17 April 2023
In recent years the Covid pandemic played havoc with the football schedule but go back over 100 years and it was the Great War that caused the suspension of sporting activities, as Ray Westlake explains.
Back in 1914, no sooner than Lord Kitchener had aimed his demanding finger at the British public, men from all walks of life, geographical location and employment made their way to the nearest recruiting office. Wanting to join together and ultimately serve together came the Public Schools battalions of the Royal Fusiliers. There would be Bankers Battalions, units formed from previous members of the Boys Brigade and the 17th King’s Royal Rifle Corps which was made up of men belonging to the British Empire League. Reporting to close-by barracks also came miners, clerks, teetotallers, men under regulation height to form Bantam battalions and thousands who would include the name of their home town in their battalion titles. Towns that most of them would never see again.
But what of the sportsmen? With keeping up the spirits of the general public in mind, owners of Britain’s football clubs thought that the country would be best served by keeping their players at home. This stance, however, was not widely accepted and soon public opinion turned against the footballers themselves. Why indeed, noted one newspaper article, should these physically fit, able-bodied strong men be exempt from serving their country as others were giving up their lives at the front? They were referred to as hirelings and even King George V was approached with a view to him giving up his position as patron of the Football Association, so great was public feeling. Taking time off from his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle publicly berated footballers, writing: ‘If a footballer has strength of limb, let him serve and march in the field of battle.’ Lord Roberts added: ‘This is not the time to play games.’
Left: Recruiting poster using a propaganda quote from a German newspaper suggesting that British footballers were shirking their duty
And what about the spectators? Writing from the trenches, one soldier voiced the opinion via a letter to a newspaper, that thousands (he called them ‘roughs’) were watching football each Saturday afternoon when they should be fighting alongside others at the front.
As the public at home were becoming increasingly more outraged at the situation, the German press would not be slow in turning the whole thing into fuel for its country’s busy propaganda programme. Frankfurter Zeitung, for example, suggested that footballers: ‘Preferring to exercise their long limbs of the football ground, rather than expose them to any sort of risk’, were in fact, cowards. Would it interfere with recruiting, would it be bad for morale among those already fighting? Well, apparently not.
The German newspaper quote would be put to good used as part of a recruiting poster. Here we see it, the artist skilfully placing the line: ‘We knew you’d come’, under a sepia image of two teams being marched off the field, as one united body, by a uniformed figure.
Right: The first inspection of the 23rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers (1st Sportsmen’s) at Hyde Park, October 1914
The point taken, in order to release these athletes for war service, sporting fixtures were then cancelled all over Britain until further notice. Just like the university and public school men, the clerks and bankers, those from the Cardiff City Battalion, who never returned from the Somme, and sportsmen all over the country banded together to serve their country on another field. In London, for example, should you have been walking down the Strand on 25 September 1914, you may have seen the figure of Mrs Emma Pauline Cunliffe-Own, of whom it is said was born inside the Victoria and Albert Museum, when it was known as the South Kensington Museum and her father was the director there, ushering into the Indian Room of the Cecil Hotel lines of strong and willing athletes. No stranger, until rheumatoid arthritis took a hold, to the sports field herself, she had set up a recruiting office at the Cecil for the purpose of drawing in sportsmen from every city and town as recruits for the Royal Fusiliers. In they came, and soon a frequent sight in London streets would be men in smart suits, bowlers and flat caps being drilled by none less than Mrs Cunliffe-Owen herself. Satisfied with her efforts, Mrs Cunliffe-Owen would telegraph Lord Kitchener with the following message: ‘Will you accept complete battalion of upper and middle class men, physically fit, able to shoot and ride, up to the age forty-five?’
Accept he did, and by June 1915 not one, but two battalions in the form of the 23rd (1st Sportsmen’s) and 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) of the Royal Fusiliers, with their footballers, cricketers, rugby stars, runners, jumpers and swimmers, would find themselves at Clipstone Camp for war training.
But in 1914, just as today, it was football, with its long-established clubs in every city and town, that drew the crowds. Crowds that were being accused of shirking their duty (the ‘roughs’) to King and Country by spending time enjoying their lives on the stands while others were losing theirs in France and Belgium. And the club owners? Well, perhaps keeping up morale at home was a patriotic idea; but no, the players, just like all other young and fit men, had to be released.
Left: Founder of the 17th Middlesex Regiment (1st Football), William Joynson-Hicks (‘Jix’), 1st Viscount Brentford
William Joynson-Hicks, 1st Viscount Brentford or ‘Jix’ as his friends called him, was a lawyer and Conservative Party politician. As a backbencher and authority of aircraft, he would persistently pester the Government on matters of air warfare and aircraft manufacture. He thought the indiscriminate bombing of German cities was a good idea, and even published a pamphlet about it in 1915. It is Jix who grasped the idea of taking those footballers, now with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon, and under the so-called Pals system, form them into a battalion and subsequent military service. The formation date of what would become the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Duke of Cambridge’s Middlesex Regiment is now on record as 12 December 1914. The first to enrol was English international Frank Buckley who, with other professional footballers, turned up at Fulham town hall where names were being taken.
A point here about the numbering of the battalion and the term ‘Service’. When additional battalions were raised for the purpose of boosting the army, they were numbered on within the regiment from the already existing, since 1908, Territorials. In 1914 the Middlesex Regiment fielded four Regular battalions, a 5th and 6th which formed a Reserve and the 7th to 10th which were battalions of the Territorial Force. Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener was not, in 1914, prepared to use the framework of the part-time Territorial Army as the basis for his planned expansion. Instead he wanted a New Army made up of volunteers, each being required to enlist as a regular soldier for three years or the duration of the war. Unlike the Territorials, who were only expected to serve at home, the new men had to undertake a commitment of service anywhere. The word ‘Service’ in their titles would distinguish the new battalions.
Right: A chance of a game for the 17th Middlesex, William Joynson-Hicks, first on left, centre row
Although by March 1915 some 122 footballers, including the whole of the Leyton Orient team (known then as Clapton Orient) had enlisted, the press picked up on the point that there were in the country no less than 1,800 eligible professionals. ‘Where were they?’ asked the papers. ‘Why were they not doing their bit?’ And of the fans: ‘Are they still watching games when they should be at the front?’ Actually, a good number of club footballers, including officials, ground staff and referees had, in fact, joined up elsewhere. Already mentioned, the 1st and 2nd Sportsmen’s Battalions in London included many footballers, and further north in Scotland, the whole of the Heart of Midlothian team were in training with the 16th (Service) (2nd Edinburgh) Royal Scots, a battalion which had been raised by an enthusiastic Sir George McCrae. Remaining north of the border, mention must also be made of other teams: Hibernian, which let go all of its eligible players; Raith Rovers, Falkirk, Dunfermline Athletic, East Fife and St Bernard’s, all of them giving up their professionals, staff and supporters. Yes, the fans too, thousands of them are known to have volunteered so as to fight alongside the men who they regularly cheered from the terraces on a Saturday afternoon. Of the Middlesex Regiment, soon enough men had come forward for Jix to form a second battalion, the 17th (1st Football) being joined by the 23rd (2nd Football) after its formation in June 1915.
Left: Professionals from Tottenham Hotspurs, Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool and other clubs are included in this 17th Middlesex photograph
And so to war. Of the 23rd Royal Fusiliers (1st Sportsmen’s) and 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s), Mrs Cunliffe-Owen would see both off for war training at Clipstone Camp, Nottinghamshire in June 1915. Here the Sportsmen would join the 99th Brigade, which also include the 17th Royal Fusiliers (Empire) and the 22nd Royal Fusiliers (Kensington), then part of the 33rd Division. Here too at Clipstone Camp with the 33rd Division (100th Brigade) were the 17th Middlesex. Sir George McCrae’s 16th Royal Scots would travel to Ripon where the 34th Division was assembling with its 101st, 102nd and 103rd Brigades. A point of interest here. If you wish to know what brigades served with a certain New Army division, simply take the number of the division in question and multiply it by three. The result will give you the number of the middle of the three brigades.
Right: Surprisingly, women working in the factories to release men for the front also organised factory football teams
Both the 1st and 2nd Sportsmen’s Battalions landed in France in November 1915. The thinking at the time was that New Army brigades would cope better under war conditions as part of a Regular Army battle-hardened division. It followed that the 99th Brigade, with its two battalions of sportsmen, were transferred to the care of the 2nd Division which had been on the Western Front since the early weeks of the war.
The Battle of the Somme opened on 1 July 1916, both the 1st and 2nd Sportsmen’s being heavily involved during the fighting at Delville Wood. Historian of the Royal Fusiliers, HC O’Neill recorded that the 23rd Battalion suffered 288 casualties during the 26 July assault on the wood and came out: ‘… smoking German cigars.’
Left: September 1916 shows a football match in progress involving the 1st Battalion the Wiltshire Regiment at Bouzincourt on the Somme
The 16th Royal Scots with the 101st Brigade, 34th Division would also suffer greatly on the Somme in 1916. They would be there on that terrible first day of the battle when the troops were told to rise out of their trenches and walk across No Man’s Land as if on a parade ground. ‘There will be none of the enemy left after our bombardment to stop you’, they were told. But, as we now know, this was not to be the case. The Germans had taken cover in their deep trench positions only to rise up with their machine guns as the barrage lifted. From the war diary of the 16th Royal Scots we hear how the footballers had suffered heavily from the enemy’s fire even before they had reached the front line. They nonetheless attacked La Boisselle with some success, but not without great cost. Relieved from the battle front on 4 July, the battalion fell back to positions at Long Valley, minus some 472 of their number.
To relate the war histories of our five battalions of footballers, cricketers, referees, ground staff and loyal supporters would be like retelling the history of the Western Front in full. There they would be at Ypres, Arras, Passchendaele and again, in 1918, on the Somme. But although still bearing the titles adopted at the beginning of the war, these now battle-worn battalions were no longer formed of the same type of enthusiastic sportsmen that filled their ranks in 1914. Conscription had arrived in 1916 and with it men of all walks of life. These were placed with any of the Army’s now much-depleted battalions as people across the entire country did their part.
The same collecting opportunities arise for sporting soldiers as they do for the regular recruits. You simply need to pay attention to auctions when medals, in particular, uniforms, badges and equipment, related to the sporting battalions come up for auction. Don’t forget that numerous sportsmen simply joined regular battalions, so if auction or dealer lots have history attached it makes it simple to check who they were. If you want to trace the sportsmen from particular clubs, start your research from the other direction – with their name and seeing what military service they undertook. The other element to consider is ephemera with posters and fliers urging sportsmen and spectators to sign up.
Left: A football was presented in November 1918 to Lieutenant Jack Shaw, who organised games between prisoners at Holzminden camp
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