Between 1914 and 1915 Britain raised the second largest volunteer army in history. Lord Kitchener’s famous call for volunteers was quickly supported by sports bodies across the country, including the Football Association. Across the country County FA’s urged their members to volunteer in the patriotic language of the day. For Charles Lewin, Chairman of the Somerset FA, ‘Medals for successful football are good: medals for active service are infinitely more meritorious.'


County FAs’ encouraged recruiting in different ways. Some simply cancelled all their competitions for the 1914/15 season, worried that football would distract young men from joining up. Players were sent leaflets urging them to join up with their teammates. Other County FAs’ kept amateur football going, seeing it as a respite for munitions workers unable to join up. But those that kept going also encouraged those who could join up to do so.


Where football continued, the 1914/15 season was disrupted by teams dropping out and leagues collapsing due to a lack of players. The Secretary of William Hutton and Sons Athletic Club in Sheffield wrote to the local sports paper to say that the club had disbanded. It had run two teams, ‘but the lads said, “Country First! Football afterwards.” Mr H. Green, Secretary of the Lincolnshire FA, wrote that ‘from the purely football point of view the season just closed has been disastrous. From the point of view of the patriot it has been one to be proud of.’


Such was the interest in volunteering that some counties sought to keep records of how many men joined up. By May 1915 the Durham FA calculated that 74% of its registered players had volunteered, 3,605 men in total. Also joining were 1,102 club officials and 691 other members, including 81 referees.


Working out how many players had enlisted proved difficult for many County FA Secretaries. The Lancashire Secretary, Mr. H. Hargreaves, explained that a list of some 4,858 members in the forces by May 1915, ‘could not be taken as a complete record, because so many clubs had disbanded and players had enlisted of whom he could obtain no report, but the list was considered so highly satisfactory and so creditable to the game that it was ordered to be entered on the minutes to be kept in permanent form.’


In future blogs we will explore what happened to some of these young men and the impact of the war on clubs across the country.


Help remember the footballers, officials and fans who fought and died during the First World War. Donate today to help create this national woodland memorial to football.