Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August, 1914. Cricket and rugby competitions stopped almost immediately after the outbreak of the First World War. However, the Football League continued with the 1914-15 season. Most football players were professionals and were tied to clubs through one-year renewable contracts. Players could only join the armed forces if the clubs agreed to cancel their contracts.
On 7th August, 1914, Lord Kitchener , the war minister, immediately began a recruiting campaign by calling for men aged between 19 and 30 to join the British Army. At first this was very successful with an average of 33,000 men joining every day. Three weeks later Kitchener raised the recruiting age to 35 and by the middle of September over 500,000 men had volunteered their services.
On 6th September 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle, appealed for footballers to join the armed forces: "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 strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle." Some newspapers suggested that those who did not join up were "contributing to a German victory."
Frederick Charrington, the son of the wealthy brewer who had established the Tower Hamlets Mission, attacked the West Ham United players for being effeminate and cowardly for getting paid for playing football while others were fighting on the Western Front. The famous amateur footballer and cricketer, Charles B. Fry, called for the abolition of football, demanding that all professional contracts be annulled and that no one below forty years of age be allowed to attend matches.
In October 1914, the Secretary of State, Lord Kitchener, issued a call for volunteers to both replace those killed in the early battles of the First World War. At the beginning of the war the army had strict specifications about who could become soldiers. Men joining the army had to be at least 5ft 6in tall and a chest measurement of 35 inches. However, these specifications were changed in order to get more men to join the armed forces.
The Bishop of Chelmsford paid a visit in Bethnal Green where he gave a sermon on the need for professional footballers to join the armed services. The Stratford Express reported on 2nd December 1914: "The Bishop, in an address on Duty, spoke of the magnificent response that had been made to the call to duty from the King. All must play their part. They must not let their brothers go to the front and themselves remain indifferent. 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".
William Joynson Hicksestablished the 17th Service (Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment on 12th December, 1914. This group became known as the Football Battalion. According to Frederick Wall, the secretary of the Football Association, the England international centre-half, Frank Buckley, was the first person to join the Football Battalion. At first, because of the problems with contracts, only amateur players like Vivian Woodward, and Evelyn Lintott were able to sign-up.
As Frank Buckley had previous experience in the British Army he was given the rank of Lieutenant. He eventually was promoted to the rank of Major. Within a few weeks the 17th Battalion had its full complement of 600 men. However, few of these men were footballers. Most of the recruits were local men who wanted to be in the same battalion as their football heroes. For example, a large number who joined were supporters of Chelsea and Queen's Park Rangers who wanted to serve with Vivian Woodward and Evelyn Lintott.
Under considerable pressure from the Football Association eventually backed down and called for football clubs to release professional footballers who were not married, to join the armed forces. The FA also agreed to work closely with the War Office to encourage football clubs to organize recruiting drives at matches.
The Athletic News responded angrily: "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."
Three members of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee visited Upton Park during half-time to call for volunteers. Joe Webster, the West Ham United goalkeeper, was one of those who joined the Football Battalion as a result of this appeal. Jack Tresadern joined the Royal Garrison Artillery. An intelligent man, he quickly reached the rank of lieutenant.
At the beginning of the 1914-15 football season, Hearts was Scotland's most successful team, winning eight games in succession. On 26th November, 1914, every member of the team joined the British Army. This event had a major impact on the public and inspired footballers and their fans to enlist. Seven members of the Hearts team never returned to Scotland. Three of the men, Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis, were killed on the first day of the Somme offensive. Another member of the team, 22 year old Paddy Crossan, was so badly injured that his right leg was labeled for amputation. He pleaded with the German surgeon not to operate. He told him: "I need my legs - I'm a footballer." He agreed to his request and managed to save his leg. Crossan survived the war but later died as a result of his lungs being destroyed by poison gas.
By March 1915, it was reported that 122 professional footballers had joined the battalion. This included the whole of the Clapton Orient (later renamed Leyton Orient) first team. Three of them were later killed on the Western Front. At the end of the year Walter Tull who had played for Tottenham Hotspur, Northampton Town and Glasgow Rangers joined the battalion. Major Frank Buckley soon recognised Tull's leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant.
On 15th January 1916, the Football Battalion reached the front-line. During a two-week period in the trenches four members of the battalion were killed and 33 were wounded. This included Vivian Woodward who was hit in the leg with a hand grenade. The injury to his right thigh was so serious that he was sent back to England to recover.
Woodward did not return to the Western Front until August 1916. The Football Battalion had taken heavy casualties during the Somme offensive in July. This included the death of England international footballer, Evelyn Lintott. The battle was still going on when Woodward arrived but the fighting was less intense. However, on 18th September a German attack involving poison gas killed 14 members of the battalion.
Major Frank Buckley was also seriously injured during this offensive when metal shrapnel had hit him in the chest and had punctured his lungs. George Pyke, who played for Newcastle United, later wrote: "A stretcher party was passing the trench at the time. They asked if we had a passenger to go back. They took Major Buckley but he seemed so badly hit, you would not think he would last out as far as the Casulalty Clearing Station." Buckley was sent to a military hospital in Kent and after operating on him, surgeons were able to remove the shrapnel from his body. However, his lungs were badly damaged and was never able to play football again.
William Angus played for Glasgow Celtic before joining the 8th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. On 11th June, Lieutenant James Martin led a covert bombing raid on an embankment in front of the German trenches. The party was spotted and the enemy detonated a large mine hidden in the earth. Martin was one of the causalities of the explosion. At first, he was thought to be dead, but he was seen to move as he pleaded for water from the Germans. The soldiers responded by throwing a grenade over the parapet.
As soon as he heard what had happened, William Angus volunteered to attempt a rescue of the man who also came from Carluke. At first this was vetoed by senior officers who considered it a suicidal mission. Angus replied that it did not matter much whether death came now or later. Eventually, Brigadier General Lawford gave permission for Angus to try and save Martin.
A rope was tied around William Angus so that he could be dragged back if killed or seriously wounded. Angus managed to reach Martin by crawling through No Man's Land without being detected. He gave him a drink of brandy before attaching the rope to Martin. Angus then tried to carry Martin back to the safety of the British trench 70 yards away. However, once upright, Angus was soon seen by the Germans and he came under heavy fire. Angus was hit and he fell to the ground. For the next few minutes he sheltered Martin with his own body. Angus then signalled to the British troops to pull Martin to safety. He then set off at right angles to the trench, drawing the enemy fire away from Martin. Despite being hit several times, he managed to drag himself back to the trenches. His injuries resulted in him losing his left eye and part of his right foot.
His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gemmill later wrote that, "No braver deed was ever done in the history of the British Army." For this act of bravery William Angus became the first professional footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Angus’s citation read: “For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Givenchy, on 12th June 1915, in voluntarily leaving his trench under very heavy fire and rescuing an officer who was lying within a few yards of the enemy position. Lance Corporal Angus had no chance of escaping the enemy’s fire when undertaking this very gallant action, and in effecting the rescue he sustained about forty wounds from bombs, some of them being very serious.”
It has been argued that Donald Bell, a defender with Bradford City, was the first professional footballer to join the British Army after the outbreak of the war. He enlisted as a private but by June, 1915 he had a commission in the Yorkshire Regiment. Two days after his marriage in November, 1915, he was sent to France.
Second Lieutenant Bell took part in the Somme offensive. On 5th July he stuffed his pockets with grenades and attacked an enemy machine-gun post. When he attempted to repeat this feat five days later he was killed. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action of 5th July.
On the outbreak of the war Leigh Roose, who won 24 international caps for Wales between 1902-10, and played for a variety of league teams including Stoke City, Sunderland and Arsenal, immediately joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. His father, Richmond Roose was a pacifist who was strongly opposed to his son becoming involved in the conflict. Roose was sent to France and worked at a hospital in Rouen. His job was to treat injured soldiers from the Western Front before arranging their transport back to Britain.
In April 1915 Leigh Roose was transferred to the Evacuation Hospital at Gallipoli. After spending several months treating the wounded, Roose returned to London. Roose now joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers as a private. In 1916 he was sent to Western Front and had his first experience of trench warfare close to the village of Dainville. In August he won the Military Medal for bravery while fighting at the Battle of the Somme. The citation explained how he threw "bombs until his arms gave out, and then, joining the covering party, used his rifle with great effect". While serving on the front-line Roose suffered from trench foot, a fungal infection brought on by prolonged exposure to damp, cold and unhygienic conditions.
Leigh Roose was killed on 7th October 1916 during an attack on the German trenches at Gueudecourt. Gordon Hoare, who before the war had represented England as an amateur footballer, saw Roose running towards the enemy at full speed in No Man's Land, while firing his gun. Soon afterwards, another soldier saw Roose lying in a bomb crater. His body was never recovered.
James Maxwell, Woolwich Arsenal's outside-right in the 1908-09 season, served with the Royal Scots in France until being killed on 27th September 1915. Spencer Bassett, who had played for Arsenal between 1906-1910, was killed on the Western Front in 11th April 1917.
Jimmy Speirs played for Glasgow Rangers and Clyde before signing for Bradford City. He became captain and scored the only goal when the team won the FA Cup final against Newcastle United in 1911. The following year he joined Leeds United. On the outbreak of the First World War Speirs he enlist in the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders. He was posted to France in March 1916. After winning the Military Medal for bravery in the field he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Speirs was killed at Passchendaele on 20th August 1917.
Walter Tull, was another outstanding footballer who abandoned his career and offered his services to the British Army. Tull, who had played for and Northampton Town, joined the 1st Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. The Army soon recognised Tull's leadership qualities and he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. In July 1916, Tull took part in the major Somme offensive. Tull survived this experience but in December 1916 he developed trench fever and was sent home to England to recover.
Tull had impressed his senior officers and recommended that he should be considered for further promotion. When he recovered from his illness, instead of being sent back to France, he went to the officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. Despite military regulations forbidding "any negro or person of colour" being an officer, Tull received his commission in May, 1917.
Tull became the first Black combat officer in the British Army. As Phil Vasili has pointed out in his book, Colouring Over the White Line: "According to The Manual of Military Law, Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. During the First World War, military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that White soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should Black soldiers serve on the front line."
Lieutenant Tull was sent to the Italian front. This was an historic occasion because Tull was the first ever black officer in the British Army. He led his men at the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches for his "gallantry and coolness" under fire.
In January 1917 Major Frank Buckley was back on the Western Front. The Football Battalion attacked German positions at Argenvillers. Buckley was "mentioned in dispatches" as a result of the bravery he showed during the hand-to-hand fighting that took place during the offensive. The Germans used poison gas during this battle and Buckley's already damaged lungs were unable to cope and he was sent back home to recuperate.
Walter Tull stayed in Italy until 1918 when he was transferred to France to take part in the attempt to break through the German lines on the Western Front. On 25th March, 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil. Soon after entering No Mans Land Tull was hit by a German bullet. Tull was such a popular officer that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from German machine-guns to bring him back to the British trenches. These efforts were in vain as Tull had died soon after being hit. Tull's body was never found. Eleven former members of Tottenham Hotspur were killed during the First World War.
There was over 5,000 men playing professional football in 1914. Of those, 2,000 joined the military services. The records are incomplete but I have attempted to look at the number of players who were killed or seriously wounded.
The most famous footballer to be killed in the conflict was England international Edwin Latheron. He helped his club, Blackburn Rovers, win First Division league titles in 1911-12 and 1913-14. In his eight years at the club had scored 94 goals in 258 games.On the outbreak of the First World War Latheron joined the British Army and served on the Western Front with the Royal Field Artillery. Latheron was killed during the offensive at Passchendaele on 14th October 1917 and is buried at the Vlamertinge New Military Cemetery.
Sandy Turnbull was another outstanding player who lost his life during the war. While playing for Manchester City Turnbull won a FA Cup final medal in 1904. Two years later he moved to Manchester Unitedand won the First Division championship in 1907-08 and 1910-11. Turnbull also scored the winning goal against against Bristol City in the 1909 FA Cup Final.
Turnbull's football career ended with the outbreak of the First World War. Over a twelve year period he had scored 143 goals in 230 matches in the Football League. In 1915 Sandy Turnbull joined the Footballer's Battalion and was killed at Arras while fighting on the Western Front on 3rd May 1917.
Two other members of the Manchester United team were killed on active service. Oscar Linkson, who played right-back for the club joined the Middlesex Regiment and was killed during the Somme Offensive on 8th August 1916. Patrick McGuire, an amateur reserve player, also died on active service in 1916.
Attendances at league games fell dramatically during the second-half of the 1914-15 season because of the impact of the First World War. It was decided that the Football League would not operate in the 1915-16 season. As football players only had contracts to play for one season at a time, they were now out of work. It has been estimated that around 2,000 of Britain's 5,000 professional footballers now joined the armed forces.
Five former West Ham United players were killed in action during the war: Fred Griffiths, Arthur Stallard, William Jones, Frank Cannon and William Kennedy. West Ham's star forward, George Hilsdon, had to endure a mustard gas attack at Arras in 1917. This badly damaged his lungs and although he played briefly for Chatham Town after the war it brought an end to his professional football career. Fred Harrison was also badly gassed on the Western Front and never played football again. Another player, George Kay suffered from shellshock.
Seven men registered with Newcastle United were killed: Richard McGough, Thomas Rowlandson, Thomas Cairns, James Fleming, Thomas Goodwill, Charles Randall and Thomas Hughes. Stan Hardy was gassed and was not able to play again. Stan Allan died of influenza soon after he arrived back from the trenches.
Two Preston North End players, John Barbour and William Gerrish were killed on the Western Front during the war. Richard Bond was taken prisoner by the German Army and William Luke was so badly wounded his football career came to an end. Freddie Osborn, Preston's leading scorer in the 1913-14 and 1914-15 seasons, joined the 160th Brigade Royal Field Artillery (RFA). He served on the Western Front and in 1918 he was badly wounded by a bullet that hit him in the thigh.
Major Frank Buckley kept a record of what happened to the men under his command in the Football Battalion. He later wrote that by the mid-1930s over 500 of the battalion's original 600 men were dead, having either been killed in action or dying from wounds suffered during the fighting.