Privileged footballers once played a pivotal role in shaping the world as we know it today. Here is the tale of their gallantry in World War 1.
The tree of Liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants, wrote Thomas Jefferson in one of his letters to William S. Smith, a British diplomatic official in London on November 13, 1787.
The next two centuries saw some of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. The Napoleonic Wars ravaged Europe in the early parts of the 19th century, the American Civil War took the lives of over a million people, and the two World Wars engendered an unprecedented consignment of death and decay.
This begs the question: does Jefferson’s grave rumination on mankind’s propensity to uphold Liberty indeed ring true?
We belong to a new generation of human beings that has little experience of global warfare. Most people on the planet, fortunately, do not live in a fearful paradigm, cowering in their sleep and hoping that the next air raid by the enemy forces does not take the roof off of their houses. Of course, many people still go through this harrowing experience on an almost daily basis in some parts of the globe. But the 21st-century world, by and large, is in relative peace compared to its 20th-century counterpart…
Can you imagine yourself with a gun in your hand marching in formation towards the frontlines, digging trenches with Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr., Cristiano Ronaldo? The Great War did indeed put football fans and their heroes in the same trench. This is the story of World War 1 and the roles footballers played in it which eventually shaped the world as we know it today.
Dawn of War
In order to understand the role footballers played in the war, you need to know what the war was and most importantly, how it began.
Unlike most wars up until the beginning of the 20th century, where one tyrannical leader instigated another, resulting in the clash of massive egos, the World War 1 stemmed from love. The irony is spectacularly stunning.
Sophie Chotek was born in 1829 to a Bohemian nobleman. In 1899, Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, decided to marry her, incurring the wrath of Emperor Franz Joseph who declared it a morganatic marriage as Sophie, despite being noble, was not royalty.
The Emperor, as per royal decorum, did not allow the newlywed couple to be seen publicly during royal ceremonies. However, Sophie was allowed to be by the side of the Archduke whilst he was in a military capacity.
One of the Archduke’s greatest qualities was his undying love for Sophie. He decided to embark upon a needless inspection of the armies in Bosnia, accompanied by his wife of course. This perusal of the Austro-Hungarian troops was not obligatory.
Unbeknownst to the royal couple, the Serbian nationalist group Black Hand had contrived a plot to assassinate them.
The Archduke and the Duchess travelled in an open car so that the whole world could see them together. Armed with grenades and guns, the Black Hand dealt the killing blow through Garvilo Princip who shot the couple from point-blank range, killing them instantaneously.
This spiralled into all-out war between Austria and Serbia. Russia sided with Serbia while the Germans put their arms around the Austrians.
Britain and our footballers had to wait for a while before entering the field of battle and did so only after the Germans marched through Belgium to launch an attack on France. Britain thought that the sovereignty of neutral Belgium was being breached therefore sided with France and Russia to fight the war against the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And thus began World War I.
Enter our Heroes
Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 and three days later, Lord Herbert Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, began a recruiting campaign and called on all able-bodied men between the ages of 19 and 30 to help their country fight the Great War. Cricket and Rugby stopped almost immediately at the onset of war but the Football League continued for the rest of the 1914-15 season.
Footballers had been professionals since the FA legalised their employment in 1885. Most were bound to their clubs by one-year contracts and could only lend their hands to the war effort if their clubs agreed to terminate their employment.
More than 500,000 had volunteered to join the British Army by September after Lord Kitchener raised the maximum age to 35. It was during this time that the celebrated novelist Arthur Conan Doyle appealed to the footballers to shun their clubs and pick up their rifles instead.
“There was a time for all things in the world. There was a time for games, there was a time for business, and there was a time for domestic life. There was a time for everything, but there is only time for one thing now, and that thing is war. If the cricketer had a straight eye let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had the strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle,” he said.
Imagine being a sportsman during this time and hearing these words from one of the most revered writers in the world. Add this to the daily warcry from some insidious tabloids that suggested that anyone not joining the army was contributing to a German victory, if you were an able-bodied man, moral accountability alone would drag you to the frontlines.
Established in Manchester in 1875, the Athletic News’ paper was a weekly journal covering sports. And they had a different stance on the subject.
“The whole agitation is nothing less than an attempt by the ruling classes to stop the recreation on one day in the week of the masses … What do they care for the poor man’s sport? The poor are giving their lives for this country in thousands. In many cases, they have nothing else… These should, according to a small clique of virulent snobs, be deprived of the one distraction that they have had for over thirty years.”
Regardless, the recruitment drive was in full flow and clubs were encouraged to appeal to the players and fans alike at half-time intervals. Players were branded as “effeminate” and “cowardly” for playing sport while thousands died fighting for their countries on the battlefield.
On 14 December, acting under orders from Lord Kitchener, Sir William Joynson-Hicks formed the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment at Fulham Town Hall as part of the ‘pals battalion’ scheme.
Among the 30 or so men who joined the battalion at its formation, was a man called Frank Buckley who had played for both the Manchester clubs and was under the books of Bradford City.
Buckley became the first footballer to join the 17th which would eventually be called the Football Battalion. The Bradford man had previous experience in the military and was initially given the rank of a lieutenant. He would eventually be promoted to the rank of a Major.
But it is argued that Donald Bell, who had played for Crystal Palace, Newcastle United and Bradford Park Avenue, was the first footballer to join the British army at the outbreak of World War 1. Bell was enlisted into the West Yorkshire Regiment before being commissioned into the 8th Battalion, Green Howards as a Lance Corporal.
Other players in the 17th in the early days were Vivian Woodward, the former Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and England centre-forward and Evelyn Lintott, the ex-Plymouth, QPR and Leeds stalwart. As a result, a large number of fans also volunteered to join the army to be alongside their heroes. And within a few weeks, the battalion had its full quota of 600 men.
Three weeks earlier in Scotland, Heart of Midlothian – then the best club in the country – saw its entire squad join the 16th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Scots.
Players from Raith Rovers, Dunfermline, Falkirk and East Fife among others also enlisted which subsequently attracted a lot of locals to join up.
Hearts were leading the Scottish First Division and were on an eight-game winning streak when they decided to stop playing. They did not have to. They did so because they felt a sense of duty towards their family, their friends, and their country.
Back in England, the recruitment drive was in full flow. Representatives from the war office attended matches up and down the country to persuade fans and players alike to contribute to Britain’s war effort.
West Ham United goalkeeper Joe Webster and defender Jack Tresadern joined the Football Battalion and the Royal Garrison Artillery respectively after witnessing a particular impetration at Upton Park. In fact, Tresadern even reached the rank of lieutenant within a short span of time.
Sidney Wheelhouse, the Grimsby Town captain, rose to the rank of Lance Corporal. Former Spurs and Northampton Town hero Walter Tull impressed Major Buckley so much with his leadership that he was soon made Sergeant and then a Second Lieutenant. Tull became the first black infantry officer in a regular British Army regiment.
Huddersfield Town’s Frederick Bullock rose to the rank of Lance Corporal, survived the war, and earned his first England cap at the age of 34 in 1920. Former Southampton, Norwich City and Croydon Common attacker Percy Barnfather became a Sergeant.
The war, despite all the traumatic elements it encapsulated, still offered a grim avenue for professional headway for these out of work footballers.
A total of 122 players had joined the Football Battalion by March 1915, excluding the ones from north of the border who had their own football battalion with the Royal Scots. Leyton Orient, then going by the name of Clapton Orient, had their whole team sign up just like Hearts of Scotland.
At this point the FA was working closely with the War Office to ensure that every footballer wishing to join the army gets the right guidance.
Soon enough, footballers were staring down the barrel.