90 years on: Sport's fallen heroes of World War I

As the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War approaches, Nick Harris describes how sport made a remarkable contribution to the British effort

Wednesday 05 November 2008 01:00

"How very different is your action to that of the men who can still go on with their cricket and football, as if the very existence of the country were not at stake! This is not the time to play games, wholesome as they are in times of piping peace. We are engaged in a life and death struggle."

When Field Marshal Lord Roberts spoke these words on 29 August 1914, his message could not have been clearer: it was time for Britain's sportsmen to stand up and be counted. Britain had declared war on Germany earlier that month and Lord Kitchener's recruitment drive – "Your Country Needs YOU!" – was on its way to enrolling 500,000 men in its first four weeks.

Lord Roberts was speaking at the formation of a new 1,600-strong battalion of Royal Fusiliers by businessman from the City of London. This so-called "Stockbrokers' Battalion" was the first of the "Pals' Battalions" promoted by General Sir Henry Rawlinson as a way to encourage groups of friends and work-mates to serve together.

The campaign to enlist sportsmen – notably the footballers and cricketers who appeared to be the most reluctant to enroll – intensified in early September with the public intervention of a leading writer and commentator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Sherlock Holmes author, an amateur footballer and MCC cricketer in his younger days, declared: "If the cricketer had a straight eye let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle."

Posters used in the British recruitment campaign informed would-be soldiers that a German newspaper, Frankfurter Zeitung, was telling its readers: "Young Britons prefer to exercise their long limbs on the football ground, rather than expose them to any sort of risk in the service of their country."

By the end of September, more than 50 towns and cities had established one or more Pals' Battalions, among them sportsmen's battalions, and three of those comprised mostly football players, club officials and supporters.

Heart of Midlothian and Leyton Orient signed up en masse, respectively to the 16th Royal Scots (known as McCrae's Battalion) and the 17th Middlesex Regiment (the Footballers' Battalion). The 15th West Yorkshire Regiment (known as "The Leeds Pals") included Yorkshire cricketers, athletes and footballers.

It is impossible to quantify the precise number of British sportsmen who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war. Of almost nine million British Empire soldiers mobilized, around one in eight – or 1.1m individuals – were killed in battle or went missing, presumed dead. Another two million were wounded. On the front line, one in five perished.

Of 5,000 professional footballers at the time, more than 2,000 signed up. Using average mortality statistics, several hundred probably fell in the fields of Europe, with more dying later from their injuries.

Tottenham Hotspur staff enrolled and fought together from 1915, and the deaths of 11 of them were recorded in the club's handbook after the war. Newcastle United lost seven men, the same number as Hearts, three of whose players – Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis – died on 1 July 1916 alone, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. A team-mate, Paddy Crossan, was so badly injured that his right leg was tagged for amputation. He begged the surgeon: "I need my legs, I'm a footballer." The leg was saved but Crossan, 22, died later of damage to his lungs from poison gas.

West Ham lost five players, and Orient three, all in the Somme, with others injured so badly their careers were over. At Bradford and Celtic, Preston and Hibernian, Bristol City, Arsenal, Manchester United and all points in between, star players were lost.

Cricket suffered a disproportionate number of deaths (almost one in six who went to war). At least 34 first-class players were killed among 210 county players who served. Kent and England's Colin Blythe, a left-arm spinner regarded as one of the best of his era, took 100 wickets in 19 Tests. He was killed by random shell-fire on a railway line during the Battle of Passchendaele on 8 November 1917.

Rugby union prided itself as a sport that played its part. By the end of November 1914, every England international from the past year had signed up, while a 1915 war recruitment poster declared: "Rugby union footballers are doing their duty. Over 90 per cent have enlisted. British athletes! Will you follow this glorious example?"

There was an inevitable price to be paid. The England captain, Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, was killed by a sniper's bullet in 1915 and was among 27 England internationals who died. Thirty Scottish international players lost their lives, and 11 Wales players.

Just as no sector of society was left unscathed, so no sport was left unmarked by the carnage that claimed so many young and vibrant lives from so many nations in a war that ceased with an armistice 90 autumns ago.

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