The Army Service Corps football team, known as the London Terriers, France, 1917
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The story of the 1914 Christmas Day truce on the western front, when German and Allied troops emerged from their trenches to fraternise and kick footballs about in no-man’s-land, before resuming shelling and shooting at each other the next morning, is one of the most widely known stories of the first world war. It turns the game of football into a symbol of unity and humanity among deadly foes, and stands in stark contrast to the brutal fighting and colossal death toll that were to follow in the next four years – about 8.5m military personnel worldwide perished between 1914 and 1918.

The potency and poignancy of the incident has long been the subject not just of historical research but of popular myth, such as Paul McCartney’s 1983 Christmas hit single and video “Pipes of Peace”, and the Oscar-nominated French film Joyeux Noël (2005). In this centenary of the war it will be commemorated by numerous football matches and the unveiling of a memorial at Britain’s National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

The appeal of the legendary truce has, however, overshadowed the full story of football played by British troops throughout the Great War. When the war began, the game was lambasted by both press and politicians as an unpatriotic distraction that aided the enemy. It was also frowned upon by military commanders when played by troops behind the lines.

A November 1914 letter to The Times stated: “We view with indignation and alarm the persistence of Association Football Clubs in doing their best for the enemy.” The newspaper followed this up with an equally damning editorial. Yet, within two years, football, followed by other sports, came to be regarded as an essential part of the war effort, a morale-boosting secret weapon in a war where the mental and physical fitness of troops was crucial in the endless stalemate of trench warfare. By September 1919, The Times published an article praising football’s contribution to the victory, saying that for the armed forces it had done “more than anything else to revive tired limbs and weary minds”.

The history of the relationship between football and the army in the run-up to and during the first world war is something I encountered when I began to research my grandfather’s time in the trenches of France, from July 1916 to September 1918. Before enlisting, at the age of 23 as a private in the 6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire regiment, Harry Morris had been a keen amateur footballer in his home town of Crewe. It is from him that I have inherited a life-long passion for our local football team, Crewe Alexandra. Intrigued by those two most traumatic years of his life, which he had rarely mentioned to the family, I turned first to the National Archives, the home of UK public records and documents in Kew, London, and the 6th Battalion’s war diary. In its pages – a daily record of the battalion’s activities written by its commanding officer – I discovered much of what my grandfather had endured during his years at the front, experiences that scarred him physically and mentally. I also learnt that he would have played and watched a great deal of football during rest and training periods away from the trenches. Applying this history to my knowledge of my grandfather, I know that football would have helped him through those years, as it did for thousands of other troops.

First world war recruitment poster

When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 1914, professional football was targeted by the government for military recruitment, for lining the terraces were thousands of young males, the country’s fighting material. Men with sandwich boards bearing recruitment posters paraded at grounds, pledge cards to join the army were distributed to supporters, and prominent public figures addressed the crowds at half-time encouraging them to join up. The footballers themselves, the fittest and most athletic of men, were also urged to enlist.

Although 478,893 men joined the army between August 4 and September 12, the politicians were disappointed with this response and they, along with public figures and the press, turned public opinion against the professional game, demanding that clubs cease playing and free their players for armed service. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: “If a footballer had strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle.” Partly as a result of this pressure, the average English Football League attendance in the 1914-15 season fell to 9,980 compared with 16,359 the previous season. The Footballers’ Battalion for professional players was formed in December 1914 as part of the Middlesex Regiment and, in April 1915, the Football League cancelled its national competitions for the duration of the war.

The troops, however, once in France and Belgium, took a markedly different view and began playing impromptu games behind the lines with balls that some had slipped into their kit bags before crossing the Channel. These informal games became increasingly popular, and soon soldiers were writing home asking for more balls and equipment to be sent out.

There was time for sport because soldiers were not continually in the trenches. For Harry and other infantrymen, a familiar pattern was roughly one week at the front alternated with a week’s rest and training, with occasional longer periods of the latter. As JG Fuller, author of Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918 (1991), estimates, about three-fifths of an average infantryman’s service on the western front was spent behind the lines.

The men filled much of this time with football and boxing but also staged games of rugby and cricket, and held horse races. At first this enthusiasm worried army commanders. General Douglas Haig, commanding officer of the 1st Army Corps and later commander-in-chief of the British army on the western front, complained to General James Jack in July 1915 that men were falling asleep on night sentry duty because “they run about and play football” during the day.

But it was not long before officers came to appreciate the game’s military benefits in “improving fitness, relieving boredom, providing distraction from the horrors of war, and building morale, officer-men relations and esprit de corps”, as Tony Mason and Eliza Riedi write in their 2010 study Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces 1880-1960. In 1914, sports such as football were not officially part of military life but with the war came change, and sports, with football pre-eminent, “became formally integrated into the military system, both as ‘recreational training’ and an officially sanctioned form of leisure for other ranks”.

Initially, games were played on rough bits of ground around billets and divisional reserves, the camps behind the lines. But as the army command began to see the physical and mental benefits of the game, they commissioned fields from reluctant French farmers. This did little for the entente cordiale. Mason and Riedi tell of one British officer reporting: “We are . . . apt to have tremendous rows with them on the question of football fields. One old fellow frankly told me . . . that he would really rather have the Germans here than us.”

Another British military team, France, 1917

Early in 1915 on the western front the informal kickabouts progressed to organised league and cup competitions, from platoon to divisional level. Predictably, the Footballers’ Battalion shone, in early 1916 cruising through the 2nd Divisional Cup to trounce the 34th Brigade RFA 11-0 in the final. In When the Whistle Blows (2011), a history of the Footballers’ Battalion by Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp, the battalion’s commanding officer Colonel Henry Fenwick is quoted as saying of his men in battle: “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.”

Playing for or supporting one’s platoon, company or battalion team helped bond the men and their officers for the real battles ahead. The matches were also a relief from periods of tedium, and a distraction from the nightmare of combat for those fighting at the front. It was something a soldier could lose himself in and forget, for a time, about the possibility of death and terrible injury in the rat- and lice-infested trenches.

General Charles Harington, a leading army commander in the war, wrote in the 1931 handbook Games and Sports in the Army: “How many times did one see a battalion which had come out of the line in the Ypres Salient and elsewhere, battered to pieces and sad at heart at having lost so many officers and men, hold up its head again and recover in a few hours by kicking a football or punching with the glove? It had a magic effect on morale.”

The general’s view is reinforced by my grandfather’s battalion war diary, with its otherwise unremitting record of combat, injury and death amid artillery, mortar and sniper fire, poison gas attacks and occasional mass charges “over the top”, often in the face of machinegun fire. The battalion usually numbered about 900 men and, from July 1916, when Harry joined, to the end of the war, it suffered 1,359 casualties, including 178 killed, 1,125 wounded and 56 missing.

It is football, together with the odd concert party, that provides a glimmer of relief amid the grimness. Take, for example, the entry for February 25 1917, when the 6th Battalion was at Pommier. Lieutenant Colonel John Douglas, commanding the battalion, wrote only a brief entry but the final two words, in classic English understatement, tell much about the effect of football on his men: “In the Divisional Reserve. Bathing and physical training. Inter-company football matches. Noisy night.”

Football was also a link with home for the soldiers and the lives they had known before the terrifying upheaval. The nicknames they gave their teams often borrowed from or echoed those of British clubs back home. The 6th Battalion team, for example, were known as the “Brewers”, probably as a reference to the Staffordshire brewery town of Burton upon Trent, and on October 5 1917 the battalion’s diary records that they played their first match – against the “Springboks” – in the 46th division’s football league, at Verquin, with the battalion losing 4-2. Later that month they played what amounted to a local derby on a foreign field, when they took on the “Potters”, the name adopted by the team of the 5th Battalion of the North Staffordshires. The “Potters” is the nickname of Stoke City, Staffordshire’s leading club, reflecting the area’s pottery industry. The Potters beat their county rivals 2-1.

The author’s grandfather Harry Morris with his wife Annie in 1950

Football was also scheduled whenever the battalion had a rare chance for some form of celebration. Christmas Day that year was a miserable one for my grandfather and his comrades, spent marching to the front to relieve the 6th South Staffordshires in the trenches at Hulluch. But they returned to the divisional reserve at Noeux-les-Mines in time for New Year’s eve and some belated seasonal festivities. There they were served a Christmas lunch, followed by six-a-side football matches between the battalion’s four companies. The fun was to be curtailed, however. The D Company team had barely had time to celebrate its victory in the tournament when German aeroplanes flew over and dropped bombs on Noeux-les-Mines, sending the troops scurrying for cover.

Among its many legacies, the Great War has had “an enduring influence” on British military sport, according to Mason and Riedi. To this day, sport remains an integral part of armed forces life, and this lead was followed by the allied French, US and British empire forces. During the interwar years British services sport expanded greatly, and in the second world war provided the same benefits of promoting fitness, boosting morale and bonding fighting men.

As for my grandfather Harry, his war ended when a shell exploded near him at Saint-Quentin, Picardy, in September 1918. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in his lower back, which resulted in him having to wear a medical corset for the rest of his life. The war left a mental mark too. In subsequent years he seemed to keep the bad memories at bay by cramming his life with work – as an accountant and a shop owner – a full social life, and by intensifying his attachment to football.

In the early 1920s, in addition to his accountancy work, he accepted a part-time post as assistant secretary at Crewe Alexandra, which chiefly involved organising the collection of gate money at home games. Harry could have resumed merely supporting his club but I think he needed to get even closer to it. Football had been a joy in his youth, and a consolation during the trauma of war. Now it was another, happy distraction from his demons, and he clung to it, remaining as assistant secretary for nearly 20 years, and a Crewe fan until his death in 1972.

Charles Morris is an FT journalist and is writing a book about his family and football

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