Spirit of those lost lads kept alive every time we play football

Gassed a painting by John Singer Sargeant
Gassed a painting by John Singer Sargeant
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Gassed. The painting’s title tells its story.

A line of first World War soldiers stand, blinded by mustard gas, linked and staggering towards death or salvation, their fate for us to ponder as we lose ourselves in the tragic brilliance of John Singer Sargent’s vision of 1918.

But look between the legs of the helpless soldiers and there is a game of football going on in the distance.

The players are in full kit, all activity and energy in contrast to the stumbling incapacitated soldiers in the foreground.

Many speculate on the significance of the game in the 20ft by 7ft painting in the Imperial War Museum and whether it is appropriate among such suffering.

But There’s always been a special connection between the First World War and football.

Back then football had just become the people’s game and the love and fanaticism it brings to the world today was just starting to take hold.

There’s the well-worn but still unbearably moving tale of German and British soldiers playing football together on Christmas Day 1914.

The thousands of men - players and spectators - who signed up at recruitment drives at matches across the British Isles.

The football kicked across no-mans’ land by soldiers as they charged into machine-gun bullets at Loos in 1915.

The noble links are well established.

But it goes deeper than that.

Not every soldier was a hero or even adequate.

As well as the heroes there were the shell-shocked, the slackers and malingerers, those shot for desertion and cowardice because they couldn’t bear to go over the top to almost certain death.

They would have had their football loyalties too.

Just like we flawed individuals that play or go to football today, they were normal people.

So when we gather at matches in our tens of thousands and hear the lone bugler with tears in our eyes we are remembering all that.

We are solemn for them now but in life they would have had that same raucous spark of defiance, humour, warmth - and many of the less desirable characterstics - we see in football grounds today.

Whenever and wherever we gather to watch or play football we keep their unquenchable spirit alive.