Soon after the outbreak of WW1 football matches became controversial in the U.K. Cries were heard for the season to be cancelled because the nation needed to be focused on the war effort; footballers and their fans should be at the Front winning the ‘greater game’. One could scarcely imagine better soldiers for Kitchener’s Army: physically fit, aggressive and skilled at teamwork. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was quoted as saying ‘If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle’. The King was urged to drop his patronage of The Football Association.
Clearly, a response was necessary. Two Members of Parliament, W. Joynson Hicks and Lt. Col. G. McCrae, hit upon the idea of forming ‘Football Battalions’ as part of the ‘Pal’s’ movement.
Lt. Col. McCrae sponsored the 16th (Service) Battalion, Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment), organized in Edinburgh on December 2nd, 1914. From the Heart of Midlothian club came 16 players along with around 500 of their fans, from their bitter rivals (then and now) the Hibernians came several more players and about 150 fans and seven players from the Second Division Raith Rovers also joined.
On December 12th, in the London borough of Fulham, Mr. Hicks sponsored the formation of the 17th (Service) Battalion (1st Football), Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment). For reasons including team rivalries and a preference for Guards, Regular or even London Regiment service over New Army, many footballers chose to avoid the Football Battalions, so recruitment was slow. The 17th Middlesex wasn’t full until April, 1915 and the 16th Royal Scots not until June.
The Football Battalions were a shrewd public relations ploy, satisfying the clamor for action, but when in March it was revealed that only 122 out of about 1800 professional football players had joined up, there was another big push for enlistments; a result was that 41 players and staff from the Second Division Clapton Orient signed up (which shut down the club), and with amateur players and fans added there were so many that another battalion was formed on June 29th, 1915. Designated the 23rd (Service) (2nd Football) and also sponsored by Mr. Hicks, it was fully subscribed by mid-July.
While some notable players did enlist, the overwhelming majority were amateurs and fans, many of whom thought they would serve with their heroes.
During training, players were allowed leave on Saturday to play for their clubs. The battalions fielded teams, too, and played regularly with teams from other units eager to take on professionals. In one ‘tournament’, the 17th scored 44 goals, but even one-sided victories still had a positive impact on morale.
Two English footballers received the Victoria Cross (VC) – Donald Bell, a defender with Bradford City, and Bernard Vann, who had a short career as a center-forward at Derby County.
On July 10th, 1916 at Contalmaison on the Somme, Bell took out a key machine-gun position. He died after another single-handed attack five days later; his VC was awarded posthumously. The position where he was killed was later named Bell’s Redoubt.
Vann, a schoolteacher who played three times for Derby as an amateur, received the Military Cross (MC) at Loos in 1915 and his VC in 1918 for leading his battalion across the Canal du Nord through thick fog and machine gun fire. He was killed in October, 1918.
Of the 4,500 who served in the Football Battalions, about 300 were professional players. In the Wikipedia article about the battalions there are details about 136 of these:
At least 26 footballers were killed in action (another source says 37); only 30 were still serving when the battalions were disbanded in February, 1918. Total casualties for the battalions were around 950 killed and 2,000 wounded.
Only a few footballers were officers; one did end the war as a Lt. Colonel. Some were superstars then but forgotten today. However, there is one who is still remembered, not as a footballer but because he was one of a very small number of multi-racial men who were British officers during the war, and the only one commissioned from the ranks.
Lt. Walter D. J. Tull (1888–1918) was born in England to a multi-racial carpenter of Barbadian ancestry and a British mother, but he grew up in an orphanage. He was one of the first black footballers, starring for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. In December, 1914 he joined the 17th. He rose to sergeant in July, 1915, later spent four months at home due to ‘acute mania’ then served on the Somme from September, 1916 to the end of the campaign. He was commissioned on May 30th, 1917 in the 23rd, fought through Passchendaele, served in Italy on the Piave Front and was killed at Favreuil on March 25th, 1918 during the German Spring Offensive. His body was lost; he is listed on the Arras Memorial to the Missing. Although he was recommended for a MC, the award was never confirmed.
In 2014 he was commemorated on a 5£ coin issued by the Royal Mint.