We Have Our Lives

Football in the War

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While cricket and rugby competitions stopped almost immediately on the outbreak of war, the Football League continued with the 1914-15 season. Many football players were professionals by this point, and could only join the armed forces if the clubs agreed to cancel their contracts. There was a certain amount of consternation that footballers were not enlisting, while cricketers and especially rugby players did so in droves. By September 1914 Arthur Conan Doyle was appealing for footballers to join the armed forces: "There was a time for all things in the world. There was a time for games... 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 strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle”.

The Bishop of Chelmsford even gave a sermon on the need for footballers to enlist: “He felt that the cry against professional football at the present time was right. He could not understand men who had any feeling, any respect for their country, men in the prime of life, taking large salaries at a time like this for kicking a ball about. It seemed to him something incongruous and unworthy”.

The 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment was set up in December 1914 – the 'Football Battalion'. Under considerable pressure, the Football Association eventually backed down and called for football clubs to release unmarried footballers to join the forces. The FA also agreed to work closely with the War Office to encourage football clubs to organize recruiting drives at matches.

This was not met with favourably by all, with the Athletic News angrily responding that “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... The poor are giving their lives for this country in thousands… [but] should, according to a small clique of virulent snobs, be deprived of the one distraction that they have had for over thirty years."

By March 1915, 122 professional footballers had joined the Football Battalion, including the entire first team of Clapton Orient (later to become Leyton Orient). Meanwhile, it was women that kept the game alive on home soil. 22,000 went to watch the final of 1918’s Munitionettes Cup, with thirty teams competing in the tournament.

The honours both of being the first black/mixed-race infantry officer, and the first such outfielder in England’s top flight, are held by the same man Walter Tull played inside forward for Spurs and Northampton Town. Tull, who grew up in an orphanage, joined the Footballers' Battalion as a private, rising up through the ranks remarkably quickly. He was eventually commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in May 1917, despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding "Negroes" and "Mulattos" from serving as officers. He became the first non-white man in the world to lead white men in battle. Walter was killed in action on the 25th of March 1918, during the Spring Offensive.