Footballers At War: World War I

In February I wrote a piece concerning footballers both male and female and their role in World War One. Talking from a largely British perspective, I found many stories of sporting heroes going off to Belgium and France to fight for King and country. However, by the end of my blog I realised there was so much more to write about, and that those footballers doing their 'duty' had a much wider impact on society. In this piece I am to explore further the social, political and cultural implications that those fighting had in Britain and abroad. With this year being the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the impact is still seen widely today. 

On Saturday (28/06/14), when Brazil face Chile in Belo Horizonte, the date will also mark a century since Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Bosnian 'Black Hand' Gavrilo Princip. The event sparked the July Crisis and later the start of the First World War. Following the German invasion of Belgium and the subsequent British involvement the conflict brought more than just the armed forces into the frontline of battle. Unlike the Crimean or Boer Wars before it, conscription was introduced and citizens from all walks of life, including footballers answered the call to arms. Of course this was a common phenomenon across Europe and not just in Britain, where football had begun to take over the sporting structure of many continental societies.

It seems that in the modern day it is becoming more and more important to discuss those who went before and those who shaped our futures. The crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine have reflected a dis-functioning Europe and Middle East not too dissimilar to the major conflicts of the twentieth-century. Football, as seen through the 2014 World Cup has throughout the last 150 years managed to form common ground between parties, often helping to reform or retain international friendships. For example in 1998 when the opposing ideologies of USA and Iran met in the World Cup group stage, exchanged gifts and did their talking on the pitch. The period between 1914 and 1918 was however somewhat different.
Modern day footballers at 'war'
The Football League was, in 1915 eventually suspended following increasing calls from the British public for the athleticism of those playing to utilised towards a much greater cause. Politically speaking there was much debate within the house commons about the suppression of professional football whilst the country was at war. With the original plan of the conflict being finished by Christmas 1914, by November that year it had become clear that the war was to last considerably longer. It is here that debates are seen over when any suspension will take place and whether or not the public should be fined for not wearing uniforms to professional matches. In a debate with the then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Sir John Lonsdale made his views quite clear,
"asked the Prime Minister if he is aware that recruiting meetings held in connection with assemblies of men to watch football matches have produced disappointing results: and whether, in view of the gravity of the crisis and the need for recruits, he will introduce legislation taking powers to suppress all professional football matches during the continuance of the War?"[1]
Of course, by Christmas that year, fighting was not over and neither was the Football League. Football wasn't totally suspended in the trenches either, as once more the power of football was seen to phenomenal effect in the last place imaginable. No man's land. It is one of the first stories about the First World War you learn about in school and one with still inspires to this day. The Times recorded the truce and the subsequent football matches on 1 Jan, 1915 under the headline, "Football With The Enemy". In a letter from an officer in the R.F.A, it is noted that,  "We sat around a fire all evening and at about 11 o'clock, a very excited infantry officer came along and told us that the fighting was off and men were fraternizing in between the trenches". In terms of a football match, it is another letter which notes what happened,
"On Christmas Day a football match was played between them and us in front of the trench... They [German troops] were really magnificent in the whole thing and were jolly sorts and I now have a very different opinion of the Germans. Both sides have started the firing and are already enemies. Strange it seems doesn't it?" [2] 
By 1915 German football, which was also suspended for the duration of the war, was still very much in its infancy. Of course within Britain, football had been played regularly at a professional level since 1888 with the formation of the Football League. The German title was a knockout affair, with very few teams taking an active part. Sides like Bayern, 1860 and Borussia Dortmund were more likely to be found within regional and local leagues as Germany itself still looked to find its true national identity.
Christmas truce football

In my last piece on WWI it was possible to see and read personal opinions on footballers and their roles in fighting and entertaining for the people back home. The results were often mixed, some believing them too athletic to be kept away from the frontline and others seeing them as a vital source of distraction from the horrors of trench warfare. The 'Football Battalion' offers the most intriguing group of football players involved in the War. After original criticism over the lack of immediate action concerning talk of any such battalion, once one was formed the general perception had changed. Colonel of the Battalion, C.F. Grantham did however in March 1915 note that the 17th Service of the Middlesex Regiment was low on recruits,
"Only 122 professionals have joined. I understand that there are 40 league clubs and 20 in the Southern League with an average of some 30 players fit to join the colours, namely 1800. I will no longer be a party to shielding the want of patriotism of these men by allowing the public to think they have joined the football battalion."[3]  
What were the views of the British public? Grantham alludes to the difference it attitude from many people after the battalion went to fight. Another piece in The Times, written by a football fan and defendant of professionalism notes that the cessation of the sport would lead to spectators likewise answering the call to arms in what he describes as, the grandest game of all.' Of course in 1914, many perceptions of war was that it was just a game as rarely had a conflict seen so much death and desolation. As the war progressed it became apparent that the battle was one which was unlike any gone before with the tragic losses in the infamous battles of the Somme and Ypres.
First World War trench warfare
The 'Football Battalion' was without doubt the main source of supplying militant football players like Vivian Woodward, Frank Buckley and Fred Keenor, but there was a host of sportsman who also fought in different regiments. Indeed in Scotland the establishment of the Edinburgh city pals saw a battalion consisting of players and fans from Hearts, Hibs, Falkirk and Raith. It was not just football which was shut down, indeed almost every sport was suspended over the period except horse racing, much to the distaste of Liberal MP James Hogge,
"Surely the time has arrived when the Government should withdraw all its horses from race meetings? Every other sport in the country is shut down! Cricket is shut down! This is the season for it, and where is the county cricketer playing? Where has been the county footballer that has played during the last six months? Where was the boatrace?"[4]
Despite some disillusionment with football at times throughout the period, perhaps the story which I found most peculiar was one from the East Surrey Regiment in 1916. It is recorded that the regiment went over the top into no man's land whilst dribbling footballs. The football which was kicked first was kept in memoriam of those who fell short in the advance,
"The battalion was led out of the British trenches by Captain Nevill and the signal for advance was given by his kicking off of a football. With splendid gallantry this and other footballs were dribbled under withering fire right up to the German trenches."[5]
Female football involvement in the First World War is often documented through the establishment of 'munitionette' teams like the Dick, Kerr Ladies. I wrote about, albeit briefly these sides and the role they played filling the gap left behind from the Football League suspension, providing a 'vital lifeline' to wartime families. In terms of public opinion, the general consensus was positive. Prior to World War One, female sport was one often discredited and devalued, with commentators more focused on the way a woman looked rather than the way she played. On British Pathe it is even possible to watch clips of those pioneers of the female game, attracting large crowds and bringing a sense of togetherness in Britain.

There was an undoubtable skill the female game, so much so it was shut down soon after by the Football League, afraid that such popularity would hinder the enormous growth and wealth of the male equivalent, 'complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not be encouraged.'[6] Such misogynistic views are disappointing after the previous support for such skill and passion for the game from those teams of munitionettes. I feel that perhaps one blog needs to be entirely devoted to the female role in football during the First World War!
Dick, Kerr Ladies
In conclusion it would seem that the role footballers played in the First World War is one of great importance. Public perception both political and social was one mixed in terms of how those professionals should be used in wartime. Within the war itself and the frontline of the trenches we can see that the sport was a vital source of reality and perspective for those young men. The Christmas truce football matches managed for a few winter days to form friendships and respect in a time where such ideals were all but forgotten. The role played by the sport and those who played it should never be forgotten as without them where would we be now?

By Ben Jones - Follow me on twitter @Benny_J or @TFHBTop250


[1] HC Deb 26 November 1914 vol 68 c1305

[2] "Letters From The Front." Times [London, England] 1 Jan. 1915

[3] 'New Appeal To Footballers,' The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Mar 30, 1915

[4] HC Deb 22 May 1916 vol 82 cc1831-952

[5] 'Signal By Football', The Times (London, England), Saturday, Jul 22, 1916

[6] Times [London, England] 6 Dec. 1921


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