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Football and the First World War

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Sporting Heroes

Footballers and the First World War 

Ian Maxwell (based on his article published in Family History Monthly)

On 3 August 1914, the British Empire declared war on Germany.   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle captured the feeling of the time when he declared:  ‘If the cricketer had a straight eye let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle.’  At first the football season continued without interruption, but by November 1914, as much of Britain's professional army lay dead in the mud of Flanders, the game came under increasingly hostile criticism in the press.  Such criticism did not take into account the fact that many star footballers had been released from their contracts and were already in the army.  Thousands more would join them as casualties mounted in France.   By the end of the war, some of Britain’s greatest star footballers had paid the ultimate price for their bravery. 

In early September 1914, the FA wrote to the War Office offering to abandon all football for the duration of the war.  The official reply had left the decision to the FA but stated that the government ‘would deprecate anything being done which does not appear to be called for in the present situation’.   It was the need to recruit a new army to support the shattered remnants of the British Expeditionary Forice and the obvious fact, by the end of October, that the war would not be over by Christmas which provoked a campaign against professional football, both inside and outside Parliament.   Newspapers, most notably the Morning Chronicle and The Times, pressed for an end to what they regarded as a national scandal.   A hostile letter published in The Times on 7 November was indicative of that newspaper’s campaign.   ‘A man may be doing his duty in other fields than the front’, the  writer conceded ‘But there is no excuse for diverting from the front thousands of athletes in order to feast the eyes of crowds of inactive spectators, who are either unfit to fight or else unfit to be fought for…Every club that employs a professional football player is bribing a needed recruit from enlistment, and every spectator who pays his gate money is contributing so much towards a German victory’.

Good Sportsmen

The press contrasted the actions of the FA with those of the amateur Rugby Union which had, nine days after the war broke out, made a country-wide appeal to its members.  National, county and club games were cancelled for the duration and many leading players answered the nation’s call.   The Times stepped up its campaign on 19 November with a strongly worded attack on football by the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges: ‘The amateur Rugby footballers set them a good example, for they not only discontinued their play, but volunteered a full complement of fighters; and thus acted as the true sportsmen that they are.  As for professional football, the sight-seeing crowds are not, I hope, as much to blame as they appear to be; I take it that they are ignorantly misled by the small body of men who cater for them; but surely it is impossible that these few managers should be so unintelligent or unpatriotic as to be beyond the reach of an appeal to reason!’  Bridges warned against the dangers of apathy, ‘It is high time that our footballers let the world see what they are really made of and that they do not deserve the execration that is falling upon them’. 

In response to such criticism a meeting took place between FA officials and representatives of the War Office.   Although the FA subsequent decided to continue to play matches ‘where, by so doing they could assist, and did not hinder the authorities in recruiting’. It was also agreed to use the Saturday afternoon league match as a recruiting opportunity.  The plan was that prominent men should make a recruiting speech during the half-time interval.  Ideally a military band would be in attendance and at the end of the game those men who had volunteered would march behind it to the nearest recruiting station.  But the scheme was far from successful.   According to The Times for 23 November 1914, the first attempt yielded just one recruit at an Arsenal game and a speech by Colonel Burn MP at the Chelsea ground on the same day failed to produce even one recruit.     

The Times contrasted association football’s failure with the patriotic approach adopted by cricket, rugby union and rowing clubs.   In response a Special article appeared in The Times on 28 November defending football’s contribution to the war effort.   Written by G. Wagstaffe Simmons, Hon. Secretary of the Herts Football Association, the article claimed that there were only about 5,000 professionals all told and 2,000 were already serving in the armed forces.  Only about 6,000 unmarried men who depended on the game for their livelihood had not volunteered.     On the same page a list of leading clubs was given together with some detail about the volunteers which they had provided.   West Bromwich Albion, for example, had formed a special company attached to the Fifth South Staffordshire Territorials.  Although it had been raised principally from among their supporters eight of the club’s players had enlisted.    ‘Those who play and watch football cannot understand why this sport should have been singled out’, Wagstaffe Simmons complained ‘bearing in mind that it has contributed more men to the colours and more money to war funds than all other sports combined.   Over 100,000 amateur football players have responded to the call to arms, and others are joining every day.  Thousands of clubs have suspended operations because they have not players to play matches.’  

The Kaki Final

Supporters of football pointed out that other sports, such as golf and horse racing were continuing.   They were convinced that criticism of football was motivated by the upper class contempt for a workingman’s game.  In spite of the controversy, the 1914-1915 football season was completed with Sheffield United defeating Chelsea in the FA Cup final.  The match was dubbed “The Khaki Final” because of the number of uniformed spectators present.   Despite a hostile press the recruiting campaign among football followers had been so successful that by the end of the season attendances fell by half and most of the best players were in uniform.  The pressures from falling attendances and associated financial problems, the increasing difficulty of keeping up team strengths and the perils of travelling on a wartime railway, persuaded the football authorities not to continue after the 1914-15 season.   After he had presented the FA Cup and medals in 1915, Lord Derby said, ‘the clubs and their supporters had seen the cup played for, and it was not the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England’.  The Football League expressed much the same hope to its players: ‘every eligible young man will find in the service of the nation a higher call than in playing football’.   


Unlike many continental powers, Britain in 1914 had no tradition of compulsory military service.   War Minister, Earl Kitchener, undertook instead to raise a New Army of volunteers for the relatively small British Expeditionary Force that the government considered necessary.   Half a million men joined up in the first month and a hundred thousand each month thereafter.   The enthusiasm for volunteered was strongly influenced by the belief that it would be over by Christmas.   The formation of a volunteer army in 1914 was greatly assisted by the decision to General Henry Rawlinson suggestion that men would be more willing to join up if they could serve with people they already knew.   These regiments became known as ‘Pals Battalions’.    Battalions such as the Hull Commercials shared an occupation; others, like the Glasgow Tramways Battalion, had the same employer while the Tyneside Irish had a common background.    

The 15th (service) Battalion (1st Leeds) The Prince of Wales's Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) was known as "The Leeds Pals".    Amongst its ranks were sportsmen such as Yorkshire County Cricket Club players, athletes and footballers.   Prominent among the later was Evelyn Lintott,  a teacher who became a professional footballer, appearing for Plymouth Argyle, Queens Park Rangers, Bradford City and Leeds City. He was the first professional footballer to gain a commission.   He was killed in action on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive.   According to a letter published in the Yorkshire Post, Lt. Lintott's end was particularly gallant. Tragically, he was killed leading his platoon of the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment, The Leeds Pals, over the top. He led his men with great dash and when hit the first time declined to take the count. Instead, he drew his revolver and called for further effort. Again he was hit but struggled on but a third shot finally bowled him over.’   

The 17th Battalion of the Duke of Cambridge's Own Middlesex Regiment was known as the "Footballers' Battalion".    Its numbers included no less than forty players and staff from Clapton Orient (now Leyton Orient) the first English Football League club to enlist together.     The club’s leading goal-scorers Richard McFadden and William Jonas were amongst those killed during the Battle of the Somme. William Jones was a great pre-war favourite with the female fans - he requested that the club put a statement in the programme thanking the ladies for their kind letters but please stop sending any more as he did not want to upset his wife! 

Shortly before his own death, his life long friend and team mate Richard McFadden witnessed Jonas die on the battlefield.  He wrote to tell fans of the bad news before he himself became a victim of the conflict.  He said: ‘I, Richard McFadden, sadly report the death of my friend and O's colleague William Jonas on the morning of Thursday 27th July, aged 26.  Both Willie and I were trapped in a trench near the front in Somme, France.   Willie turned to me and said 'Goodbye Mac, best of luck, special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.   Before I could reply to him, he was up and over. No sooner had he jumped out of the trench, my best friend of nearly 20 years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings at this time. Yours, Company Serjeant (sic) Major Richard McFadden.’   

Walter Tull, one of the first black professional footballers, was another outstanding footballer who abandoned his career and joined the 1st Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.   Walter’s father had arrived from Barbados in 1876 and had married a girl from Folkestone.   Walter was serving an apprenticeship as a printer when he was signed for Tottenham Hotspur.   He played only a few games; in a game at Bristol City in 1909 he was racially abused by fans in what the Football Star called ‘language lower than Billingsgate’  He was subsequently sold to Northampton Town where he flourished, played 110 first team appears for the club.   

Walter joined up immediately at the outbreak of war, and despite military regulations forbidding "any negro or person of colour" being an officer, he had received his commission by May, 1917.   On 25th March, 1918, Walter was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil.   Soon after entering  No Mans Land, he was hit by a German bullet. It is a testimony to Tull’s popularity within the Regiment that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from German machine-guns to bring him back to the British trenches. These efforts were in vain and Tull had died soon after being hit.    His commanding officer wrote to Walter’s brother, ‘He was popular throughout the battalion.  He was brave and conscientious.  The battalion and company had lost a faithful officer, and personally I have lost a friend’.   

In Scotland, though the Scottish FA withheld their Cup for the duration, the League programme continued.   At the beginning of the 1914 football season, Hearts was Scotland's most successful team, winning eight games in succession.   In response to an appeal to the Hearts players every member of the team joined a new battalion being promoted in Edinburgh by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George McCrae.  On 26th November, 1914, The Times carried the headline ‘ELEVEN LEADING PLAYERS ENLISTED’.   The ‘Football Sensation’ captured the country’s imagination: McCrae’s Battalion (the 16th Royal Scots) was raised in record time. The example of the Tynecastle men was followed at once by around 500 of their supporters and ticket-holders – along with 150 followers of their deadly rivals Hibernian.  Other professionals volunteered including those from Raith Rovers, Falkirk and Dunfermline. In total, around 75 local clubs (of all levels) were represented – along with rugby players, hockey players, strongmen, golfers, bowlers and athletes of all persuasions. 

McCrae’s crossed to France in 1916; on 1 July they took part in the infamous opening day of the Battle of the Somme. They were selected to assault the most dangerous part of the enemy position, a fearsome network of barbed wire and entrenchments, bristling with machine-guns. In spite of this, they took every objective and achieved the deepest penetration of the German line anywhere on the front that morning. In the process they lost three-quarters of their strength.   Three of the Hearts’ players, Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis, were killed.   Another member of the team, 22 year old Paddy Crossan, was so badly injured that his right leg was labelled for amputation. He pleaded with the German surgeon not to operate. He told him: ‘I need my legs - I'm a footballer.’   He agreed to his request and managed to save his leg. Crossan survived the war but later died as a result of his lungs being destroyed by poison gas.  By the end of the war seven members of the Hearts team had been killed in action.  

Victoria Cross

Many players were too impatient to await the formation of Pals Battalions and joined up immediately upon the outbreak of war.   Donald Bell, a defender with Bradford City, was the first professional footballer to join the British Army. A superb athlete and outstanding skilful player, the club secretary at the time remembered him as ‘about six feet tall and when fit about 13st. 8lbs. With it all he was most gentle. He played many fine games for our team’.  ‘Bell is one of the best type of the professional footballer,' said one paper, 'broad-minded in outlook and scrupulously fair in his play.’   In November 1914, he asked the Director of the club to be released from this contract to fight for his country in France. He enlisted as a private but by June, 1915 he had a commission as a second-Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. Two days after his marriage in November, 1915, he was sent to France.    

At the end of June the Battalion took their place on the Western Front for the forthcoming Somme offensive.  On the morning of the 5th July the Battalion was ordered to capture ‘Horseshoe Trench’ on the high ground between La Boiselle and Mametz.   As soon as they left their trenches they came under heavy fire from a German machine gun.  Bell stuffed his pockets with grenades and attacked the machine-gun post.   He wrote to his mother ‘I hit the gun first shot from about 20 yards and knocked it over’, it was he declared ‘the biggest fluke alive’.   When he attempted to repeat this feat five days later he was killed. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action of 5th July.   Bell's personal effects were returned to his parents by his batman, John Byers, along with a short note. 'The Company worshipped him in their simple, wholehearted way and so they ought, he saved the lot of us from being completely wiped out.’ 

The Big Game

Jimmy Speirs played for Glasgow Rangers and Clyde before signing for Bradford City.    He became captain and scored the only goal when the team won the FA Cup final against Newcastle United in 1911. The following year he joined Leeds United.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Speirs enlist in the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders.   At twenty-nine he was older than most of his fellow recruits, and with conscription a year way, Speirs would have been exempted on grounds of being married with two small children.   According to contemporary newspaper reports Speirs ‘was wounded in the heavy fighting of Autumn 1916, but was not fortunate enough to be sent to a home hospital.’  He rejoined his regiment after convalescing and shortly after was awarded the Military Medal for bravery ‘in the big game across the Channel’ and promoted to the rank of sergeant.    In August 1917 Speirs was at Passchendaele and a few weeks later was reported wounded and missing.  According to the Bradford Weekly Telegraph, Speirs had been ‘hit in the thigh during an advance, and managed to crawl into a shell-hole.  There he was attended to for a short time, but the Cameron Highlanders did not return from their raid that way, so he was not seen again.’ 

Robert Torrance, man of the match in the 1911 FA Cup Final reply against Newcastle United, was a team mate of Jimmy Speirs at Bradford City.   One of the finest wingers in the club’s history, he was another of the Scottish contingent with which no team before the war seemed complete.    From the outbreak of the war he had worked as a munitions worker, but during March 1917 he enlisted.     Perhaps because of his work with munitions, he became a gunner with ‘A’ battery, 62nd brigade, Royal Field Artillery.  During the Germans final offence of 1918 his battery was in the Somme sector west of Albert.  During an enemy barrage he was badly wounded and taken to a field hospital.  He had lost an arm and, already fearing the worst, gave several of his personal effects to a soldier about to return to Bradford on leave.   On 24th April 1918 the hospital was hit by shelling and Robert was killed.     

Football did not only provide the army with many of its greatest stars, it also left us with two lingering images of the bloody conflict on the Western Front.   The Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German soldiers gathered in No Man’s Land and took part in a kickabout between the shell-holes has become the stuff of legend.  Another image is that of regiments, most notably the 8th East Surreys, who kicked footballs as they advanced across No Man’s Land through heavy machine gun and motor fire.   Both events underline the importance of football to the common solider.  Whether as regimental competitions or a simple knockabout, it provided soldiers with a welcome diversion and thousands of footballs made their way to the Front.  Captain J.L. Jack, of the Scottish Rifles complained ‘However tired the rascals may be for parades, they always have enough energy for football’.

When peace finally came in November 1918 it took people by surprise much as the outbreak of war had done four years earlier.   With the war at an end, the appetite for football quickly returned as the clubs assessed their playing staff and repaired their grounds.   By 1921-22 the Football League had expanded to 86 clubs compared with just 40 before the war as football move into its golden era.   It did so without a whole generation of footballers, both household names and unknown, who had been killed and maimed on the battlefields of the First World War.   Many clubs had lost players, Tottenham alone had lost eleven players who were once on their books.   They are remembered now only by the most dedicated of football fans.   Only Heart’s have a permanent memorial to their war dead.  It is situated in Edinburgh’s Haymarket and every Remembrance Sunday officials, players and supporters of the club gather to pay their respects to a team which inspired a nation at war.