By Ben Henderson
THE UNITING power of football never fails to amaze. Even in times of great conflict, when the independence of nations has been threatened, the shared enjoyment of kicking a ball around has bizarrely transcended all hostilities.
Stories of a British-German football match during the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914 have forever intertwined football and war in the common imagination.
Next Wednesday (March 27), Champion Hill will host a talk on football’s relationship with war, focusing on Dulwich Hamlet’s past in particular, and featuring a host of eminent historians and football enthusiasts.
The Football & War Network is a project run by the University of Wolverhampton that researches and discusses subjects including football during the two World Wars, footballers who served in the armed forces, the relationship between football clubs and the military and the social impact of football on the populace in times of war.
Up until now, the seminars have all taken place at the University of Wolverhampton but the organisers are keen reach new audiences. So, the first Football & War roadshow will take place at Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill Stadium. But of all places, why Dulwich?
Enter Steven Hunnisett, a Charlton fan and occasional frequenter of Champion Hill since the ‘80s. Like many Dulwich supporters, Steven has drifted away from the professional game in recent years and is now a season ticket holder at Champion Hill. “Non-League football has a way of getting under your skin,” Steven says. “You can get involved in the club in a way you never could with a professional club. Sure [at Charlton] you might see the same people every week, but you don’t engage with them the same way.”
Steven is also a military historian and has written a history of Dulwich’s First World War casualties. “We at Dulwich Hamlet have a very keen interest in our history and heritage and are extremely proud of our former players who served in two World Wars, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The club lost 22 players and officials in the First World War and a further five in the Second.”
Last summer, Steven was invited to a Football & War talk in Wolverhampton and floated the idea of bringing the show to East Dulwich as the first in a series of roadshows that will hopefully tour the country. That idea has now been realised.
There will be five speakers on the night. Representing the club will be the ‘Hamlet Historian’, Jack McInroy, speaking about Hussein Hegazi – the first African footballer to play in England; Roger Deason will talk about the club during The Great War; and Steven will discuss the club during the Second World War.
There will also be two guest speakers: Tim Godden, a sports artist and illustrator, will discuss his artistic depictions of footballers during the Great War; and professor Gary Sheffield, an eminent military historian and author, will be looking at the relationship between football and the British military throughout history.
Steven was evidently passionate about his club and its history. He shed light on why the club’s military past fills him with so much pride.
“When you look at who the guys that fought were, they were nearly all local. The Second World War casualties were from Peckham, Camberwell, Croydon, Merton…you can therefore feel a great affinity with them because you know where they came from, where they grew up.
“Perhaps unlike in today’s game, they would have been people the fans really knew.
Steven also touched on how this latest initiative reflects the spirit of the club.
He continues: “At Dulwich we pride ourselves on being a community-oriented club. But the point of this [initiative] is to illustrate that [the importance of community] is nothing new – if you look back over the years the club has always had that affinity with its supporters and local area.
“We had a community club back in the ‘40s and during the wars as we do now. It was very much a club formed by the local community for the local community. This was a tradition that started way back in 1893 when the club was founded.
“I’m very proud to be part of it and this event is an extension of that, it’s another thing that we do to keep our club in sync with the local supporters.”
Steven was also optimistic that fans from other clubs would make it down. He suggested that representatives from the Charlton Athletic Museum, Crystal Palace, Fulham and other non-league clubs would be present and emphasised that an appreciation of football’s relationship with the military is something that should unite all fans.
He explains: “There are a lot of fans who are very interested in their club’s history and heritage, and proud of what their club has achieved. Be it guys who have served in wartime, people who have made the ultimate sacrifice, or the fact that their club has done its bit in two World Wars.
“It’s not just Dulwich. The fact that we can disseminate that information will hopefully mean that this sort of thing will never happen again. It’s about making people aware of what football clubs have done for their community in wartime.”
The talk starts at 7pm on Wednesday, March 27 and will take place in the clubhouse at Champion Hill. The event is free entry and the bar will be open all night, with food also available.