How the Football Battalions kicked off their war

When William “Jix” Joynson-Hicks walked into the War Office in late November 1914, the last thing on his mind was football. Although there was bitter controversy as the sport continued despite the war, the controversial right-wing MP was there for a meeting on a different part of his work as a general war-effort rouser. But when the Whitehall officials suggested that Jix might like to raise a battalion of footballers, he was hooked. It was the beginning of the incredible story of the Football Battalions.

Fulham Town Hall was mobbed. It was standing room only at the historic meeting to create the 1st Football Battalion, the 17th Middlesex Regiment, aka The Die Hards. The rulers of the game were in attendance, scores of footballers from top south east clubs jostled for position, inspiring speeches were given.

“Can I live as an Englishman without doing something against these barbarians?” William “Jix” Joynson-Hicks

One of them came from Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird, the 11th Lord Kinnaird, president of the FA, creator of Barclay’s Bank and nine-times FA Cup finalist. Joynson-Hicks, who chaired the meeting, told the throng that every man had to ask himself: “Can I live as an Englishman without doing something against these barbarians?” There was loud applause for each speaker. But at the end of the meeting on December 15, 1915, only 35 players joined up.

First to the platform was Fred “Spider” Parker, captain of Clapton Orient and 10 of his players. Next was Archie Needham, who eventually persuaded 13 of Brighton and Hove Albion’s 17 professionals to join up. Then came Frank Buckley, of Bradford City, who had volunteered several days earlier and would be wounded commanding the battalion at the Somme. Four joined from Brighton and six from Croydon Common, including Percy Barnfather, the 5ft 3ins inside-forward who would become a mighty force in the trenches.

‘Men of Millwall... Let them hear the Lion’s roar’

The 17th Middlesex came hard on the heels of McCrae’s Own, the 16th Royal Scots, raised in November 1914 by Edinburgh bigwig Sir George McCrae in response to similar controversy over football north of the border. The early reluctance of players to join up had its roots in money; despite army allowances, men from the northern clubs especially would face heavy costs travelling from army training in London during the week to matches at weekends. The clubs, many of whom were struggling financially, refused to pay and so did the War Office.

But with recruiting events all over England, the trickle of recruits became a steady flow, battalion commanders were selected and by January 1915 Joynson-Hicks had raised 600 men.

Recruiting posters were targeted at specific fans. One said:

Do you want to be a Chelsea DIE­HARD?

Another:

Men of Millwall... Let the Enemy hear the Lion’s roar. Join and be in at THE FINAL and give them a KICK OFF THE EARTH.

Another said:

"Sharpen up ‘Spurs. Come FORWARD now to help reach the goal of victory. Shoot! Shoot!! Shoot!!! And stop this ‘FOUL PLAY’.

The 17th Middlesex were billeted in the gigantic Gothic Machinery Hall, built in 1908 for the Franco-­British Exhibition near the Olympic stadium in White City, West London. As might be expected for a largely empty museum, the quarters were draughty, damp and cold and the battalion soon moved. Recruits included Vivian Woodward, the Spurs and Chelsea legend who captained the GB team to Olympic golds in 1908 and 1912, Liverpool captain Jackie Sheldon, banned for life in a match fixing scandal in 1915, and Reading’s Allen Foster, the striker who scored a hat ­trick against AC Milan.

Romped to 11-­0 win in Divisional Cup final

For their army training the 17th moved to Holmbury St Mary, a pretty Surrey village where Joynson-Hicks had a large house. A wing was converted into a hospital and the pool was available for the men. It was later used for the 2nd Football Battalion, the 23rd Middlesex, which was raised by Joynson-Hicks in June 1915.

Understandably, much football was played, and at Fulham’s Craven Cottage ground in April the 17th won 2-0 in a crunch match against the Sportsman’s Battalion, the 23rd Royal Fusiliers. After a move to Mansfield the 17th finished their training on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, stationed at Perham Down where games were arranged against Cardiff City (1-0 win), Luton Town (3-2 defeat) Reading, (1-0 win and 3-2 defeat) Birmingham City (draw and 3-2 win), Southampton (4-2 defeat).

By November they were in France. Between spells at the front in relatively quiet sectors, the games went against other army units. The battalion’s first death in action came on December 11 when Pte James MacDonald from Fife was killed by machine gun fire. He was 21 and had been in the trenches for just seven hours. Over the first months of 1916 the 17th won the Divisional Football tournament, romping through the rounds with victories of 9-0, 6-0, 6-0 in the semi-final and 11-0 in the final, against 3-4 Brigade Royal Field Artillery.

In May and June they saw their first serious front-line action at Vimy Ridge where several players were killed before, on July 23, they arrived at the Somme.

Nearly annihilated at Oppy Wood

Like so many others, the Football Battalions would fight bravely and suffer terribly over the next two and a half years. On the Somme, the 17th saw action at Delville Wood and Serre and the 23rd fought at Flers, where British tanks were used for the first time.

In April 1917 the 17th were virtually annihilated at Oppy Wood during the Arras offensive. And at Cambrai in December 1917 Captain Allastair McReady-Diarmid, 29, from Southgate, North London, won a Victoria Cross as he was killed leading a series of counter attacks. The battalion was disbanded in February 1918 in a shake-up of battalions.

The 23rd were reduced to eight officers and 298 soldiers after attacks at Messines in June 1917 and after the Passchendaele offensive fought in Italy in November 1917, and against the 1918 German offensive in France.

‘More than 300’ players killed in the war

It is impossible to say how many footballers gave their lives in the war. There were around 5,000 players registered with the English FA for the controversial 1914-15 season. Of these, around 2,000 were earning a living from the game and 1,500 were at “first class” clubs.

An association official claimed to The Times in November 1914 that at least 2,000 registered players were serving in the military, although this may have had more to do with his desire to diffuse the furore of the time than reality. In April 1915, there were 128 Scottish first and second division players in military service and scores more from more minor clubs.

Ian Nannestad, editor of Soccer History magazine, has identified more than 170 players who died. Iain McMullen on his website footballandthefirstworldwar.org lists nearly 300 pros from English, Scottish and Welsh clubs who were killed.

‘Football has a wonderful grip on these men’

In the two English footballers’ battalions, the 17th and 23rd of the Middlesex Regiment, a few hundred players served, from Vimy Ridge and Delville Wood in France to Piave in Italy to Ypres in Belgium. Of the approximate 4,500 men who passed through the 17th, around 900 were lost. Just 30 footballers remained with the battalion when it was disbanded in the big army shake­up in February 1918.

One thing is clear: Footballers made good soldiers. Commander of the 17th Col Henry T Fenwick, Eton­educated heir to a Northumberland brewing fortune, Boer War veteran and sometime Liberal MP gave his verdict:

“I knew nothing of professional footballers when I took over 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 wonderful grip on these men and on the Army generally.”

Some of the footballers’ stories, such as those of Sandy Turnbull and Walter Tull, are still talked of today, especially among supporters of the clubs they played for. There are other players, all of whom fought, some of whom died, whose stories are less well known.

Here are just a few:

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from our daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to the men of the 1st and 2nd Football Battalions or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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