A major part of the British recruitment and volunteer campaign during the First World War was established through sport. The adrenaline-filled fans at football matches, often with friends, were prime targets for the British Army, and so a great emphasis was put on football events, especially before conscription in 1916.
However, despite the focus very much being on the fans, players also volunteered in large numbers. In fact, of the 5,000 or so professional football players in Britain, 2,000 would join the army in 1914 alone. Whilst many of these volunteers joined individually, there were several instances that saw entire teams enlist together. The first, and possibly the most famous example of this, was Leyton Orient. When the team-captain, Fred Parker, joined the army, approximately 40 fellow players and staff followed his example. These players all subsequently joined the 17th battalion of the Middlesex regiment, which would famously become known as ‘The Footballer’s Battalion’. Such was the commitment of the regiment to the sport that Major Frank Buckley, commander of the 17th Middlesex, became the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers following his injuries in 1917.
Another well-known case of teams enlisting together was Hearts. The team’s decision to join provided inspiration for many Scottish players and fans to do the same. While this seems heroic and inspiring, the devastation of the War was such that of the starting eleven of 1914 seven had been killed by the end of the conflict. One of the players, captured by the Germans, Paddy Crossman, was so badly injured that his leg was labeled for amputation. He subsequently pleaded with German doctor to leave his leg alone because he was a footballer. The doctor acquiesced, but the wounds would eventually kill Crossman after the war.
|The Khaki Final, 1915|
When war was declared on 4th August 1914, it was expected that the Football Association would follow the example soon set by cricket and cancel all matches. But, despite opposition, matches were played in the Football League throughout the 1914-1915 season. There was still an FA Cup final in 1915, between Chelsea and Sheffield United, and it was named ‘The Khaki Final’, because so much of the crowd was in British Army uniform. The War Office took the big match as an opportunity for enlistment, and the Earl of Derby made a vigorous speech, stating, “It is now the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England”. Large portions of the crowd were persuaded by the speech, as stories of the horror at the Western Front had not yet surfaced.
For the remainder of the war, the Football League suspended its programme but allowed clubs to organise regional competitions. Much of the opposition to the continuance of professional football stemmed from the concern that many men preferred to play and watch football rather than join up. However, football was also seen as a useful recruiting tool. Football was a popular form of recreation for troops on both sides and could boost morale. On the 1st July 1916, men of the East Surrey Regiment, encouraged by Captain ‘Billie’ Neville even went over the top kicking footballs. This was probably intended as a distraction for nervous young soldiers but was widely reported as a demonstration of ‘British pluck’.
Many professional footballers served in the forces, and those killed in action included former Tottenham Hotspur player Walter Tull and Bradford Park Avenue’s Donald Bell – one of the only professional footballers to be awarded the Victoria Cross. On 12th June 1915 at Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in France, former Celtic player Lance-Corporal Willie Angus voluntarily left his trench under very heavy bomb and rifle fire and rescued a wounded officer who was lying within a few yards of the enemy's position. Angus had no chance of escaping the enemy's fire when undertaking this gallant deed, and in effecting the rescue he received about 40 wounds, some of them being very serious. His actions also won him the Victoria Cross, and the event was described as the ‘most courageous action of any soldier in the history of the British Army.
Finally, women's football was huge during World War One, drawing crowds of 53,000 even after the war had ended. In the history of women's football, Dick, Kerr's Ladies are the most successful team in the world, and were formed at a munitions factory in Preston during the War. The First World War greatly improved the rights of women in Britain, as many saw them now as capable workers. However, this recognition was not just confined to the factories and hospitals, for the war also led to the foundation of the Women’s Football Association. Despite the horrific effects of the war on domestic Britain, it seems that football was able to benefit greatly, while also suffering tragic loss.