, comes from Long Eaton. As a Nottingham Forest supporter, he’ll say he is from Nottingham, but ask his Derby County supporting friends or family and they will proudly say they’re from Derby. He earned a degree in Media Studies from Nottingham Trent University in 2014. After graduating, Connor spent some time working in Public Relations. More recently, he has volunteered as a Police Special Constable. Passionate about all things football, Connor is specifically interest in goalkeeping. He still plays occasionally, although now it’s more trying than playing. After trying surfing for the first time on holiday this summer, he has found a new love, which he hopes to pursue further in the future. He also practices the Israeli self defence, Krav Maga. Connor hopes to improve his writing and broadcast skills with the Sports Gazette and St Mary’s University.
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