When we think of football’s relationship to the First World War we tend to think exclusively of the ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914, those brief few hours when the guns on the Western Front fell quiet and soldiers from both sides joined each other in a game of football in ‘No Man’s Land’.
However, as poetic and remarkable that story may be, it only hints at the fascinating narrative shared by the game and that most traumatically carnal of conflicts. Football was a common interest amongst swathes of the combatants, something which brought people together during a time of unimaginable peril. This is the story of the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, a collection of men better known as ‘1st Football’ and a prime example of the wider associations the game had with the Great War.
In the early days of the war, that time between the August and December of 1914 when many believed that the conflict would be “over by Christmas”, Lord Kitchener had yet to introduced conscription, instead employing a series of incentivised schemes designed to encourage men of all social classes to join the armed forces. Perhaps the most famous of these was the “Pals Battalions” programme, a scheme which promised men who signed up together in local recruitment drives that they would fight side-by-side on the front line.
One man who subscribed to the scheme with a wholehearted enthusiasm was William Joynson-Hicks, a politician and London solicitor who had been educated and exposed to football at the famous Merchant Taylors’ School in Hertfordshire. A prominent member of the Conservative Party, Joynson-Hicks had been elected to parliament through a by-election in 1908 and gained re-election to the house in 1911. By the time war was declared Joynson-Hicks was 49 years-old, deemed too old to fight but still eager to contribute to the war effort in as constructive a manner as possible.
On 12th December 1914 Joynson-Hicks founded his very own ‘Pals Battalion’, encouraging football players and fans alike to join what was to become the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. Among the first to sign up were Frank Buckley (Derby County), Vivian Woodward (Tottenham Hotspur) and Evelyn Lintott (Leeds City), their actions prompting a more widespread response to Joynson-Hicks’ appeal. Indeed, a steady stream of Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers fans from the locality opted to join the battalion, around 120 professional players and approximately 500 supporters pledging their service by March 1915.
After several months spent training for battle at Perham Down in Wiltshire, the 1st Football travelled to France and reached the Western Front on 15th January 1916. Four members of the battalion were killed in that first grim fortnight of frontline action, Woodward meanwhile sustaining a leg injury from a hand grenade which put him out of action for fully seven months. Having departed the front in February, the battalion would return in August to take part in the notoriously bloody Battle of the Somme.
The Somme decimated the battalion, Lintott being just one of many who perished amidst the horrendous brutality of a battle which claimed 20,000 lives on its first day alone. Several weeks later, on 17th September, the 1st Football was hit by a German gas attack which killed fourteen members of the group; Derby’s Frank Buckley and Walter Tull of Preston North End (only the second black player to have ever play professional football in Britain) were also invalided with a punctured lung and a bacterial infection respectively. Tull, who went on to become the first ever black officer in the British army, was tragically killed shortly before the end of the war when attempting to break through the German lines at Favreuil in March 1918.
The battalion last saw major action in January 1917 when it was ordered to assist with capturing enemy positions at Argenvillers in the Centre region of France. However, according to Buckley who survived the war, over 500 of the battalion’s original number of 600 men were dead by the conclusion of the conflict, a shocking statistic which gives perspective to the sheer barbarity and ultimate futility of the First World War.
In February 1918, with the guns still yet to have fallen silent, what remained of the “Football Battalion” was disbanded. This group of footballers and fans of the game from around the country had fought for their country with immense bravery, but at terribly great cost.