Long read

9 Facts About Football In The 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 programme but allowed clubs to organise regional competitions.

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.

Many professional footballers served in the forces. Those killed in action included former Tottenham Hotspur player Walter Tull and Bradford Park Avenue’s Donald Bell – the only professional footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

  • 1. Many Munitions Factories had their Own Women’s Football Teams

    'Female munitions workers were encouraged to play sport, especially football, and many factories set up their own ladies teams.
    'Female munitions workers were encouraged to play sport, especially football, and many factories set up their own ladies teams.
    HU 70114

    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 behaviour of their new female work force. Sport, especially football, was encouraged and many munitions factories developed their own ladies football teams. The most famous of these were Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC in Preston. Founded in 1917, their matches drew large crowds. They continued to enjoy success until women were banned from playing in Football League grounds in 1921. Matches were played between teams from different factories and in north-east England, a cup competition was established. This photograph shows a women's football team from the Associated Equipment Company (AEC) Munitions Factory at Beckton, London.

  • 2. Football Helped Keep Men Fit and Morale High

    Troops on the Western Front spent considerable time behind the lines. Sport was encouraged to keep up moral and fitness.
    Troops on the Western Front spent considerable time behind the lines. Sport was encouraged to keep up moral and fitness.
    Q 1109

    Troops on the Western Front would spend considerable periods of time behind the lines. To keep men fit and active and to maintain morale, 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.
    Football was widely used as a tool for recruiting men for the forces.
    Art.IWM PST 1057

    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 organised games between prisoners at Holzminden camp.
    This football was presented in November 1918 to Lieutenant Jack Shaw, who organised games between prisoners at Holzminden camp.
    EPH 816

    This football was presented in November 1918 to Lieutenant Jack Shaw, who organised 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 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 British-made toy football game pokes fun at the Kaiser.
    This British-made toy football game pokes fun at the Kaiser.
    EPH 2579

    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

    A photograph of an officers versus other ranks football match being played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train.
    A photograph of an officers versus other ranks football match being played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train.
    Q 31574

    This photograph shows an officers versus other ranks football match 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.

  • 7. ‘New’ Sports Were Played at British Football Grounds

    This poster is advertising an Anglo-American Baseball League match held at Arsenal’s football ground at Highbury, North London.
    This poster is advertising an Anglo-American Baseball League match held at Arsenal’s football ground at Highbury, North London.
    Art.IWM PST 13790

    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.

  • 8. Troops on Both Sides Played Football during the 1914 Christmas Truce

    This decorative German bierstein is associated with the Christmas Truce on the Western Front on 25-26 December 1914.
    This decorative German bierstein is associated with the Christmas Truce on the Western Front on 25-26 December 1914.
    EPH 3147

    Many contemporary letters and diaries describing the truce mention opposing troops kicking around a football. This decorative German bierstein is associated with the Christmas Truce which occurred on the Western Front on 25-26 December 1914. It was presented to Private Bill Tucker of the Army Ordnance Corps in his role as 'captain' of a winning British football team after an impromptu friendly match played against German troops.

  • 9. Service Personnel Played Football to Prevent Boredom

    This cup was awarded to a football team formed from members of the ship’s company of battleship HMS Dreadnought.
    This cup was awarded to a football team formed from members of the ship’s company of battleship HMS Dreadnought.
    EPH 1038

    This cup was awarded to a football team formed from members of the ship’s company of battleship HMS Dreadnought. Most service personnel had to endure long periods of boredom when they were not in action. Keen to prevent bored seamen becoming restless and unruly, Admiral Jellicoe encouraged the development of sports facilities at Scapa Flow naval base in the Orkney Islands. A football pitch was constructed, although there were complaints that the ground was too boggy.