Football and the War

The World Cup is over for another four years but in the last month we have seen the power that football has to arouse strong passions in people. How much stronger such passions can be in times of war and conflict is shown by a pamphlet entitled Football and the War, which we came across when reviewing our collections for the World War I commemorations. The author of the pamphlet, Frederick N. Charrington (1850-1936), a member of the wealthy brewing family who gave up his fortune after converting to Christianity, is best known as a temperance reformer and for his philanthropic work. However, in late 1914 he was prominent in a campaign to halt professional football so that players could join the war effort.

Football and the War
First page of Charrington’s Football and the War which was published late in 1914

Charrington believed that the 7,000 professional footballers should set an example by enlisting and he wanted to see the Football Association free them from their contracts. Furthermore, he thought that the football stadiums should be turned into drill grounds and recruitment centres. He wrote letters to the press, the football association and even the King in support of his idea. For Charrington it was “a National shame and disgrace to our country if we have our best athletes charging one another on the football field instead of charging the Germans on the battlefield.” Charrington was a fiery campaigner. During his campaign against music halls in the 1870s and 1880s he had been arrested several times for harassing patrons and in 1915 he stormed into the House of Commons, took up the Mace and began to protest against the members’ bar. This passion was also evident in his crusade against professional football when he tried to make an unauthorised speech at a game at Fulham’s ground, Craven Cottage, in September1914, and had to be forcibly ejected by two members of club staff, an incident captured by the press photographers in attendance.

Your country needs you
“Your country needs you” – a contemporary press cartoon reproduced in Football and the War

The Football Association decided to continue with the 1914/15 programme and responded to their critics by pointing out that they were making their facilities available for recruiting and that they had made a financial contribution to the war effort. It is clear from Football and the War that Charrington thought that the FA’s response was inadequate. The language and tone of Football and the War are uncompromising. He accuses the players of the national teams of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland of lacking patriotism, writing that:

Men who won’t fight for their country are unfit to represent their country in any capacity. They have not a shred of patriotism in their souls. They are the mountebanks of a great game.

He thinks that after the hostilities cease, the decision to continue playing football will meet with opprobrium:

What will the Belgian and French hosts at whose banquets they will be guests think of the men and the employers of the men who on the other side of the English Channel kicked footballs about when the towns of Belgium and the fields of France were ravaged by the Huns?”

He goes even further and accuses both players and their employers of cowardice, calling them the “white feather brigade” and says that:

On their caps and on their jerseys, in addition to the national emblem the players sport, let each player have a neat white feather worked by loving hands. This will be a perpetual memorial to master and man-to the Football Association and its hirelings-of their selfish cowardice in the hour of Imperial danger.

“Patriotism” – a cartoon by Joseph Morewood Staniforth reproduced in Football and the War

The campaign against professional sport, and football in particular, was not Charrington’s alone and was taken up by the press. Indeed, he included several press photographs and cartoons in the pamphlet. Much of the criticism levelled against the FA and its players was unfair as many players, particularly the unmarried ones, had joined up and the clubs were active in recruitment. Eventually, with dwindling crowds and difficulty in paying players, the FA decided to suspend professional football for the duration of the War. The FA Cup Final of 24 April 1915, the so-called “Khaki-final” because of the numbers of spectators in uniform, was the last major professional game of the war. It was played between Sheffield Wednesday and Chelsea. When presenting the Cup to the victors, Sheffield, Lord Derby said:

You have played with one another and against one another for the Cup; play with one another for England now.

Further Reading

Frederick N. Charrington. Football and the War. London: Book Saloon, [1914]

Cyril A.E. R. Gull. The great acceptance: the life story of F.N. Charrington. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913.

Derek Birley. “Sportstmen and the deadly game” in J. A. Mangan (ed.) A Sport-loving Society: Victorian and Edwardian Middle-class England at Play. Routledge, 2005

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