First World War recruitment poster for sportsmen

Discussions between the FA and the War Office led to the formation of the Footballer’s Battalion, 17th Middlesex Regiment, on 14 December 1914 at Fulham Town Hall.

It was hoped that the unit would encourage young men to enlist and prove to the country that football was a significant contributor in the war effort.

The story of the Footballers’ Battalion

Unlike cricket and rugby, football didn’t cease with immediate effect when the First World War broke out. This caused controversy but, by the spring of 1915, around 200 professional players with connections to more than 60 present-day Premier League and Football League clubs had enlisted.

Alongside them were amateur players, club staff, match officials and football fans eager to serve alongside players like Chelsea’s Vivian Woodward and Northampton’s Walter Tull. The professional game was suspended after the close of the 2014/15 season.

Some of the first players to enlist played for clubs such as Arsenal, Bradford City, Brighton & Hove Albion, Chelsea, Clapton Orient, Croyden Common, Crystal Palace, Luton Town, Southend United, Tottenham Hotspur and Watford.

Having first experienced life in the trenches in November 1915 in Loos, the Battalion continued to play as much football as possible. They responded to challenges from other units as well as competing and winning the Divisional Cup Final on 11 April 1916 at Hersin.

Despite its proud record on the Somme battlefield in 1916, the Footballers’ Battalion was disbanded in February 1918 when the remaining officers were sent to serve in other units. By the end of the war in 1918, it is believed that around 900 of the 4,500 soldiers to have enlisted or served with the Footballers’ Battalion had lost their lives during the effort.

The Footballers’ Battalion is remembered today with a memorial in the village of Longueval, just outside Delville Wood, featuring the words of Colonel Henry Fenwick:

I knew nothing of professional footballers when I took this 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 of fellowship which bound them together. Football has a wonder grip on these men and on the Army generally.

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