Football and the First World War: Dissent or Duty?

WhitingFootballBattalionPosterDuring the Victorian era, the working classes started to have more free time for attendance of Association Football, formed in 1863, which began to expand exponentially. Rugby Union followed more often by the more middle classes and public schools of England. Interestingly, Union players remained amateur, whilst football became a professional game.

At first, Association Football was the reserve of gentlemen. One example of this may be seen in the fact that of the first ten F.A Cup finals, the Old Etonians were in five. David Goldblatt, in his seminal work The Ball is Round, described the Old Etonians thus in their 1883 appearance against Blackburn, a northern, working class team:

Old Etonians are another matter. They just roll up at the last moment [for the final]. They have been here before. Ten of the eleven have cup final experience and hard training is ‘bad form’. Who needs training when you have the future Lord High Commissioner for the Church of England?

The idea of being paid to play was rather despised by such gentlemen, and northern clubs had taken to players being paid to play. In Rugby, David Goldblatt underlined that taking payment was something a gentleman just did not do, when he wrote:

When Rugby was presented with a similar challenge from a similar cross-class alliance of northern working-class spectators and players and provincial middle class club directors, its ruling elite could not bring themselves to compromise. Thus in 1895 the aristocratic majority-run Rugby league and southern amateur middle-class rugby union.

Amateurism and the Corinthian spirit, often learnt in the fine Victorian public schools, would last into the early 1990s, when professionalism was finally sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union. Football had become so popular within Britain that the Cup Final was even filmed in 1901, when Tottenham Hotspur Football Club played Sheffield United Football Club.

David Goldblatt underlined the importance of football prior to World War 1 when he explained that Association Football was the first sport covered by a Daily newspaper with press photography. With football a new form of escape for spectators and players, the working classes flocked to it. However, as there was a clamour to the war in August, 1914, football seemed to be a dissenting voice of British sport, in that unlike rugby, the 1914-5 season went ahead, the game being placed ahead of the fight for King and Country. Football would soon be seen as a pariah among the media, with Punch famously penning a cartoon besmirching association Football and its players.

greater game punch

In 25th November, 1914 The Times, in an editorial, wrote:

We are glad to think that public opinion is setting steadily and rapidly against the continuance of professional football at this time of national danger. Public opinion, after all, is the only force which can effectually put a stop to it, and we should deprecate in the strongest terms, the various well-meant suggestions, which constantly reach us, for its compulsory prohibition by any outside authority whatever. The question, indeed, is not quite so simple as it sounds. For good or ill, and whether we like it or not, the great League championships have become in normal times an absorbing interest and recreation to millions of people for whom other interests and recreation are far to seek.

The Times was quick to point out in September 1914 that Rugby Union games in Kent were scratched and the players encouraged to join up and play ‘the great game’, the vernacular for the war.

The popular author and cricketer E.H.D Sewell wrote of football in the Sheffield Star of its negative affect thus:

The sooner the army as a whole takes up ‘rugger’…the better for Tommy. Let ‘soccer’ remain the exercise of the munitions workers who suffer so much from varicose veins, weak knees, cod-eyed toes, fowl’s livers and a general dislike for a man’s duty.

Colin Veitch in his article ‘Play up! Play up! And win the War!’ Football, the nation and the First World War 1914-15 in the Journal of Contemporary History gave three reasons for this snobbery towards football via the upper and middle classes. The first being that, as included in Vernede’s poem ‘The Call’, ‘the game is the prize’.

Being paid for football, like the new football clubs that had been formed, was ‘trade’. Secondly, the artisans were viewed as showing a lack of sportsmanship and a drive to win at any cost – was this ungentlemanly behaviour?.Finally, the large crowds were seen as vulgar.

Although football did continue to play out the season of 1914-15, the media still portrayed it as a dissenter from all the other noble sports, such as Rugby and cricket. But was it really? Or was it something for the upper and middle classes to sneer at and see the working classes as not doing their duty to King and Country? Examples of teams that can be seen as doing their duty include the Edinburgh team Hearts of Midlothian who, when the war was declared, saw 16 members of the team join the 16th Royal Scots, with seven dying in the war. Steve Jenkins has recently written about Clapton Orient and the Great War. In a recent blog post on his book ‘They Took the Lead’ their actions were described thus:

Clapton Orient chairman, Captain Henry Wells-Holland, had the dream of starting his own platoon consisting entirely of O’s players and staff. With the authorities – mindful of the criticism of professional football continuing whilst a war was on – deciding to form a battalion specifically for footballers to join, a meeting was held at Fulham Town Hall on 15th December for players that wanted to join up into a newly formed battalion – the 17th Middlesex (the Footballers’ Battalion).

Ten Orient footballers enlisted straight away with more colleagues from the Club soon following their example. Thus it was Clapton Orient became the first English Football League club to volunteer en masse to serve King and Country. Although players from other clubs around the country also joined, it really was Clapton Orient – later, of course to become Leyton Orient – who Took The Lead.

It was not just Football players that took the King’s shilling but also the crowds. James Walvin in The People’s Game has pointed out:

Despite the critics, football’s response to the call-to-arms in 1914-15 was remarkable. It was an imaginative stroke to appeal to working men through the nation’s footballing networks. Football was, after all, the most popular, nationwide and comprehensive forum for male recreation. In a society which lacked the highly intrusive state bureaucracy familiar today, football’s administration offered the state a swift and acceptable  entry to working-class communities which might otherwise have proved difficult to penetrate. Here was yet another testimony to the importance of football in British working-class life in 1914.

The final game of the 1914-5 season was the F.A Cup final between Chelsea F.C. and Sheffield United F.C., termed the Khaki Cup Final. Lord Derby, later Director-General of Recruiting and then Secretary of State for War, presented the trophy with these words: ‘You have played with one another for the Cup; play with one another for England’.

The representation of Football as a dissenting voice would seem unfounded. If Football ever had caused dissent to the masters of the war, i.e. the ‘empire builders’ and its hierarchy, this would most likely be seen in the 1914 ‘truce’ between the Germans, French and English in December 1914, when a famous game of football was played in no-man land, the subject of much debate. Then football was seen as a dissenting voice with this statement: ‘The commander-in-chief, Sir John French, wrote in his autobiography that he had called his commanders to account and it “resulted in a good deal of trouble”’.

If football was seen as a dissenting voice in World War 1, this belief would not occur in World War Two. Football would not be given the opportunity to play a single season during the war, but players such as Eddie Hapgood and Bill Shankly would face each other in war-time International matches to boost moral and funds for the war.





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