War and Peace - the short version

The other day I was going through some old things which belonged to my grandmother. She died 25 years ago and is remembered fondly by the family as having been a bit of a dragon who made us poor children eat Spanish Liquorice and spend long and boring afternoons with her old lady friends, all of whom seemed to have had very impressive moustaches.

In amongst all the documents there was a letter and two photographs. One of the photographs was of a young man with a cheerful smile, a very stiff collar and a cloth cap; the other was from the Director of Graves Registration & Enquiries and showed a wooden cross on which appears the name Second Lieutenant S E Boulting. He was killed on April 14, 1917 somewhere near Ypres.

The letter came from "Stanley" and is dated April 9, 1917. It begins with an apology for not having been written sooner. "I don't know quite why unless perhaps I might blame the Boche". From there it passes on to the weather and growing vegetables and eventually gets to the war. "I am glad to say that I am still quite fit," he writes. "So far there hasn't been a shell or a bullet with my name on although most of the officers who came out with me have been wounded, gone sick or the other thing. It is always the best who get hit, isn't it?"

He did not want to write about the war.

"I might write a long description of how a shell just didn't hit me or a bullet whizzed by my ear or how I led my little army into battle with a stone heart and shaking knees and so on but I should probably only bore you stiff. Besides I want to forget it myself."

At the time of writing, Stanley Boulting was away from the front line. Everything was "topping" and "the only cloud on the horizon" as that he would soon have to go back to the trenches and "the sterner business of our present existence."

At the end of the letter he bid my grandmother "adieu" without knowing that he really meant it.

I had heard about the letter but I had never read it before. It brought home to me just how lucky we are these days. I remember when I was a schoolboy walking past 600 names on a memorial board every day without ever thinking about it and then being shocked when one morning I realized that 600 people was an entire generation at the school.

It stopped me in my tracks.

And some schools had it much worse. Eton College had 1100 old boys killed.

The Duke of Wellington is famous for having suggested that "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton". This was an interesting remark, suggesting that lots of contact sports, plenty of thrashing and chilly dormitories made the chaps strong enough to beat everyone - even Napoleon's Imperial Guard.

It is a nice idea apart from the fact that Eton did not have any playing fields at that time. The comment, so they say, came as a result of a remark made by the Duke that his grasp of strategy was based on games he used to play in the garden when he was a schoolboy. This was then translated into French and many years later translated back into English.

This did not stop the British using the remark to inspire several generations of empire-builders.

War has changed and so has sport. In the days before high explosives war was more of a caper. It was nasty, grisly and sweaty but it was not widespread. Eventually with nastier weapons and faster vehicles there were World Wars and in these one did not get much choice. You had to live with it as best you could, writing home about the weather and growing vegetables and not talking too much about "the other thing".

Nowadays, with weapons of mass destruction war is so terrifying a concept that sport has taken over. Ask any Formula 1 team boss and he will tell you that fighting for the World Championship is war and that they take no prisoners. It is all metaphorical but I doubt that the effort put into winning in F1 is any different to that which used to be employed in winning wars. In fact race teams probably work harder than did the average soldier in any war.

The difference is that F1 is not about nationalism. It is about corporations and that is not nearly as interesting as "the good guys" and "the bad guys". One cannot label Michael Schumacher The Red Baron because the people trying to shoot him down in F1 are Mercedes-Benz. Even that most nationalistic of racing teams Williams is now in partnership with the Germans.

In this respect Formula 1 will always struggle to have the same kind of raw appeal as international football or the Olympic Games. The natural aggression which used to be expended when the youths of rival countries bayoneted one another is now used up in drinking beer, yelling abuse and (for the rowdy elements) hitting each other over the head with plastic chairs. The players are not much better as they are happy to kick, poke, gauge and crush one another at will. While little old ladies (with moustaches) in Bournemouth think this sort of behavior is dreadful I am not so sure. It is better than firing mortar bombs at one another. One could even argue that mankind has made some progress.

However I do draw the line at the idea put forward recently by a Swedish politician who thinks that the sport of football should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Admittedly the 1969 Football War which broke out after El Salvador beat Honduras for a place in the 1970 World Cup competition was in reality only the resolution of a long-standing territorial dispute but football is not a peaceful business.

But I guess it is no more ridiculous an idea as the concept that there is Peace Prize named after (and paid for by) the man who invented not just nitroglycerine but also dynamite and finally gelignite. Nobel was therefore partly responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of people. And if that sounds harsh one must remember that Nobel did not have to sell his inventions to anyone.

The Swedes are a funny lot. I spent a summer there once touring around in Sweden, visiting places with names like Renault cars; Tvaaker, Tvingo, Glomminge and Sveg. As a nation they have been clever enough to stay out of wars and made money from both sides. However, try as I might, I cannot bring myself to seeing football as an instrument of peace and tranquillity. No sport is about peace and my feeling is that the Swedish politician proposed the idea because so many people like football and he thinks that they will like him and so might one day vote for him.

Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement, might have thought that playing the game was more important than winning but it is not a view which is widely held in any sport. The British have a lovely expression: "Oh, I say, that's not cricket" which means that something is not very sporting. Well, what is sporting in a world where cyclists inject themselves with monkey hormones so that they can pedal faster than others and athletes have their blood changed before a race? What is sporting about using illegal systems on racing cars?

From that point one must conclude that sport really is a modern version of warfare and to enable F1 to compete with other conflicts (read sports) teams really ought to be more nationalistic. McLaren is silver grey and likes to be efficient and so has the makings of a German national racing team. Williams is so British that it would be impossible to change it. Ferrari is Italian. Prost is a French team. Sauber is Swiss (and therefore a non-combatant). BAR will eventually turn Japanese and Jaguar is American without the stars and without the spangles. Jordan used to be lush green and should go back to being Irish and, given Tom Walkinshaw's desire to involve himself in Russian business, Arrows should be sent to Siberia. Benetton does not fit neatly into any packaging and so should be made to represent Belgium while Paul Stoddart's takeover of Minardi should result in the creation of an Australian F1 team.

And then the grandstands would heave to the sound of Williams fans singing: "If it wasn't for the English, you'd all be Krauts" which I am told is sung to the French, the Dutch and the Belgians at football matches. The anthem "Two World Wars and one World Cup" could be chanted at McLaren fans.

Of course, taken to extremes this would be a bad idea and but I cannot help but think that if there had been a few more football matches in the build up to World War I perhaps there would be fewer graves today in the fields of France.

And perhaps my grandfather would have been called Stanley...

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