WW1 Research | Would you see footballers today do such a thing?

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At the age of 17, my Great Grandfather enlisted as a volunteer in 1915 with the 23rd Middlesex Bat. for training in Surrey (see his memoirs Part 1). After just 6 weeks he volunteered with a friend to go to the western front in France early by joining the 17th Middlesex Bat. who were leaving for the front in November 1915. The 23rd followed likewise in May 1916 (list of volunteer Bats.). These volunteers were called Pals battalion’s. With a rapidly escalating conflict, the manpower requirement could be met by letting volunteers enlist with their friends and stay together throughout their service. Something that was disbanded by the time conscription started and just as well really as entire villages, towns and business populations were decimated by the massive losses from action abroad. For example the Accrington Pal’s took part in the Somme and of an estimated 700 who took part in the attack, 235 were killed and 350 wounded within the space of twenty minutes.

Football_Battalion_PosterWhilst researching the Middlesex volunteer Battalions Horace joined, I was surprised to find out that both the 17th and the 23rd were known as the ‘football’ battalion’s. It seems that there was some controversy early in the war regarding professional football. The clubs of the FA didn’t want their players to enlist and maintained the stance that the public morale would suffer should domestic football cease as a result of players fighting in France. Public opinion started to turn sour however, a soldier serving on the front wrote to a newspaper bitterly complaining that whilst he worked for 27 hours over a weekend, able bodied men were enjoying football matches as players or fans. It got to the point where there were calls for King George V to step down as patron of the FA. Sir Arthur Conen Doyle publicly objected and appealed for footballers to volunteer for service, saying “If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle”.

The concept had the desired effect. Soon famous players enlisted and fans followed suit forming first the 17th then the 23rd Middlesex. In light of what we know about some modern professional players, their lifestyle and money, could you imagine this happening today?

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A very notable recruit to Horace’s 17th Middlesex Battalion, was Walter Tull. He played for Tottenham becoming the first ever black outfield player. By the time they were in France, Tull was promoted to Sergeant by virtue of his leadership skills in the field. [He took part in The Battle of The Somme, but was invalided back to England with trench fever. While still in Britain he was proposed for officer training and was commissioned  and posted back to The Middlesex Regiment as a second Lieutenant. Despite army regulations, which required that officers be of white European stock, Walter Tull became the British Army’s first black officer. He served in Italy with The 23rd  ( 2nd Football) Battalion and was mentioned in dispatches. He returned to France in 1918 and was killed on 25 March 1918 during the German offensive  at Arras. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on The Arras Memorial.] (Further reading)

As far as I’m aware, Horace was not a professional footballer although he could’ve been a fan. That said, I think chances are he just followed his older mates who had already joined the army into just another Pal Battalion. Regardless, it’s interesting to me the ways the recruitment were ‘marketed’ to the young. Horace was just 17 pretending to be 19, how many more young boys did as he did but weren’t so lucky?