Football on the battlefield- how ‘the beautiful game’ made its mark in the Great War.

Considering it’s only a game, football does seem to crop up a great deal in the war history of Great Britain. Everyone knows about the famed match between the Germans and the British soldiers during the Christmas Truce of 1914, of course, but football played a much bigger part in proceedings than that. For a start, it was used as a source of inspiration to draw many a man into the war.

Throughout the annals of British history, and that of nearly every other country, sportsmen are revered. They are considered to be the cream of the crop, a symbol of health, youth, courage, strength and good looks, and generally everything a true man should be. That being the case, the footballers were considered ideal candidates to inspire the young men of their home towns, since they were already role models. The McCrae’s Battalion Trust explains that Heart of Midlothian FC’s former director, Harry Rawson, was chairman of the Edinburgh Territorial Force Association and asked the team’s manager, John McCartney, for his cooperation in amassing would-be recruits. He duly allowed access to the grounds on match days, and, further, ran weekly drill sessions for not only his own team, but any man on rival Hibernian FC who would like to participate.

Finally on Wednesday 25th November, Sir George McCrae, a retired colonel of the 6th Royal Scots, announced that he had signed back up and volunteered to raise and command a battalion on the field. He reported proudly that 11 Hearts players had already signed up, in addition to two who had already been called and another who had volunteered. Two more joined the next day, taking the Hearts total to 16. The press went crazy, and within a week he had 1,350 volunteers, including players from 17 local teams and hundreds of fans, who had joined up to be like their idols. The men formed the 16th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Scots, otherwise known as ‘McCrae’s Battalion’; by the end of the war, 7 of the original Hearts players who had signed up would be dead, and many of the rest would never play again. As The Scotsman Newspaper reported today, the contribution of Heart of Midlothian FC has been honoured in a new BBC Online drama. Read more here, or watch it at 

Oddly enough, this was not actually the battalion known as the “Footballers’ Battalion”, despite being the first of its kind, perhaps because it also contained a variety of other professional sportsmen, notably cricketers and rugby players. Instead, that distinction went to the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. This regiment, formed by William Joynson-Hicks, 1st Viscount Brentford, was formed after the news of the Hearts players’ patriotism had broken. Their influence led the whole of the Clapton Orient team signing up, 41 men in all, as well as many other professional footballers of note. One of these was Evelyn Henry Lintott, who had played for both Brandford City and Leeds City FCs. Later, having transferred to the West Yorkshire Regiment (also known as the Leeds Pals), he would die on the first day of the Battle of Albert, July 1 1916, at the Somme. The Yorkshire Evening Post’s tribute to him on 11th of the same month suggested that Lintott for one had embodied all the bravery and spirit that footballers were famed for at his death. ‘The Leeds Pals’ by Stephen Wood quotes the paper as saying: “Lieutenant Lintott’s end was particularly gallant. He led his men with great dash, and when hit the first time he declined to take the count. Instead he drew his revolver and called for further effort. Again he was hit and struggled on, but a third shot finally bowled him over. […] Lintott (was a) gallant sportsman who knew how to die…”

It wasn’t just professional sportsmen who demonstrated bravado and courage when called upon to fight for their country. Gary Sheffield includes the 8th East Surreys’ football amongst the items he describes in ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’. He tells how Captain W.P. “Billie” Neville, the Company Commander of the regiment, bought at least two footballs while on leave in Britain, and encouraged his men to kick them out into No Man’s Land as their battalion charged on the first day of the Somme, the same day Lintott died. Written on one of the balls were the words, “The Great European Cup-Tie Final. East Surreys v. Bavarians. Kick off at Zero.” Sheffield speculates that Neville developed the idea less to make a show of bravado to the Germans, and more to comfort his men at a time when they were being asked to face death head-on. The football gave them a sense of normality, as it reminded them of happier times at home. One of the balls survived, and is now on show in the regimental museum.

Whatever negative connotations it might carry these days, it seems that the game of football was seen by both the British and the Germans in the First World War as something pure, inspirational, wholesome and friendly, especially on that evening of the Christmas Truce. It reminded them that a better world existed beyond the walls of the muddy trenches.

Who's for the Game? By Jessie Pope

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads –
But you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.


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