9 Facts about Football in the First World War

First World War When war was declared on 4 August 1914, it was expected that the Football Association (FA) would follow the example soon set by cricket and cancel all matches. But, despite opposition, matches were played in the Football League throughout the 1914-1915 season and the FA Cup held as normal. For the remainder of the war, the Football League suspended its program but allowed clubs to organize regional competitions.

Football

Much of the opposition to the continuance of professional football stemmed from the concern that many men preferred to play and watch football rather than join up. However, football was also seen as a useful recruiting tool.

Football was also a popular form of recreation for troops on both sides and could boost morale. On 1 July 1916, men of the East Surrey Regiment, encouraged by Captain ‘Billie’ Nevill even went over the top kicking footballs. This was probably intended as a distraction for nervous young soldiers but was widely reported as a demonstration of British pluck.

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1. MANY MUNITIONS FACTORIES HAD THEIR OWN WOMEN’S FOOTBALL TEAMS

During the First World War, more than 900,000 women worked in munitions factories. Most factories employed a welfare officer to monitor the health, wellbeing, and behavior of their new female workforce. Sport, especially football, was encouraged and many munitions factories developed their own ladies football teams.

2. FOOTBALL HELPED KEEP MEN FIT AND MORALE HIGH

Troops on the Western Front would spend considerable periods of time behind the lines. To keep men fit and active and to maintain morale, the sport was encouraged and in many cases officially sanctioned. This photograph, taken September 1916, shows a football match in progress involving the 1st Battalion, the Wiltshire Regiment at Bouzincourt on the Somme.

3. FOOTBALL WAS USED AS A RECRUITING TOOL

Football was widely used as a tool for recruiting men for the forces. The text on this poster is a direct appeal from the Secretary of the Football Association for ‘GOOD SPORTSMEN’ to ‘ENLIST NOW and help the other GOOD SPORTSMEN who are so bravely Fighting Britain’s Battle against the world’s enemy.’ Posters were also produced which appealed directly to supporters of specific clubs.

4. PRISONERS OF WAR PLAYED FOOTBALL IN CAMPS

This football was presented in November 1918 to Lieutenant Jack Shaw, who organized games between prisoners at Holzminden camp. It is signed by his fellow officer POWs. Football helped officers and orderlies to keep fit, although the Camp Commandant often stopped or prevented these games from taking place. Only nine-a-side matches could be played in the camp due to lack of space. Many of the footballs were sent to POWs via Holland.

5. GAMES WERE USED FOR PROPAGANDA

This is a British-made toy football game dating from the First World War. Like many propagandist games of this period, it pokes fun at the Kaiser. The aim of the game is to get the ball bearing ‘footballs’ from kick-off, through the maze of trenches and into the Kaiser’s mouth.

6. FOOTBALL WAS PLAYED IN ALL THEATRES OF THE WAR

This photograph shows officers versus other ranks football matches being played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train near the city of Salonika on Christmas Day 1915. Sports such as football were seen as a good way for officers to develop leadership skills and to forge links with their men.

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7. ‘NEW’ SPORTS WERE PLAYED AT BRITISH FOOTBALL GROUNDS

The arrival in Britain of American and Dominion troops brought new sports such as Baseball and Australian Rules Football to the attention of the British public. This poster is advertising a match in the Anglo-American Baseball League to be held at Arsenal’s football ground at Highbury in North London.