It's 1913 and you're a strapping young man with the world at your feet. You've been set up with the dashing, charming, and winsome Gladys (though she could have just as easily been called Irene, or Ethel or Ruth) and since you're not exactly lacking in shillings, you both go to the 'pictures' to see Ivanhoe.
Within a year, Gladys is pregnant and you're convinced it's going to be a boy. You're unable to decide between naming him James or George - James seems a bit bland, but naming the boy after the King himself might put a bit too much pressure on the young lad. Meanwhile at work, the gossip revolves around the growing tension in Europe. The other clerks at the bank keep bringing up the Kaiser kicking off, but you're more concerned with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria (and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire), who has been shot in the streets of Sarajevo by the upstart 'Black Hand'. The entanglement of political relations finds every country in the centre of Europe at the doorstep of war. The invasion of Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian empire was met with resistance by Russian troops and followed by a flexing of muscles by the German empire, who made two statements of brute force by invading the neutral countries of Belgium and their neighbours in Luxembourg.
As war is declared in Europe, tensions naturally rise in Britain and its empire. Protests against British involvement clash with protestors champing at the bit to get involved. You don't jump in on either side of this, but you learn at the Working Men's Club that your old best man, Bernard had been leading the 'Pro War' movement in your area. He walks around collecting signatures of support and you and your chums join in - because why not? War was in your family and you always hear the tales of your great-grandfather's time in Waterloo as well as your Uncle's heroics in the Anglo-Zulu war and now it might be time to add your own chapter.
When you travel to London, you become a part of a roaring mass of people outside of Buckingham Palace. It is the fourth of August, 1914, and the press of humanity is a force that you simply cannot resist. In just under two hours, the response of Britain to Germany's aggression will be announced. The nervous wait is followed by a rapturous applause as the crowd finds out that Great Britain has declared war on the German Empire.
Without hesitation, you're lining up to join the war effort. You'll gladly defend the Belgian people who had already been overrun by the German Empire's forward march. The train departs the station, carrying you to the coast and a ship bound for France, where you'll meet up with the other half of the regiment (made up of your friends and acquaintances) before you deploy to Belgium. You've told Gladys "I'll be back before Christmas". By the seventh of August, you're already in the thick of it as the Germans overrun northern France. Great Britain would lose almost half of the seventy-thousand-strong Expeditionary Force that week, and you cannot help but feel a combination of relief at not being among those men and despair that the promise you made to your wife and unborn child may have may have been a lie.
Three years pass as slowly as have any others in your life. You are sent weekly letters from Gladys and your son (she chose your name) and you hope more than anything that you may see Blake's green and pleasant land once more. In the ensuing years you've come so far and seen so much. Nearly ten months of calamity in Verdun. Friends drowning in the thick air borne of mustard gas. Trenches that are the vision of Hell on Earth and yet the closest thing to sanctuary that you have. Zeppelins and flying machines that would be miracles in any other setting, but are merely the heralds of impending death here. You have seen all of this and more. But, like so many others, Passchendaele will claim you.
De-motivated, desperate troops from both sides fire potshots that barely deafen the moans of those injured and drowning in the swampy mud of Western Belgium, where the idyllic fields of yore have long passed into a blackened wasteland, and where troops with nothing left to lose and not much else to give are forced forward by a desperate commander. You start to believe that this may never end and that a stray bullet granting you eternal rest from this eternal Hell may be seen as a blessing. You, like so many others, would never make it home from this, the war that carried no glory.
Back in the present, the past few weeks have seen a small red poppy implanted firmly on the lapel of many people going about their business in Britain. This includes our beloved footballers and those with whom they work. The story of the poppy itself stems from the fact that the war of 1914-1918 had tarnished the landscape of Belgium. The Western Front had left an everlasting mark on the countryside and many wondered if the price of so much death was that nothing would ever grow again.
How strange, then, when this belief was shattered by a slight red flower growing amongst the lost. It was nearly a mockery when thousands of the flowers sprouted up; nature seemingly defying humanity's destruction and giving us reason for hope. It was only natural that the small, determined plant be used as symbol by those who wished to pay their respects.
The poppy is:
A symbol of Remembrance and hope
Worn by millions of people
Red because of the natural colour of field poppies
The poppy is NOT:
A symbol of death or a sign of support for war
A reflection of politics or religion
Red to reflect the colour of blood
Before the First World War, wars had revolved around succession crises stemming from the inter-marrying of Europe's elite as well as the rapid colonisation of North and South America, Africa, and The East. Territorial disputes and skirmishes reigned supreme and even though the dark moments still existed, war was the game of Kings and Queens and in most circumstances peace could be brokered quite simply. As minor battles raged in Europe and tensions grew, new alliances between old foes were made, which only served to turn up the heat on the European pressure cooker.
The spark that ignited the first World War was the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th of June 1914. Gavrilo Princip, named a hero and freedom fighter by some and a murderer and terrorist by others, almost stumbled upon his target after a number of failed assassination attempts by his counterparts. The convoy carrying the archduke through the streets of Sarajevo decided to make a stop at a nearby hospital so that the Ferdinand could pay his respects to those injured in the earlier attempts on his life. But the motorcade took a fateful wrong turn. In attempting to reverse the car, the driver stalled and the brakes locked. Gavrilo Princip was serendipitously nearby, and he stepped forward and calmly discharged his pistol into the Archduke's motorcade, hitting Franz Ferdinand in the throat and his wife, Sophie, in the abdomen.
Princip, nineteen years of age at the time, immediately tried to take his own life with a cyanide capsule as well as with the pistol that he had used to kill the Archduke and his wife. Gavrilo was wrestled to the ground before he could commit suicide and he would later literally rot away in prison, dying of starvation and tubercolosis. After the assassination, though, hatred spread through the region as though it was being poured from a cup. The Austro-Hungarian government put immense pressure onto the Serbian Government amid anti-Serb riots and pogroms within the empire. Serbia stood tall despite the pressure and demands, and was met with a declaration of war on the 28th of July 1914. Most of the nations in Europe honoured pre-agreed alliances and with Austria-Hungary's declaration of war, hands were forced.
Great Britain's part to play would be to support France and the Russian Empire, who had faced opposition from the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Britain would call in its commonwealth and thus Canada, Australia, India, Newfoundland, South Africa and New Zealand would support the King and truly make this war one that encompassed the globe. Perhaps the non-reluctance of nations to join up with either side was likely the fact that this war was seen at the start as a small affair. As battles raged, the demands of peace grew larger and with every loss - the belligerent nations fought on.
8,700,000 people fought for the British Empire from 1914 to 1918. Nearly a million of those would lose their life. Around half of those men who fought and died were buried as unidentifiable. 68,208,171 fought for either side during World War One and more than half of those men were casualties, either killed in action, missing, or wounded during the war.
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below."
"We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields."
"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."
- In Flanders Fields (1915) by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae
No-one could have been judged to have 'won' World War One, but rather have 'endured' it. So much was lost by every nation involved, that the chance to end the armed warfare of the previous four years on the 11th of November 1918 was universally accepted. As tempers cooled and schemes unfolded, the united allied powers of Europe and the United States placed further leverage on the 'Central Powers' with a crushing treaty that surrendered land, money and power to the victors. With the German Empire collapsing, the Weimar Republic would forge itself from the pressure of the allied nations and the embers of blame and hate would be bellowed upon innocent parties by those who would take advantage of a country in despair and desperation and inevitably war would lead to war. The First World War was not met with victory parades or statues of triumph, but a overwhelming feeling of sorrow - the world would never be the same and no sense could be made of the millions of deaths that came with World War One.
‘Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.' For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy.''How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other's throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war's most amazing paradox.''The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.'
Amid the gifts and the handshakes that happened when both sides emerged from the trenches, a ball was produced. Caps and scarves where laid out on the frozen ground between the barbed wire and sandbags of the trenches and for the next few hours, nationalities, warfare and politics where swept away by the winds of winter as German and British troops engaged in a football match. How dare they defy their governments? How dare they spit in the face of violence? All was lost in a spiral of beautiful ignorance, as pigs' bladders, tin cans and bundled jackets made do for an impromptu game. Soon, the bombs started to fall on the Western Front, snapping the soldiers out of their joy, and the match came to an end.
This football match was important because it signified something genuinely tragic: many of those lining the trenches of the Western Front didn't want to be there. They didn't want to take lives and they didn't want to fight. They just wanted to play football and forget about the past few months and the next few years. The match brought harmony amidst conflict. Yes, it was a mirage, but for a few hours soldiers on both sides displayed the humanity that was often lost in three more years of conflict. The Christmas Truce lives on, alone. It couldn't have happened anywhere else and it represents a pivotal moment in World History - where combat and warfare moved forward from what it once was. No-one would charge forward in handmade suits of armour, no-one would gleefully recount acts of bravery. Tales of war became all-telling silences and stories told to families and friends transformed from courageous into horrific retellings of battle during sessions of therapy.
The Christmas Truce couldn't have happened anywhere else. It certainly wouldn't have taken place during the horrors of the Boer War, nor between the Nazi SS and American footsoldiers during Operation Market Garden. A game of football will never take place between the U.S marines and the Taliban. This only further solidifies the true horror of World War One - it needn't have taken place. The truce is such a strange event and stands alone in the annals of time, as the moment where people who had fought with such intensity and hatred only days before came together to forget.
That same spirit lives on today, with each and every single football match that is played around the world. Lining up in claret, red, blue, gold, white and yellow - players from every corner of the globe come together and show planet Earth exactly who they are. They may not have the same courage or bravery as those lining the trenches of Belgium in 1914, but the mixing pot of culture, race, identity, size, creed's and passions within a Premier League stadium can not be matched. So many different people come together, to work as a unit and to defeat the opposition. It may not be as eye-opening as the Christmas Truce, but that same spirit of friendship exists.
Prior to the war, football had been the sport of the aristocrat. A ballet of leather and mud, with individual excellence commended with applause and trophies. In a strange parallel, warfare leading up to the First World War was similar - the sons of counts and barons were the first in line to run off to the Crusades and they were the same type of people who were granted leadership positions in the armies of World War One - that is until the world started to run out of the progeny of barons. Recruiting spread to clubs and schools, pubs and workplaces. Entire regiments of friends signed up to fight the good fight at the same time and a stray bomb would wipe out villages of men. After the war was over, it was only right that football took a knee and allowed the working class to enjoy it as much as the rich. The sport would eventually become the beating heart of working class Britain; a banner of pride held high for all.
A small red badge placed on the heart of every footballer over the Remembrance weekend is the smallest of prices to pay. A minute's silence swells as loudly as the crowd roars. We lost so much from the First World War that it is so, so easy to forget its biggest gift - hope.
That same hope of "I'll be home in time for Christmas" ran through the veins of the boys & men who marched to fight and protect the people of Belgium. That same hope that someday, they would get home to a cooked dinner, a wife and a child. That hope that dwindled and almost burnt out as the war carried on. As hope seemed lost sometime in 1915, you wouldn't see the soldiers of Britain, Germany, France and others give in - every single one of them stayed put, fighting for what they believed in. Many would lose their lives, but hope always stayed. The hope that there is a better world out there for all of us carried on. After living through the horrors of the Somme and Passchendale, Ypres and Verdun - the same people would trot out again to Europe not 30 years later to fight the overwhelming tide of oppression flooding out of Central Europe.The hope that they would come home with a story to tell simply transformed into the more selfless belief that an event like this wouldn't happen again. Wars would of course ravage the globe following the First World War, but none as devastating. As I've said, a small period of silence is a small price to pay, but it represents so much more - a reflection on the losses that have occurred throughout the 20th century and beyond. A token of thanks, to acknowledge that loss of life in the wars following World War One came with some inkling of reason. From the senseless we derived sense, or at least a little more of it.
22 footballers have already stood circled around the centre of a stadium, heads bowed and each year, 22 more will continue to do so at each and every football match across England. They will be joined by the tens, hundreds, or thousands who are gathered to watch them play on Remembrance weekend. Football every year will find itself at the heart of something much bigger than the silly sport it is and I'd like to think of the quite romantic idea that with each glorious goal or heart-stopping save, that a mili-second of respect is paid to the war-weary soldiers of the First World War by the players participating in the match.
The period of remembrance brings conflict in itself. The innocent poppy has become torn and haggard with the pull of both the right and left wings of politics and is in danger of tearing in the battle for an imaginary moral high ground. Who could have thought that such a symbol of peace could be folded, packaged and turned into a political bullet? Each moment of public reflection takes that fight away from the media and politicians who would wield the poppy as a crimson sword, each moment of remembrance takes one back to 1918 and 1945, and not to the newspapers and comment boards. Each glance at the small flower is a second paid towards those who gave it all, so that we may live the life we do. The poppy is seen 'glammed' up on socialites, flittered across advertisements and shaken across charity collection boxes; football itself brings the poppy back to normality as the tiny icon of remembrance - it shouldn't be used as a fashion symbol or a mark of shame, just simply an icon of respect.
"How dare television designers adapt this token of remembrance to blend in with their trashy aesthetic? How dare they make it twinkly? The poppy is an incredibly moving symbol. This flower somehow flourished on battlefields smashed by the world's first experience of industrialised war - a war of unprecedented carnage which became almost as terrifying to the statesmen who had let it start as it was to the millions of soldiers who were killed or wounded by it."
- Comedian David Mitchell, writing in The Guardian.
The war is fading from living memory. But we cannot ever afford to forget the horrors of those years, nor the lessons that they taught us. Every year we spend minutes bowed in respect. One day, people will grow up in a world where the First World War isn't mentioned and perhaps isn't as commemorated as it is now and once was. Maybe this will be a great deal of shame and embarrassment for the Human race, but what if it wasn't? What if it signified that the immense task of the young men that rode out to Europe to fight and die was finally complete? That the shadow of war and loss wouldn't hover over the young and old of the nation? That we may enjoy our lives? That we may live every single moment of our lives living for the future and not looking to the past? That instead of bowing our heads, we hold them high, acknowledging the sacrifice that so many made? Our entire lives are a tribute to the soldiers of the First World War and their sacrifice has offered us more than anyone could ask for: choice. We have a choice in life because of not only those that fought in the First World War, but the Second World War and the wars that raged across the world after. Because of those brave many, we can say "I don't want to wear a poppy", we can demand that war end, we can disagree and argue, we can learn to accept and agree.
If the world does allow the First World War to fade from memory, it will still live on within us - even if it doesn't seem to be a part of our living conciousness. There need not be any sorrow with it leaving the brains of the World - because to this day and our last day - the poppies of Flanders fields will ensure that the fighting men of the First World War are never alone.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images