Not Their Finest Hour..? History Tells a Different Story
Football & The Great War

by Richard Bowdery

At the outbreak of World War I sports competitions such as Cricket and Rugby Union were suspended. Yet on the 1st September 1914 the Football League decided to play on with the 1914-15 season.

This caused considerable controversy amongst the public which stemmed from concerns that some men preferred to watch football rather than join up.

Frederick Charrington, from the famous brewery family, called West Ham United players ‘effeminate and cowardly’ because they continued playing football and getting paid for it whilst men were laying down their lives on the Western Front.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, in his sermon on ‘duty’, said ‘the outcry against football at the present time was right’.

Even Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, entered the fray by calling upon footballers to join the fighting.

Bradford City in 1914. Skipper Robert Torrance, Man of the Match in Bradford’s 1911 FA Cup Final victory over Newcastle, lost his life in one of the wars last battles in Ypres, Belgium in 1918

But there were those who took an opposing view.

The Athletic News is quoted as saying that this attempt to stop football was ‘an attempt by the ruling classes to stop the recreation on one day in the week of the masses’. It continued: ‘What do they care for the poor man’s sport?’

Yet the situation was not quite as cut and dried for as, perhaps, most imagined.

Because many of the players were on renewable annual contracts, they could join up only if their club agreed to cancel their contracts. This was something clubs were not prepared to do – probably for financial reasons.

What helped turn the tide was a decision taken by players representing Heart of Midlothian, then a top Scottish side, who in November 1914 enlisted, en-masse, in the British Army.

Another contributory factor concerned attendances which fell significantly in the season’s second-half.

Eventually, a decision was made to discontinue the Football League for the remainder of the war, effectively making professional footballers, redundant.

The 1914-15 was the first and last league season of the war.

Some First World War football facts;

Walter Tull

Despite the criticism they had received, at least five former West Ham United players were killed in action during the war.


Former Spurs and Northampton Town’s Walter Tull had two major firsts to his name. Tull was the first black outfield player in the English game, and the first combat officer in the British Army.

He was killed by machine-gun fire on 25 March, 1918. Despite the efforts of those under his command his body was never recovered.

Perhaps the most well-known footballer of his day to be killed in the war was Edwin Latheron, who played for Blackburn Rovers and England.

He won two league titles with Rovers – in 1911-12 and 1913-14 – and scored 94 goals in 258 games during his eight years with the club.

Latheron died during the Passchendaele offensive on 14th October 1917. He is buried at the Vlamertinge New Military Cemetery.


Nearly a million women worked in munitions factories during the war. Sport of all types was encouraged and many of these factories developed their own women’s football teams.

Perhaps the most well-known was Ladies FC in Preston. They competed against women’s teams from other factories in the north of England, drawing large crowds.

Founded in 1917, they continued until women were banned from playing in Football League grounds in 1921.


When US soldiers arrived in Britain they brought Baseball to the attention of the British public. Matches were held wherever American soldiers were stationed and an Anglo-American Baseball League was set up. Highbury, Arsenal’s former stadium, hosted one such league match in 1918.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *