Beautiful games and others

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The kick-off for the football1 World Cup final is only hours away. To mark the occasion, here's Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, head of the Royal Air Force, on the correct use of airpower (in 1923, in the context of a hypothetical war with France):

Would it be best to have less fighters and more bombers to bomb the enemy and trust to their people cracking before ours, or have more fighters to bring down more of the enemy bombers. It would be rather like putting two teams to play each other at football, and telling one team they must only defend their own goal, and keep all their men on that one point. The defending team would certainly not be beaten, but they would equally certainly not win, nor would they stop the attack on their goal from continuing. I would like to make this point again. I feel that although there would be an outcry, the French in a bombing duel would probably squeal before we did. That was really the final thing. The nation that would stand being bombed longest would win in the end.2

It may not be immediately apparent, but in Trenchard's analogy, the 'goals' to be defended are the great cities of each warring nation. So goals are scored by bombing cities, killing and terrorising their inhabitants; and the 'match' won by causing a collapse in civilian morale, who will then cause their 'team' to give up.

The analogy is starting to get a bit torturous by this point! But football is not a great analogy for the standard RAF view of strategic bombing to begin with. On the one hand, it's true that in football a team which only defends can't win. On the other hand, a strong defence is still desirable, because one goal is often enough to win (or lose) a match. Equally, it's more than possible to have matches end in a draw, and not the decisive knock-out blow Trenchard predicted.

Knock-out blow ... now that's a boxing term.3 Sport and war seem to mix very easily in British history. The Duke of Wellington might not have said that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but Henry Newbolt did compare the imperial burden to a schoolboy game of cricket, in his 1897 poem "Vitai Lampada":

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
Ten to make and the match to win --
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind --
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Cricket is, of course, much more interesting to Englishmen than is war. At least, this is the case in P. G. Wodehouse's brilliant parody of the Edwardian preoccupation with the possibility of German invasion, "The swoop!" (1909). A newspaper poster proclaims


with a stop-press report that

Fry not out, 104. Surrey 147 for 8. A German army landed in Essex this afternoon. Loamshire Handicap: Spring Chicken, 1; Salome, 2; Yip-i-addy, 3. Seven ran.

Wodehouse may have been on to something. In 1940, newspaper sellers reported the progress of the Battle of Britain as though it were a cricket match: 'Biggest raid ever -- Score 78 to 26 -- England still batting',4 as did BBC radio commentators:

[T]he man's baled out by parachute -- the pilot's baled out by parachute -- he's a Junkers 87 and he's going slap into the sea and there he goes -- smash ... Oh boy, I've never seen anything so good as this -- the RAF fighters have really got these boys taped.5

It does seem a bit unsporting of the Luftwaffe to have tried to take out their defeat on the home of cricket itself, though.

More seriously, that the everyday heroics of the sports field could inspire men on the battlefield is shown by the famous incident on the first day of the Somme, where Captain W. P. Nevill led men of the 8th East Surreys over the top, dribbling a football. Nevill fell, dead -- no faking there, unlike the real thing -- but his men took their objective.

Going the other way, and bringing us back to where we began, since 1966 English football fans have taunted their German counterparts with the chant "Two World Wars and one World Cup!" -- though some might argue that three World Cups is at least an equivalent record. Neither Germany nor England is playing in the final this time around: it's France vs Italy. And as Italy knocked out Australia thanks to a somewhat dubious penalty, I'm hoping that France will squeal, as Trenchard predicted -- not in terror but in joy!

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  1. By which I mean soccer ... []
  2. Chief of Air Staff meeting, 19 July 1923, AIR 2/1267; quoted in Neville Jones, The Beginnings of Strategic Air Power: A History of the British Bomber Force 1923-39 (London: Frank Cass, 1987), 29. Emphasis added. []
  3. When the Sun crowed 'Gotcha!' at the Royal Navy's sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War, it reported that 'The Navy had the Argies on their knees last night after a devastating double punch'. []
  4. Quoted in Malcolm Smith, Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 63. []
  5. Ibid., 62. []

5 thoughts on “Beautiful games and others

  1. I was originally going to say that it's a pity that international disputes can't be resolved on the football field rather than the battlefield.

    Then I remembered the 'Football War' of 1969 where existing tensions between Honduras and El Salvador were heightened by rioting at a qualifying match for the 1970 World Cup. The resulting war (said to have been the last where piston-engined aircraft were used by both sides) resulted in 2,000 fatalities.

    On a lighter note, had football historically been the language of diplomacy, then I don't think that the British would've stood a chance at empire-building had they faced penalty shoot-outs...

    Some sporting terms used by the RAF (from Eric Partidge's A Dictionary of R.A.F. Slang (1945) include:

    - Bag: To shoot down. From sportsmen's slang.
    - Daisy cutter: A faultless landing. From cricket, where it = a drive clean along the sward.
    - Football feet, to have: To make excessive use of the rudder.
    - Gone for six: Killed; dead. From cricket.
    - Hockey stick: A bomb-loading jack or hoist. From a vaugue resemblance.
    - Nursery slope: An easy target on which bombing-beginners practise.
    - Tee up!: Get ready! Cf. the Army's to have (a thing) teed up or ready. From Golf.
    - Touch down: To land. From football. [Rugby?]

    You only have to look at tent-pegging and the Royal Navy's Field Gun Run (essentially a sporting reenactment of the defence of Ladysmith during the Boer War) to realise that the British do like to mix sport and war...

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    That's a great list, thanks Peter. Tally-ho would be another one, depending upon whether you regard fox hunting as a sport or not ...

    I must admit that tent-pegging and the Field Gun Run were entirely new to me!

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  4. Neil Datson


    Are you familiar with the following quotation?

    'Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.' (George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn, IV)

    I thoroughly recommend this essay to anybody who wants to know what Orwell thought of the background to the war and the war itself to late 1940. Some of his ideas and comments seem bizarre given what we know now, some seem at least faintly prophetic. Anyway, I doubt that given such circumstances few could do much better.

    There is a wonderful scene in The Lady Vanishes, in which two sporting buffers are discussing cricket on a German train when an Englishman, whose is known to one of them, enters their compartment wearing an SS uniform.

    'Goodness me! It's Toddy Frobisher, isn't it?'

    (Frobisher, who is a secret agent working for the British, makes hasty and embarrassed exit.)

    'I'm certain that was Toddy Frobisher. He was on my staircase at Balliol.'

    'Well, perhaps he's . . . gone over . . . switched sides, old boy.'

    'Couldn't have done! Played for the Gentlemen at Lords.'

    (The above passage is from a thirty year old memory, so it may be a different film.)

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