Football, the British Army and the First World War

07/08/2020  -  4.31

Gary Sheffield

At a tense moment during the Second Battle of Ypres, on 25 April 1915, a British infantry officer was approached by a soldier. The private was not bringing an order to withdraw, or news that reinforcements were arriving, or that there was some crisis in the trench. He was, the officer noted with some amusement, keen to tell him the result of the FA Cup Final, played the previous day.

This anecdote, taken from the officer’s diary, tells us much about the status of football in the in Britain, and in the British army in the era of the First World War. The match, which became known as the ‘Khaki Cup Final’ because of the numbers of soldiers in the crowd, was played at Old Trafford between Chelsea and Sheffield United. The backdrop was a public debate whether professional sport should continue in wartime, the argument being that it distracted men from the total war against Germany. Indeed, Lord Derby made these very points in a speech as he presented the Cup. Professional football was suspended ‘for the duration’ shortly afterwards, and the 1915 Cup Final remains the only one played during either world war. As for the result, just as in the Cup Final 105 years later, Chelsea lost to a team in red and white; 3-0 on this occasion.

The size of the crowd at Old Trafford, and the establishment concerns about football underlines the status of Association Football, ‘soccer’ or plain football, as the primary game of the working-class males in England and Scotland. The army was not unaware of this, and used football as both an aid to training and a way of fostering unit cohesion and keeping up morale. The fact that a private hastened to give an officer the news of the result suggests that, in a highly stratified army, a mutual interest in football could bridge the divide of rank and class.

In a speech in 1919, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the victorious commander of the British Expeditionary Force said that team games required:

‘…decision and character on the part of the leaders, discipline and unselfishness among the led, and initiative and self-sacrifice on the part of all… [the] inspiration… [of games] has brought us through this war, as it has carried us through the battles of the past’.

Haig’s views were doubtless informed by his own experience as the successful captain of the regimental team in another ball game, polo. They reflected the late nineteenth century view in public – i.e. private, fee paying – schools that sport was valuable training for war; the British officer corps was heavily influenced by public school ethos. Team games channeled aggression into cooperation, produced self- and corporate discipline, and team cohesion. By teaching schoolboys or soldiers to take rapid decisions on the pitch, team games prepared them to take decisions on the battlefield, to disregard their personal safety and to calculate risk.

Football was not the only team sport favoured by the Army, but it was the one that connected most directly with ordinary soldier, who were overwhelmingly of working class origin. Football is an example of how the public school ethos had influenced the working classes, albeit in a diluted form. Ex-public schoolboys had codified the previous rough and tumble and in 1863 produced the set of rules that, with modifications, continues to regulate football to the present day.

The growth of the popularity of football was aided by the reduction in the working week, so many employees were able to attend matches held on Saturday afternoons. Football developed within the Army, driven by enthusiasts such Captain Charles ‘Tim’ Harington of the King’s Regiment – much later General Plumer’s Chief-of-Staff at Second Army on the Western Front. The Army Cup was instituted in 1888. The growth of sport in the Army was in part related to move to improve conditions for ordinary soldiers, and divert them from alcohol and drunkenness. It was also seen as a way of creating unit cohesion and encouraging the growth of esprit de corps. Finally, as battle tactics moved from rigid formations to loose skirmishing, sport was seen as a way of developing alert soldiers who were full of initiative – very different from the military automatons of earlier generations.

In August 1914, the small Regular army began to expand into a vast citizen force. Naturally, these civilians-in-uniform continued to enjoy football, and playing and watching were significant leisure activities behind the lines, offering a brief escape not only from the horrors of trench warfare (which occupied only a relatively small part of the soldier’s time) but the boredom and drudgery of wartime Army life.  Football thus helped to maintain morale, and cheering on the battalion football team helped to build unit pride and build bonds between officers and men. Moreover, officers fell back on their own sporting experiences to make training comprehensible for their men: a report on a trench raid noted that the men practiced for the attack ‘with the same relish as if training for a football match’.

When viewed against this background, the decision of Captain W.P. Nevill of the 8th East Surreys to give his men footballs to kick into action on the Somme on 1 July 1916 becomes comprehensible. Far from being an act of public school bravado, or a ludicrous action of a man obsessed by sport, it can be seen as shrewd psychological move to give his men something familiar to concentrate on at a moment of great fear. It helped soldiers to make sense of a terrible experience by presenting it in terms that they were able to comprehend. Football, for the British Army of the First World War, was far more than merely a game.

Sources and further reading: 

Matthew Bell, Red White and Khaki: The Story of the Only Wartime FA Cup Final (2011)

Tony Mason and Elizabeth Riedi, Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces 1880–1960 (2010)

G.D. Sheffield, Leadership in the Trenches: Officer-Man Relations, Morale and Discipline in the British Army in the Era of the First World War (2000)


Professor Gary Sheffield

Professor Gary Sheffield holds the Chair of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. His publications include Forgotten Victory – The First World War: Myths & Realities (2001 and new edition, 2018), and Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory (2016). Gary is currently working on Civilian Armies, a comparative history of the experience of British and Dominion soldiers across the two world wars.