He ran the ball along the field and then of course he came down to the goal, I was keeping, and of course he shot not only the ball but he shot me right back into the net! I went as well – as well as the ball…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

Sports and games were important to those who served during the First World War. Both when officially organised and on a more ad hoc basis, sport kept them fit and provided a welcome distraction from what was going on around them. Cooped up on board HMS Marlborough at Scapa Flow in 1914, captain’s steward George Fox found that such leisure activities were essential.

I think they got more sport, you know, into ship’s sport out of it by having more what we would say more hostility people on board. They brought a certain amount of sport into being because sport was very much encouraged to keep the ship’s company happy and in fit condition. We used to play cards, used to get on deck and do bayonet fighting and boxing – not that I was any boxer – but I thought it was good for the physique, you know, and keeping you fit and besides, it passed the time. We used to do that in the dog watches, between half past four and about half past seven, I suppose.

One of the most popular sports was football, as it was easy to set up and the rules were straightforward. Marmaduke Walkinton, an officer in the Machine Gun Corps, outlined its enduring appeal.

One had no room for recreation until we were relieved and went behind line. And then the inevitable football was produced and we had fierce battles between companies and this, that and the other. Soccer football was so useful in that way because you don’t, unlike cricket, you don’t need a carefully prepared pitch. And rugger, you see, you’re always being flung down onto the ground, well soccer it isn’t quite as bad as that. All you really need and all we ever used to have – we never had proper goal posts, but it was good enough to put a couple of tunics on the ground and to score a goal you had to go between these two tunics. As far as getting under the crossbar, well we had to guess at that.

Football’s simplicity meant that it could be played by men serving on all the fighting fronts during the war. British private Walter Spencer outlined how it was arranged along his part of the Western Front.

It was organised – the officers used to usually do that kind of thing, and it was organised in divisions, every battalion would have a team.  Well there’s 12 battalions, as you know, in a division; 4 battalions to a brigade and 3 brigades to a division. So it’s 12 battalions, each had a football team. Well they’d draw for who played who, you see: 2nd Grenadiers would play the 1st Scots; and the 1st Irish would play the 2nd Welsh. Then they’d find a convenient field if possible round where they were billeted, and they’d play a football match. And then there was an award at the end of the, say, the winter term or there was a cup presented by one of officers and that was awarded to the winning team. I was in the battalion team; I was outside right for the battalion. But you see there again was your trouble, because probably your goalkeeper had got wounded or killed last time up the line: you had to constantly be replacing men.

In Egypt, Lancashire Fusiliers officer George Horridge organised footballing activities for his company.

But I think I was the leader in that, in the sense that, I got a company football team together. I got special shirts made, a quarter blue and red, and we played several Egyptian teams both in Cairo and Alexandria. There was no attempt from a battalion point of view to arrange anything; I did it purely on my own from a company point of view. And then another company started after me and they got a football team. And as far as I know that’s about the only sporting thing that we did.

And in Salonika, NCO Frederick Orton found that football helped keep the men’s spirits up.

Football was a very big thing with a lot of them, and even among those hills we managed to find a flat enough space for a football park, and off duty they had some really good games. One or two of the men had actually been in first-class football and there was one in particular, a wicked kicker; he’d jump in the air and kick the ball in the air, it’s forbidden now. But as there wasn’t a great deal of – or any action actually at the period of stand to at dawn every morning, there was only practice shots – but there was a lot of free time and the colonel encouraged anything that would keep the people’s morale up.

In Gallipoli, although the football pitch was a bit rudimentary, British private Thomas Baker enjoyed the game.

There was a piece of land where the teams used to play football and there was not one shell hole on that piece of ground, not one. It was hard and sandy somewhat and you could play good football on there. They’d got goalposts made up – they made them out of bits of trees, you know. They looked a bit raw, but they was standard sized – no nets, just the posts. They marked out along the side, you know, by marking in the sand for the lines, no whitewash or anything like that. We stripped right down, because we hadn’t got much in the way of clothes so we didn’t have to wear very much. One side wore shirts and the other side didn’t wear any, so that it was no trouble for the referee to sort them out. I must say that the football was quite good – we’d got two professionals in our team.

Serving with the Hampshire Regiment in India, Charles Shobbrock discovered that problems with local tribes came to light during one particular football match.

I was watching a football match there one day. And the sergeants’ quarters would be a room at the end of the bungalow and the corporals’ a similar one at the other end of the bungalow. Well this particular afternoon – well it was evening really, very early evening – there was a football match going on and this particular sergeant came out of his room and went over and watched the football. When got back his big trunk had gone. Nobody saw it go!

Football wasn’t the only sport that troops played. Whilst serving behind the lines on the Western Front, NCO George Harbottle took part in a cricket match – albeit a brief one.

Havrincourt Woods was a reserve position and actually we had a cricket match there. We’d only just arrived down there and there was a very nice stretch of grass, the only trouble was there was saplings all about the blooming place like fielders. There were a number of us who were keen cricketers and they brought the stuff out. I remember, I went into bat first, and my first off drive hit a sapling, so I didn’t get any runs off that. I think I got a four off the next one which had gone between the trees. And then a thunderstorm descended upon us and we packed in and got underneath a GS wagon for safety. That night, we were told to put all that stuff away: we were off at dawn up the line.

And gunner Harold Pendleton remembered taking part in March 1918 in one of a series of rugby matches.

When we were down the line with Number 8 Company, we had a pretty good rugby team. As a matter of fact we had in our company, we had two Welsh internationals: Fred Birt and Reg Plummer. We played a number of teams down the line. However there was a team, the 6 Battalion of the South Wales Borderers, they’d never been beaten and they fixed up a match. The ground – it was close by where our hut was – there were glass; stones; holes; everything that a rugby ground should not have actually was there. We managed to make some goal posts, measure up the length of the field. And on the Sunday prior to the German Offensive of the 21st March, we played the South Wales Borderers on that very ground. They beat us, anyway, and I believe we never played another match again. And I don’t think they did. I don’t know whether their team survived the German Offensive but at least as far as we were concerned they went through unbeaten, because they never had any other team playing them. But anyway, they beat us so our record had gone. We hadn’t been beaten by anyone down the line.

British soldiers bathing near Aveluy Wood, August 1916.
British soldiers bathing near Aveluy Wood, August 1916. © IWM (Q 913)

Swimming was also popular – particularly with men serving in hot and dusty countries. But William Davies got into some difficulty when he went for a dip off Gallipoli in mid-1915.

We were allowed to bathe from there, and I went swimming and I was a good swimmer. I swam for a bit and then I found that instead of just swimming normally I was being towed away – there must have been a current that carried me towards Cape Helles again. I had a job to swim and finally I landed below the divisional headquarters about a mile away. I had no clothes on at all of course, absolutely cleaned up you know. And when I was passing divisional headquarters somebody came along and wanted to know all about me. Where had I come from, who I was, was I a good swimmer? I said, ‘Pretty good or I wouldn’t have landed.’ They let me go then and then I had that mile or so to walk up to where I’d left my clothes.

Like football, boxing was fairly easy to organise for men on the fighting fronts. Frederick Holmes took part in a bout while serving with the Middlesex Regiment in France.

There was a Northampton regiment billeted higher up the village. One morning with two pals, had a walk up the village and there was – in a farmyard – there was a square, a ring and a boxing tournament in progress. So, of course, we naturally we walked over to watch it. Well, there was a fight going on between two men. There’d been two or three contests, but there was one fellow left who hadn’t an opponent. So the officer called out, ‘We haven’t got an opponent for him, is there anybody who’d like to take him on?’ I was keen, you know, conceited; I said, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’ So I took him on. Well boxing in army boots on the rough ground is a bit different from being in the ring with boxing shoes and whatnot. But anyway I found him easy meat, I won quite easily.

In some cases, it was even possible to play polo. British private Robert Bird remembered looking after the horses used by officers in matches.

Officers, in the summer when it was warm, the officers used to play polo. We was out of the line then and they used to use our horses for polo ponies. The chukkas only lasted a short time and then they’d bring them in and we’d get another horse ready. ‘Course the other one would be sopping wet; had to dry him down a bit, give them a rest.

While serving as a driver with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps on the Western Front, Dolly Shepherd sometimes went horse-riding.

When we went up to the horse depot they used to let us ride. I used to keep, you know, one of the men’s kits there and I used to get into one of those and go riding. And one day my friend and I, they gave us a couple of horses – oh dear! And we were galloping along and I noticed they giggled. And of course her horse pulled up quick like this, and over she went into a hidden road down below. And she had concussion, she was six weeks unconscious. Then she was taken to Acton, somewhere in Acton, one of the hospitals. And directly she got there she regained consciousness.

Occasionally, sports events were organised for an entire division, involving hundreds of men. Frank Raine, of the Durham Light Infantry, competed in a cross country race in spring 1918.

I’d just ran second in the division’s cross country run of eight miles, and if I’d known what I know now I would’ve won. Because I didn’t bother at the beginning, I didn’t think I’d much chance. I went on running and running and running, and I was passing these people as they’d fallen out until I only saw this one fellow in front of me and he was the first. Oh I was in tip-top train. I was as fit as a fiddle; I could outrun the German Army. It helped because I could, although of course you can’t outrun a bullet. I mean, if there’d been a bullet fired at me accurately however fast you run it would’ve still caught you.

Fencing was another activity that kept troops fit. Edmund Williams remembered a very basic form of the sport while he was training with the King’s Liverpool Regiment in Britain in 1915.

We had bayonet fighting with the, you know, equipment et cetera: with a tubed spring for imitation rifle and bayonet. You had a face visor, just like fencing, you had a jacket – a padded jacket – and I think you had gloves. Because, you see, the troops had to be not be injured, they had to be kept fighting fit. This was man to man with a shortened bayonet; what shall we say, something about the length of a perhaps a couple of feet longer than a walking stick with a heavy drainpipe bent as a holder. And then the front with a spring so that when you pushed it the thing would go back and a little rubber button on the end or something like that. In France where there were none of this fencing gadgetry, they had bayonet fighting but with scabbards on, only token – going through the motions.

As well as playing a role for troops stationed abroad, sport was also an important part of daily life for those based in the UK. It served both to keep up men’s fitness and fill the long days at their training camps or barracks. Percy Webb’s physical training at Bovington Camp in Dorset was led by champion boxer Bombardier Billy Wells.

Well he was a gymnastic instructor; he used to take us on physical training. And in the early morning parades, like some mornings they used to get up quite early somewhere in the region… well I have known them get up at five o’clock in the morning, reveille. And they’d do a session right round the area of the camp, four or five miles doubling, running along you know. We weren’t in formal dress then we had just jerseys. You went round the area… of course we thought it was very funny at the time. In fact, I did, I thought to myself, ‘That was rather funny.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the idea is,’ he said, ‘when you men get out of bed,’ he said, ‘it pumps all the bad air out of you,’ he said, ‘ready to do your exercises.’ He said, ‘Physical training is one of the things where it keeps you fit.’ Which I quite agree.

Despite the morale-boosting effect sport could have on battle-weary troops, Clifford Lane was bemused to find that he and his comrades were banned from playing football whilst at Givenchy in 1915.

We used to play football there. I remember we started playing football there; there was a bit of open ground there. And we were playing there and these bullets were coming across, you see, they were only spent bullets but of course they could I mean, they… well I suppose they could if they’d hit you in the right place… Anyway, we were forbidden to do that. And we were forbidden to play football for another reason, that was because people get injured playing football. Well we mustn’t get injured because we were wanted for attacks on the German trenches and that sort of thing. That was a really a sort of a satire, really, wasn’t it? I mean, you mustn’t get injured playing football?! Oh it was funny really.

Officers versus other ranks football match played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train, ASC near their camp, just outside the city of Salonika, Christmas Day 1915.
Officers versus other ranks football match played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train, ASC near their camp, just outside the city of Salonika, Christmas Day 1915. © IWM (Q 31574)

Sporting injuries did, of course, occur. While serving with the Royal Field Artillery on the Western Front, William Towers may have regretted taking part in one particular football match.

There was a chap there from Royal Horse Artillery and we were talking about I said, ‘Did you remember Q battery?’ ‘Oh yes, in India.’ I said, ‘Well they’ve come to France, near us.’ And I was picked for a football team to play them. Well we were only small fellows all and they were all six-footers. God, when we went on field and saw all these big ones… anyway we were playing and somebody sent ball up to me and I’m just going to head it forward and this fellow come to kick it, missed ball and caught me there. Couldn’t close me eyes for two days. God I’ll never forget that!

When soldiers of all ranks played games or matches together, the strictures of military discipline were temporarily relaxed. However, this had its drawbacks for NCO Frederick Goodman of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

I had a chap in my unit, a very fine chap indeed. But he was always giving everybody who – any NCO in that section – an awful lot of trouble. When I happened to be the duty NCO on, you know, I put him on fatigue. When we came to the football match, I was tall, you see, and therefore was put in goal for the NCOs. Alright, I didn’t mind, it was quite a bit of fun we all did this thing. Well then of course the men were playing the NCOs. Good enough. I was goal keeper. Now he made sure that he was going to take it out on me in some way or other. So I might tell you this story against myself. He decided he’d run the ball down the field himself, I think it must have been prearranged so that he could do it – they didn’t attempt to get it from him. He ran the ball along the field and then of course he came down to the goal, I was keeping and of course he shot not only the ball but he shot me right back into the net! I went as well – as well as the ball. But there you are, it was all done in good fun. I mean I can understand him doing it; if I’d have been in his place I’d have done the same!

Although sport often provided relief from the strains of front-line service, the men were still reminded that the war was never very far away. At Romigny in May 1917, French NCO Pierre Gautier played football with members of the French Army who later mutinied.

We had in the neighbouring village two other units who came and who, the first day, some of them came to me and asked me whether I couldn’t put up a team for a football match. So we got in touch with them, we were very friendly, we made in the morning a football match then they went back to their quarters and we to ours. But in the evening, we learned that the disciplinary sections of both these units had been released. And that they were raising havoc in the village in such a way that even the civilian population who had stayed there were fleeing.

And for Cyril Dennys of the Royal Garrison Artillery, the tragic consequences of war soon overtook what started out as a harmless cricket match between Australian and British soldiers.

The Australians suggested that, as we were having a few days without any particular battle going on, it was surely the moment to have a test match. They found a bit of unshelled ground within reach of their positions and ours. And we, or they, or both, got some equipment – bats and balls and bales and stumps – and we played cricket with them. What the Germans could have thought was going on, I can’t imagine. But it must’ve been reported by some German. Unfortunately, next morning when the Australians were assembling on the cricket pitch and we were on the way to it, they were heavily shelled. Some were killed and some were wounded.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

Related Content

The interior of a cabin below deck with several wounded sailors, most swathed in bandages, laid out parallel to one another across the floor. They are tended to by three orderlies and one naval doctor who is standing on the right and has a stethoscope round his neck. Two of the orderlies are lowering a wounded man on a stretcher to the floor in the background.
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Jutland

Episode 22: The Battle of Jutland, on 31 May 1916, was the only major confrontation between British and German naval forces during the First World War. 

An Australian soldier writes a letter home from his billet on the Somme front, 1916.
© IWM (E(AUS) 30)
First World War

Voices of the First World War: News From The Front

Episode 21: In an age long before mobile phones and the internet, those who served in the First World War relied upon letters to keep them in touch with their loved ones at home. 

The congested interior of a dugout 15 feet below ground. Steel girders support the ceiling with heavy uprights. Men are crowded in two layers.
© IWM (E(AUS) 1129)
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Trench Life

Episode 20: For most people, the phrase ‘First World War’ conjures up images of deep, waterlogged trenches and mud-spattered soldiers. But what was trench life really like? In this episode, those who survived it describe their experiences.