Football World War One

What Did You Do During The War?

In today’s global game it’s hard for us to imagine the early inception of it. The rules and regulations were developed over centuries and have had multiple influences in this area, some being from people playing and organising the game, others being global events. We imagine the local nature of the game and that is important to fans but when World War One broke out there was a huge impact on the game. Football was an integral part of the war effort but not without controversy. They fought for their club and now there was a fight for “King and Country”.

The mass cry-out for able-bodied men was heard by many and many signed up to serve “King and Country”. Sports organising bodies reacted and rallied round in support of the war as the players were exactly the demographic that Kitchener was looking for to go and fight in Belgium. Cricket and Rugby Union immediately suspended their games and encouraged its members to sign up for the army. The FA and Football League decided to keep their game going after consulting the War Office.

This is where we see the class divide open up. The national perception of football was changed as the decision to play on was lambasted by the press. Many public schools dropped football as it was seen as a game for cowards, unlike the patriotic cricket and rugby. This continued to widen the class divide over sports. Politicians used this to claim that players were being stopped from joining up because they were professional and were being kept in England rather than signing up for the horrors of war.

Truth is, the upper classes were signed up for war, but as officers and positions of privilege, unlike those footballers and fans who were going to become cannon fodder. When we examine the role of football during this period we will see that there were many patriotic people and events that helped the war effort and boost morale in those dark times.

The Contribution Of Many

In August 1914, some £7,000 had been raised for the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund. This remarkable sum of money did nothing to halt the ongoing criticism. Grounds were called to be used for military purposes. In fact, White Hart Lane became a munitions factory, forcing them to use either Highbury or Homerton as a home ground. Many clubs’ grounds were used for military drills, including Maine Road and St James’s Park when there was no game on. Matchday was a perfect opportunity for a recruitment drive with thousands of able-bodied men in attendance. None of this mattered to some and the criticism continued.

With a decline in attendance, many clubs faced financial ruin so the players took a wage cut. The superstars earning £5 agreed to a 15% wage cut and those earning less than £3 agreed to a 5% cut in the interest of banding together. These funds helped save cash-strapped clubs. A further 2.5% of each club’s gate money went to this fund.

The morality of playing football when the horrors of the war were unfolding in Ypres was debated in parliament. With a ban on reporting the matches in the press and the need for more soldiers, the idea of a football battalion was mooted. These pals brigades were a hit in the first round of recruitment as friends could join up and fight together. A unified army had a stronger chance of winning a war.

Footballer’s Batallion

At Fulham Town Hall on December 15 1914, it was decided that the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment would be formed. It was commonly known as the Footballer’s Batallion. At the end of the meeting, 35 players had signed up. Recruitment of players, fans, and officials was completed by the spring with the professional players continuing to play until they went overseas in November 1915. They also took part in further recruitment drives and played exhibition matches to boost morale and raise funds.

While they were taking part in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the war the 1914/15 season was drawing to an end, a match played on Good Friday had turned out to have been fixed. The 2-0 home win for relegation-threatened Manchester United against Liverpool saw several players banned for their part in this debacle. With an uncertain future and the increasingly grim news from Europe, the future of professional football seemed in doubt.

How Did The Season Play Out?

Oldham had been league leaders but as they failed to win their final two games, Everton were crowned champions with a 2-2 draw against Chelsea. Everton remained league champions until after the war as the league was suspended. They are the only club to win the league without ever kicking the ball. Tottenham were relegated and Arsenal took their place. Chelsea should have joined Spurs but when the league restarted in 1919 it was expanded to 22 clubs.

The FA Cup Final

Dubbed the “Kahki Cup Final” due to the many servicemen home on leave, the FA cup final took place at Old Trafford. Chelsea were to face Sheffield United and their popular amateur player Lieutenant Vivian Woodward was given temporary leave from the Footballers Batallion to participate. 49,557 turned out to watch despite the generally sombre mood of the nation. There were many who felt such a grand occasion should not proceed with thousands giving their lives in the conflict. After Sheffield United’s 3-0 win, a rousing speech by Lord Derby encouraged the players to enlist:

“You have played with one another and against one another for the Cup. It is now the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England.”

This as the only cup final played during wartime. At the end of the season, the regular leagues were suspended and a loose form of a league continued in its stead. It was composed of players and fans alike a bit like the “Footballer’s Battalion”. Due to its success, the 23rd Middlesex became the second battalion for footballers, also playing a key part in many of the terrible conflicts of this war. They also led the way in entertaining the troops with morale-boosting matches. This was an outstanding achievement that was spearheaded by Clapton Orient Football Club.

Up The Hammers!

West Ham United contributed a pals brigade to the war machine. They were known as the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Essex Regiment. A thousand local men signed up eager to put the bosh on the Kaiser. They had no uniform or rifles but the battle cry of, “Up the Hammers”. This seemed to be effective as many members were awarded medals for bravery. Their bravery during the Battle of Cambrai made headlines. Unfortunately, they were never honoured with a victory parade. In 2009, a memorial plaque was organised by Elliot Taylor and unveiled by Sir Trevor Brooking.

Many players and fans lost their lives during the Great War and their memories live on in the teams they once represented. Football changed forever during this conflict but its contribution to the War Effort was great. Football is at the heart of this nation and it is also a contributor to a global voice.