Tale of footballers who truly went to war

This week, Christopher Whiteside, a promising fencer with 2012 Olympic ambitions, was killed while on active service with the British Army in Afghanistan. Here, ANTON RIPPON reviews a new book that looks at the 1914-18 War, when an entire battalion of soldiers was recruited from sport

Here’s a question: if the United Kingdom went to war again tomorrow — a really big war against another major European power — how many professional footballers would volunteer for military service to defend their homeland?

Actually, given the number of potential enemy combatants playing in the Premier League, the question needs rephrasing: how many British footballers would rush to join the colours?

With a bit of luck, we’ll never know the answer. But 95 years ago, it would have been quite a few. Although not enough to prevent some people branding professional footballers cowards, if not exactly downright traitors.

In the blistering summer of 1914, after Gavrilo Princip, a member of a nationalist organisation seeking Bosnian union with Serbia, had shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, and ignited the powder keg that was early 20th century Europe, men from all walks of life rushed to fight for King and Country against the might of imperial Germany. Inevitably, some of them were men who earned their living by kicking a ball about.

But the Football League and the FA Cup were allowed to continue for a whole season, and in some quarters everyone connected with the game was denounced as both unpatriotic and unproductive. In November 1914, The Times carried a letter from the historian AH Pollard: “ … Every club that employs a professional football player is bribing a much-needed recruit away from enlistment and every spectator who pays his gate money is contributing so much towards a German victory.”

In response to claims that footballers were not doing their bit, William Joynson-Hicks MP, a maverick figure in British politics, set about raising a battalion of soldiers from the game.

It is a story told in remarkable detail by Andrew Riddoch, a Sheffield-born barrister who works in law publishing, and John Kemp, a West Ham fan and partner in an insurance firm, in When The Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War.

The Footballers’ Battalion — officially the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment — was raised in December 1914 (“Every man can help in keeping the Teutonic team as far away as possible from our goal area. Forwards are required as well as backs,” reported the Athletic News) and the book takes us from that day, through actions at Devil’s Wood, the Redan Ridge, Guillemont, the Battle of Arras and Cambrai to the last whistle, their final parade in 1918.

Some 35 professionals enlisted at that first meeting in Fulham Town Hall, to be followed by players with connections to more than 70 present-day clubs, the battalion being brought up to strength by amateur players, officials and football fans eager to serve alongside their favourite players, such as the Spurs and England star, Vivien Woodward.

The battalion, which even had its own march, Play for Goal, arrived in France in November 1915 and was soon in the front line and suffering its first casualties. But they also found time to play football: in April 1916, the 17th Middlesex won the Divisional Cup Final, beating the 34th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 11-0 at Hersin in the Pas de Calais.

During the course of the competition, the Footballers’ Battalion had scored 44 goals without reply, not surprising considering they could call upon famous players of the day like Jack Cock and Fred Bullock, both of Huddersfield Town, and Bradford City’s England international, Frank Buckley. Of course, as a successful post-war manager, Buckley would forever retain his title of major.

Another member of the 17th Middlesex, Fred Keenor, would lift the FA Cup as skipper of Cardiff City in 1927. Walter Tull, formerly of Spurs and Northampton Town, was not only the second man of black/mixed race ethnicity to play top-flight English football, he was also the first black/mixed race officer in the British Army. Tull, who started off in the Footballers’ Battalion as a private, was serving as a second lieutenant in another Middlesex battalion when he was killed in action during the Germans’ 1918 Spring Offensive.

Drawing on many previously unpublished letters, personal accounts and photographs, Riddoch and Kemp paint a vivid portrait of a remarkable battalion that fought some of the fiercest battles of the First World War. Their efforts have added significantly to the history of both that terrible conflict and the game of football.

When The Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War by Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp, Foreword by Richard Holmes (Haynes Publishing, £19.99).

Anton Rippon is the author of Gas Masks For Goal Posts: Football In Britain During The Second World War

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