Armistice Day

"Playing the greater game"; footballers in World War One

"Playing the greater game"; footballers in World War One



As the world pauses to remember those who gave their lives between 1914 and 1918, we take a look at the impact on sportsmen from both sides.

Play the greater game, trumpeted the recruitment posters, inviting the sportsmen of Britain and Ireland to swap the playing fields of home for the battlefields of France and Belgium. At the outbreak of the First World War, it was billed as such: a short contest with victory assured, Great Britain selling a vision of “team spirit” that would ultimately be paid for with the lives of almost 10 million military personnel across both sides. 

Names that stand on memorials still resonate today. Charlie Buchan, winner of the Military Medal, remains Sunderland’s all-time top scorer and after the war co-founded the Football Writers’ Association. The German Army contained a number of professional players, many of whom did not survive. Perhaps the most well-known who did is Gottfried Fuchs, an artillery officer who won the Iron Cross. Fuchs lived until 1972 and still holds the national record for goals in a single game: 10 in a 16-0 victory over Russia at the 2012 Olympics. That record was expunged during the Nazi regime – Fuchs was Jewish – but now stands in perpetuity

For a majority in the trenches, football was the only shared social reference point. A tiny percentage of those sent into the slaughter would have been abroad before and when, spontaneously ignoring every tenet of military discipline, they met in no-man’s land football was bound to take centre stage. Possibly the most famous game of football in history may well be apocryphal: few records remain of the 1914 Christmas Truce knockabout – the work of zealous censors – but it scarcely matters. 

Football, then as now, was a universal language. Arguing the toss as to whether Germany won 3-2, a result from a romanticised version of events by war poet Robert Graves published in 1962, or an allied side captained by Private Bill Tucker carried the day as the Imperial War Museum archives suggest, is what binds football fans today and for a few precious moments amid one of the most colossal errors of the last century it did so across various sectors of the front. 

Initial uptake to “link arms in the ultimate struggle” in the UK was slow and was not confined solely to football but some 2,000 of the roughly 5,000 professional footballers in the UK would ultimately serve in the conflict

This would also sow the seeds of modern women's football as female workers, taking the place of their departed husbands on the factory floor, also did so on the pitch: the 1918 Munitionettes Cup final drew 22,000 spectators to Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park

Football volunteers on the front

Towards the end of 1914, what would become known as the Footballer’s Battalion came into being, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a leading supporter of the initiative. It would not take his most famous work of fiction, Sherlock Holmes, long today to deduce what befell the 17th (service) Battalion of the London-based Middlesex Regiment and the second Footballers’ Battalion, the 23rd (service), formed in 2015.

England international centre-half Frank Buckley, who would later lead the 1st battalion in action and was wounded on the Somme, remained in touch with his old comrades and noted in 1930 that 500 of the original 600 volunteers had either perished at the front or died later as a result of wounds sustained there. He went on to manage Norwich, Blackpool, Wolves and Leeds among others after the war. 

Among those who were not so fortunate was Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army who had played for Clapton (later Leyton) Orient, Spurs and Northampton Town and was killed in action in March 1918. Clapton’s entire team signed up in the first wave of recruitment with strike partners William Jonas and Richard McFadden - who won the Military Medal in France - perishing alongside defender George Scott at the Somme

Larrett Roebuck, the Huddersfield left back, was the first British footballer reported to have died in the conflict. He was declared missing in action near Beaucamps-Ligny in October 2014 and eventually presumed dead. His name is enshrined on the Ploegsteert Memorial. 

Between 1915 and 1919 competitive football was suspended in England but continued in Scotland. However, the 16th Royal Scots, or Edinburgh Pals, recruited battalion strength in just a few days. McRae’s battalion, as it came to be known in honour of its popular Liberal MP colonel, contained players from Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Falkirk and Raith Rovers. Hearts would lose seven of its senior squad during the war

Glasgow would also pay a heavy price, seven Celtic players making the ultimate sacrifice. Among them was William Angus of the Highland Light Infantry, one of three footballers to be awarded the Victoria Cross, along with Northampton and Derby striker Bernard Vann and Donald Simpson Bell, who represented Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Bradford. 

For these footballing warriors, led into a conflict that became the dirtiest game they would ever encounter, the last shrill whistle sending them into the maelstrom would have been as poignant as the final kick of the artillery on November 11, 1918. 

A year later, those that made it through unscathed were employed again for 90 minutes at the same signal when the European leagues returned.

British soldiers prepare to play in gas masks, circa 1916.


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