Football, War and The Military

Football was used to boost morale

I have always been fascinated by the relationship that football has with the military and the part it has and continues to play during times of conflict. This led me to be a co-founder of the Football and War Network, that is a diverse group of historians and fellow travellers from many different backgrounds and football clubs. So when Danny, offered me the opportunity to write a blog article on this theme, I jumped at the chance.

Whilst there has been a long history and tradition of sport, including football being played in the British Armed Forces, notably in the Army, it was not until the First World War, that the relationship between football, the military and war impacted upon British Society as a whole. This proved to be the case during the Second World War and in post-war Britain whilst National Service was in place until 1963. In all three cases, football was used as part of the war effort in terms of galvanizing support for the Armed Forces and more importantly keeping up the morale not only of service personal but the general public.

During the First World War, whilst professional football continued until the end of the 1914-15 season, football was brought to the fore, with commentators, politicians and notable dignitaries arguing that football should be stopped and footballers should sign up alongside all other fit young men to fight in the Great War. This led to football matches, grounds, clubs and players all being used to bolster recruitment amongst much patriotic fervor and public fanfare. This led to the creation of the famous Footballers’ Battalion, which was part of the Middlesex Regiment and whole teams such as Heart of Midlothian as well as individual footballers such as Donald Simpson Bell, who was awarded a Victoria Cross, Leigh Roose and Walter Tull signing up. Some survived, many did not.

Football was played behind the lines and very near the trenches. This was not only a great morale booster for those playing and watching, it also gave much needed relief from the mental and physical toll the frontline was taking on the troops. In 1916, there was the inter-battalion Flanders Cup to be played for, which the much-favoured Footballers Battalion, led by the enigmatic Woolwich Arsenal forward Tim Coleman triumphed by defeating the Royal Garrison Artillery 11-0 in the final!

Football was not just confined to behind the lines, both the East Surreys and the London Irish Rifles kicked footballs into No-Man’s Land whilst charging at the enemy! At the Ruhleben Prison Camp, near Berlin, British footballers’ such as the former prolific Derby County forward Steve Bloomer, unfortunate to be in Germany at the outbreak of the war, along with many British military Prisoners of War set up the Ruhleben Football Association. Whilst, back home, the professional teams played in regional competitions.

However, the most significant development and morale booster for the population was the rise of Women’s football. It had its origins in the late 19th century. The first women’s football match was played in Crouch End, London with North London beating South London 7-1. Women’s football came to prominence during the First World War, as it can be argued due to the changing nature of women’s work and the Suffragette Movement, with the Movement in essence but unplanned going hand-in-hand with the growth in Women’s football.

The First World War led to a change in the role of women in British society. Men went off to fight and women took on traditionally male roles as they worked in industrial occupations, particularly the manufacture of munitions. Not only did it change their social roles but also their recreational activities. Women’s football was key in this change and for morale during the war. There was the emergence of Munition Girls’ football teams and they became known as The Muntionettes. They were very strong in the north of England and teams had large support. Two famous teams were firstly, Blyth Spartan Munitions Ladies FC and they like most of the teams played throughout the war into 1919. However, as The Munitionettes were laid off, so their teams were disbanded.

Secondly, Dick, Kerr Ladies. The team was formed in 1917 and was a factory works team based in Preston, Lancashire. This factory which like many others during the Great War became a munitions factory. The women played for the love of the game, did not get paid and raised significant monies for charity and the war effort. The team played in front of big crowds with many matches attracting five figure attendances. For example, Dick, Kerr Ladies v St Helens Ladies, Goodison Park, Boxing Day, 1920, attracted 53,000 with thousands locked out. The first women’s international match was played in 1920 against a French XI in Paris, with Dick, Kerr Ladies running out 2-0 winners in front of a crowd of 25,000.

The players were national superstars and attended many official functions including at Parliament. Two of the team’s most famous players are Lily Parr – who was the first female player to be inducted into National Football Museum Hall of Fame in 2002 and Lizzy Ashcroft who went on to become captain.

In 1921, The FA banned women’s football as it felt it was “…unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Bizarre, firstly, as it had done so much for morale and fund raising during and after the end of the First World War. Secondly, and notably, the Suffragettes Movement reaped some reward for its campaign by partially winning women the right to vote in 1918 with the Representation of the People Act, which it can be argued was down to the role women played in the war effort in the factories and on the football pitch.

Dick Kerr Ladies, image courtesy of the National Football Museum

Football was to play an even bigger role during the Second World War. Unlike the First World War, there would be no arguments about whether competitive football would continue during the 1939-40 season, as it was curtailed with no more than a handful of games being played in England and Scotland. But football would continue with regional competitions, as well as internationals and many friendlies being played. Despite the threat from the Luftwaffe, crowds attended and football kept up the spirits of the public.

Professional footballers prior to the official proclamation of war had begun to sign up for national service organisations such as the Territorial Army and War Reserve Police to name but a couple. Then, when war was declared, they signed up for Armed Forces to fight alongside many from their communities. However, unlike the First World War, the FA which created an enlistment scheme for footballers, the Government, Armed Forces and other bodies saw the value of utilising footballers to help the war effort from a morale and propaganda perspective. So unlike the Great War, not all footballers were sent to on active service.  

For example, Stanley Matthews was enlisted into the RAF and spent the war playing for not only the Air Force and Stoke City but through the newly-established Guest-Player system, guested for many teams. As teams were at times so short of players because so many of their players had enlisted, it meant that wherever a footballer, famous and not so famous was stationed, if they could not get back to their home club, they could turn out for whatever club was nearest – Matthews for Blackpool, Arsenal, Glasgow Rangers and Airdrieonians, as well as playing for England in wartime and victory internationals against the likes of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Belgium, France and Switzerland. Additionally, he made many public appearances to boost morale amongst the populace.

Stan Cullis, the Wolverhampton Wanderers player volunteered to fight but initially failed his medical! But soon passed another medical and like many footballers he enlisted with the Army Physical Training Corp and was initially stationed at Aldershot. This was one of the quirks of the Guest-Player System for small teams like Aldershot, as the club took full advantage of being in a key garrison town and won many matches with top-class professionals. Cullis played for Wolves and obviously Aldershot, as well as Fulham and Liverpool. Like Matthews, Cullis played numerous wartime internationals for England and captained the national team. However, he and his fellow internationals were not awarded official caps for doing so. But the propaganda value and boosting civilian morale by just playing these matches more than compensated for the lack of caps.

In 1944, Cullis was promoted to Company Sergeant Major and sent to Bari following the successful Allied Invasion of Italy and soon after was “ordered” to manage an Army Touring Side. This was great for troop morale and highlights the importance of football for the British Army at that time. His Central Mediterranean Forces team, that included the likes of Matt Busby beat a Yugoslav Partisan Army team, 7-2 and Polish Corps team, 10-2. This would prove to be the catalyst for a successful post-war managerial career for Stan Cullis. The team often played just a few miles behind the front lines, so the ferocity of war was close at hand. Jimmy Murphy took over managing the team and there was forged the great partnership with Matt Busby, that in the post-war period would see them leading Manchester United to winning the FA Cup in 1948; creating the dynamic league winning teams and tragically losing the Busby Babes in the 1950s; on to raising the phoenix from the ashes to FA Cup, League and European Cup glory in the 1960s.

However, it was not all play and many professional footballers saw much active service such as Jimmy Murphy who was part of the Eighth Army and Henry ‘Harry’ Goslin, who along with many of his Bolton Wanderers teammates joined up with the 53rd Bolton Field Regiment. He fought with distinction being awarded the Military Cross but sadly, was killed in action in Italy in 1943.

Match programme from 1944, courtesy of The National Football Museum.

National Service was key after the Second World War and was in place until 1963. Again great propaganda value for the Government and the Armed Forces. It did not matter who you were, if you were eligible, you had to undertake it. Footballers were not exempt as Busby Babes and England internationals Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards could attest to. However, it did give managers and clubs headaches, as they were never sure whether players would be given permission to play in competitive fixtures for club and country. Players such as Charlton and Edwards played for the British Army and in many inter-Army matches, which meant mere mortals would at time be either playing with them or facing them! It also meant Charlton and Edwards would be playing the best part of 100 games per season at all levels while conscripted! Both were involved in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. Tragically, Duncan Edwards although surviving the crash, died of his injuries a few days later. Whilst Bobby Charlton survived, going on to win the League Championship, FA Cup and European Cup with Manchester United and the World Cup with England.

Match programme courtesy of the Charlton Athletic Museum

Above the Match Programme for the 10th February Hibernian v British Army match, which was postponed until 24th February when Hibs ran out 4-2 winners. Although featured on the cover, Bobby Carlton did not play due to the Munich Air Disaster.

Written by Alex Alexandrou

The Hex Blog

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