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The Footballers' Battalions

Footballers Battalion

The Footballers’ Battalion provided a focal point for the game’s support of the national war effort and went a long way towards restoring the credibility of the sport after it had been, most certainly unfairly, tarnished by elements within the political establishment. 

The 17th Middlesex (1st Football)

The 17th Middlesex were sent to France in November 1915 where the men's first experience of the trenches took place around Loos. In the Spring of 1916 the Battalion moved south to Vimy Ridge, where it undertook its first offensive action near Souchez. During this period, the Battalion football team unsurprisingly beat every Army team against which it played during the war. In one football tournament the Battalion team scored 44 goals without reply.

In July 1916, the 17th Middlesex entrained for the Somme, where the Battalion fought at Delville Wood and Guillemont. Many footballers were among the dead and wounded. It needed a draft of 716 men to bring the Battalion back up to strength in mid-August. In November the Battalion attacked near Serre, during the final stages of the Somme offensive; once again sustaining heavy casualties.

On 28 April 1017, the 17th Middlesex were virtually annihilated at Oppy Wood during the Arras offensive, only one officer and 41 men returning unscathed from the German lines. After a period of reconstitution, the 17th Middlesex then faced the full onslaught of the German counter-attacks at Cambrai, where they held their ground under severe pressure, one of its officers, Capt Allastair McReady-Diarmid, winning a posthumous VC.

Despite its proud record, the 17th Middlesex were disbanded in February 1918 when the number of Battalions within a brigade was reduced from four to three in the wake of manpower shortages.

'I knew nothing of professional footballers with I took over Battalion. But I have learnt to value them. I would go anywhere with such men. Their esprit de corps was amazing. This feeling was mainly due to football - the link o fellowship which bound them together. Football has a wonderful grip on these men and on the Army generally.'

Col H.T. Fenwick, Commanding Officer of the 17th Middlesex (1915-1917)

The 23rd Middlesex (2nd Football)

The 23rd Middlesex arrived on the Western Front in May 1916 and went into the line near Le Touquet. In August 1916 the Battalion moved south to the Somme, where it participated in the attack at Flers (the first occasion on which tanks appeared on the battlefield), suffering heavy casualties.

On 7 June 1917 the 23rd Middlesex were involved in the attack at Messines, a few miles south of Ypres. Four days later, when the Battalion left the front line, only eight officers and 298 other ranks had not become casualties. Over the next few months, the Battalion fought bravely in the Battles of Pilckem Ridge and the Menin Road during the Passchendaele offensive.

In November 1917 the 23rd Middlesex were sent to help shore up the Italian front, in the wake of the German Victory at Caporetto. The Battalion returned to the Western Front in March 1918, where it played its part in helping stern a series of German offensives. As the tide of the war turned in the summer if 1918, the Battalion took part in the Advance to Victory.

Football Remembers

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