Football During WW1

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the game of football was very much the people’s sport. And in this article, we consider how football played its part in World War One and during the Christmas Truce itself.

The Football Battalion

Towards the end of the 19th Century, there was a lot of debate in Great Britain as to whether football should become a professional sport or remain an amateur game. Players in Scotland and Northern England could not afford to miss work to play football and so pushed for a professional sport, while the mainly middle-class players of the Southern England teams preferred the Corinthian values of an amateur game.

Those clubs pushing for football to become a professional sport got their wish, with the Football Association finally legalising professionalism in 1885. Then, just three years later, in 1888, the Football League was established and with it the popularity of the game began to grow considerably.

When war broke out, in August 1914, professional footballers were often unable to “answer the call” and join up to fight, unless they had permission from the owners of their particular club, as they were not allowed to simply break their contracts. Even so, many amateur players did volunteer to fight for their country right at the start of the war, and some professionals were allowed to join them too.

Among the early volunteers were the entire Heart of Midlothian team, who helped form a volunteer battalion, which eventually became the 16th Royal Scots. Then on the 12th December 1914, the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment was formed, and by March 1915, a total of 122 professional footballers had signed up, which led it to be commonly known as the Football Battalion. Among these early recruits, were the entire Clapton Orient team (later to be known as Leyton Orient).

Football During WW1

Despite these cases of early volunteers, the majority of professional footballers remained with their clubs in the 1914/1915 season, where they were first considered to be a welcome distraction from the war. However, football did begin to play its part in the war effort when, during the early games in that season, the matches were used to try and shame the fans into signing up to fight in the war.

This recruitment drive was actually achieved by printing photos of the crowds at football matches, showing men in civilian clothes next to soldiers in their uniforms. These early “propaganda posters” had headlines cajoling the men, asking if they were not ashamed to be standing dressed in civilian clothes next to a brave man dressed in khaki.

Brave Footballers Remembered

Although there was an initial push by the clubs for professional football to continue, in order to keep the public’s spirits up, opinion soon turned against the professional footballers, as reports of casualties started coming in from the front. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appealed for footballers to volunteer for service, saying “If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle”.

Many people who had lost a loved one to the war were now quite upset to see these fit, able-bodied young men running around a football pitch, instead of fighting for their country against the Germans. It even got to the stage that there were calls for King George V to cease being a patron of The Football Association.

As conscription was not actually introduced in Britain until January 1916, it was still up to the individual footballers as to whether or not they wanted to volunteer to fight in the war. However, when the Football League was disbanded in 1915, more and more footballers began to answer the call. From the 5,000 or so men playing professional football in Great Britain, in 1914, approximately 2,000 joined military service.

Quite a number of the professional footballers fighting in World War I received medals for bravery, including the following players who all received the Victoria Cross: Bernard Vann (Derby County), Donald Simpson Bell (Newcastle United) and William Angus (Celtic).

Some professional footballers were recommended for medals of bravery, but never actually received them; perhaps the most famous of these was Walter Tull.

Walter played for Spurs between 1909-11, before joining Northampton Town. When the war broke out, he left “The Cobblers” to enlist in the army in December 1914.

Such was Tull’s bravery during the war, especially during the Battle of the Somme, that he became the first mixed-race combat officer in the British Army, despite the fact that the 1914 Manual of Military Law explicitly excluded mixed-race soldiers from command as officers.

Unfortunately, Second Lieutenant Walter Tull was killed in action on the 25th March 1918, during the Spring Offensive. One of the many brave footballers, who laid down their lives for King and Country during the Great War.

Football during WW1 and in the Christmas Truce

Although there is no question that there was a Christmas Truce between Great Britain and Germany in 1914, there are many historians who doubt whether an organised football match actually took place between the two sides. The football match has, in many ways, become the symbol of the Christmas Truce of 1914, but did it really take place?

The easy answer to that question is that it is quite hard to say one way or another. The historical evidence consists mainly of letters from British and German soldiers at the time, as well as accounts from veteran soldiers many years later. However, this ‘evidence’ is mainly made up by second hand accounts of soldiers writing about a football match that they had heard was going to take place or had taken place, rather than first hand accounts of soldiers who either played or watched an actual game. Then there are also the first hand accounts, which have later proven to be fake.

Whether there was an actual organised game in no-man’s land between the British and Germans is still open to debate and it is quite hard to prove one way or the other. However, there is no doubt that football had become the people’s game by that time and so the likelihood of impromptu kick-abouts between British and German soldiers along the Western Front is very high.

The question that should be asked is, why is it that a football match has emerged as the overriding symbol of the Christmas Truce, rather than the Christmas carol or even the Christmas tree? After all, they would appear to be far more deserving examples of a symbol for the Christmas Truce of 1914, albeit a little less romantic.

Perhaps the answer to this question is quite a simple one. One hundred years on from the Christmas Truce, football is still very much the people’s game and is something that today’s generation can easily relate to. So does it really matter if it is possible to prove that an organised football match took place or not during the truce? Surely, it is more important that the young generation of today understands the spirit of the truce, and if a football match helps to achieve that goal, then that can only be a good thing.