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The Formation of the Footballers' Battalion

Footballers Battalion

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, a heated debate took place in the letter pages of national and local newspapers about the continuance of professional football during a time of national crisis. 

Several prominent personalities of the day, such as W.G Grace and FM Roberts saw fit to pass comment. The issue was also raised in the House of Commons. Such was the strength of feeling that it was even suggested to King George V that he should withdraw his patronage of the Football Association. Professional players in particular were vilified by large sections of the press as unpatriotic shirkers who put their own interests before those of their country.

The row grew increasingly vitriolic and in late November 1914 the FA and FM Kitchener realised that something  had to be done. The following month the Rt. Hon Joyson Hicks raised the Footballers' Battalion (17th Middlesex) at a meeting in Fulham Town Hall with some 35 professional footballers enlisting straight away. As an incentive, new recruits were promised that they would be released from the army to play every Saturday for their respective clubs. 

Over the next few months, another 300 or so professional players enlisted from around fifty football clubs, including West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Leyton Orient, Plymouth Argyle and Reading. The Ranks of the 17th Middlesex were further swelled  by numerous amateur players, officials and football fans eager to serve alongside their favourite players. 

Special recruiting posters were displayed at grounds of London clubs, specifically aimed at the home supporters. A Millwall supporter would thus find himself being exhorted to 'Let the enemy hear the Lion's Roar.' 

In May 1915 a second Footballers' Battalion (23rd Middlesex) was set up. Both Battalions would be involved in fierce fighting over the coming years. By the time the war ended in November 1918, over one and a half thousand men, who had served with the Footballers' Battalions at some stage of the Great War, had lost their lives.

The following men enlisted in the Footballers' Battalion at the meeting in Fulham Town Hall:

  • Arsenal - Thomas Ratcliff (assistant trainer)
  • Bradford City - Frank Buckley
  • Brighton & Hove Albion - Archie Needham, Ralph Routledge, Frank Spencer, John Woodhouse
  • Chelsea - William Krug, David Gidwood, Edward Foord
  • Clapton Orient - Fred Parker, Jimmy Hugall, Nolan Evans, Harold Gibson, Bob Dalrymple, William Jonas, Edward King, Arthur Tilley, Richard McFadden, Thomas Pearson
  • Croydon Common - Ernie Williamson, Thomas Newton, Dick Upex, Cyril Smith, Albert Tomkins, Percy Barnfather
  • Crystal Palace - James Bowler, William Middleton
  • Luton Town - Hugh Roberts, Frank Lindley
  • Southend United - Frederick Robson
  • Tottenham Hotspur - George Bowler, William Oliver
  • Watford - Reg Williams, Alexander Stewart, Joe McLauchlan

The men were called into action at the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, which became one of the bloodiest battles ever fought with more than a million casualties. The Footballers’ Battalion suffered heavy losses with many also wounded. Amongst those killed in action were Walter Tull (Tottenham and Northampton), Evelyn Lintott (Queen’s Park Rangers, Bradford City and Leeds City) and Richard McFadden (Clapton Orient) who had been awarded the Military Medal, while high profile individuals who were wounded included Frank Buckley and Vivian Woodward, the England international player.

Many more of their number were seriously injured suffering shrapnel wounds or from gas attacks which left them unable to continue their careers when peace returned. In all around 300 professionals served in the Footballers’ Battalion from the 4,500 men who made up its ranks. Of these around one in five never returned and a further 2,000 were wounded.

There were also, of course, many other professional footballers who lost their lives during the First World War after enlisting with their local regiment and indeed the roll of honour of war dead included every senior club.

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