Written by CaptainSausage

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image for When sport beats war Croquet during the US civil war

Sport and war: two good old-fashioned manly pursuits followed by testosterone driven men (and women) everywhere. What man can't instantly recall the last time his favourite team won a trophy? Or when his country last invaded another and slaughtered thousands?

Sometimes sport and war go hand in hand - for example, in the fine military pastimes of boxing, archery, and paintball. Sometimes sporting contests can lead to real war. Most interesting of all are those wars which unexpectedly became sporting events. When sport beats war!

The most famous example was probably in Christmas 1914 in the Somme. A small group of German football fans who were fighting in the trenches approached the Brits opposite about the possibility of starting up a Sunday league in no man's land. The British suspected a trap, but agreed to a trial match the following week - on Christmas Day, when both armies had the day off.

The match ended diplomatically at a 2-2 draw, with a British goal disallowed by the Belgian linesman. A rematch was swiftly called. Soon matches began springing up all over the front line. Some ended in violence - the Germans were sore losers back then before the shame of two World War defeats taught them humility. Overall the football was a success, but there was a terrible cost.

It is estimated that the Somme Football League added an extra two years to the war, and caused more hamstring and tendon injuries than the war itself. Even today, every November 11 we still remember those brave men who risked all to play trench football in the mud for their country. The Germans won the league, naturally, but thankfully not the war.

Vietnam was another fine conflict with sporting distractions. It all started when Johnny Presley, an American GI captured by the Viet Cong, challenged his enemies to a game of snooker. They were deep in the jungle, but somehow managed to fashion a fully functional snooker table and balls out of bamboo shoots and leaves. Trouser pockets were used for real pockets. In his first break, Johnny potted an unbelievable 147, which impressed his captors so much that they let him go.

The Vietnamese had had a taste for the game, and couldn't get enough of it. For years snooker tables would be smuggled through the vast underground network of Viet Cong tunnels. Whenever an American was captured, he would be offered the chance to play a game for his freedom. Few won. Presidential loser John McCain was captured at Ho Wit Dong in 1971. He potted the black on his opening break, leading to a four year stay in a Vietnamese POW camp. Soon US troops began to fear the snooker games more than the war itself. Even today, most Americans prefer to play pool.

Perhaps most astonishing of all was what happened in Stalingrad in 1942. There was a stalemate in the fighting and neither side had made progress for weeks. English-born German officer Hans Winkle suggested a 5 day cricket test match to decide the conflict. Despite not knowing the rules, the Russians agreed.

For 5 days the ruined city echoed to the sound of leather on willow, of shouts of 'LBW' and 'out', and frantic discussions of the quite insane rules. Finally, after Winkle ruled a German batsman had stood too far away from his wicket, the half-Englishman was court martialled and shot. With no effective umpire, the game quickly descended into the vicious street fighting that most cricket fans and war experts would come to associate with Stalingrad. It just wasn't cricket any more.

There are other examples - golf in the Crimean (where it has been suggested that the Charge of the Light Brigade was merely an attempt to retrieve a mis-hit ball); badminton during the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs; and even hockey in the Falklands conflict. So let us all enjoy war and sport and the many times they have gotten mixed up.

When Sport Beat War will be shown on Channel 7 tomorrow at 2pm.

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