First World War recruitment poster for more men

Football is long associated with the First World War. Everyone knows of the Christmas Truce but there is much more to the story.

We owe the freedom we enjoy today to our ancestors who fought and died during the First World War. Some of the more unlikely heroes of this terrible conflict were the footballers of the time, who also bravely joined up and went off to war. Every football team was affected and many joined what became known as the Footballers’ Battalion.

Despite Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August 1914, professional football carried on initially. The weekly football match was seen as an important means of boosting morale on the home front, but, when it became obvious the war was not going to be 'over by Christmas', Britain’s fit young footballers were encouraged to join up and do their bit.

Half-time recruitment speeches took place, military bands grew in attendance and the war effort became more pressing. New recruits, including players and fans, were enlisted from the ranks of Association Football.

Entire teams marched off to war together

On the front, football offered a welcome distraction to the horrors of war for troops missing home. At the Somme, soldiers followed a ball kicked from the trenches into battle and everyone knows the famous story of the Christmas truce in no-man’s land.

Football produced its share of heroes. Bradford Park Avenue player Donald Bell was awarded the Victoria Cross. The first black British outfield player in England’s top division also became the first black combat officer in the British Army - Tottenham and Northampton’s Walter Tull, who was killed in action in March 1918. Almost every team in the league today sent players to the front between 1914 and 1918 and some never returned.

The women left behind also had a massive impact on the story of football in the First World War. Women took on traditional male roles and they also took on the role of footballers.

These stories and more are part of For Club and Country.

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