Monday, November 29, 2021
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The Footballer Battalions

Footballer Battalion (via Wikipedia)In an age in which footballers are often accused of not really trying, where the overpaid prima donna rolls around as if they've been shot ignorant of the fact that at heart the game played with the round ball is as much a contact sport as its oval cousin, a recent trip to the Imperial War Museum sparked curiosity regarding those times when players really could have taken the ultimate one for the team.


Portsmouth FC played its part in ensuring they stood alongside men defending their country, who'd only months, or even weeks, beforehand had been watching them on the terraces.


Instrumental in the formation of the Footballers Battalion during World War One was author Arthur Conan Doyle, one of Pompey's first keepers as well as the mind behind Sherlock Holmes. As the First World War raged on it seemed the initial suggestion that play should continue for the benefit of public morale was being looked down upon by those the decision was supposedly made in the best interests of.


Against a backdrop of dissenting voices calling the King to stand down as patron of the FA, Conan Doyle appealed for players & supporters alike to enlist. Kick off for the “greater game” on the “field of honour” came on December 12 1914 after Tory William Joynson-Hicks acted on the approval of Lord Kitchener. Forming the latest addition to the “Pals” scheme (under which men could sign up en masse as part of their local area, profession etc), it was announced to the wider public on New Year's Day 1915.


The first player to join was Frank Buckley, perhaps now best known for managing Wolves with the same sort of no nonsense attitude he would employ in commanding the Battalion- Stan Cullis, one of his players, saying as much. Stan himself would later show similar courage during the Second World War, in being the only one of the England team picked for a friendly (perhaps not the best choice of phrase in the circumstances!) against Germany in Berlin to not give the Nazi salute. Promptly dropped in the aftermath, he also served as a PT instructor on our shores & in Italy.


Before all that, though, the first leg as it were was afoot, the whole of the Clapton (later Leyton) Orient side enlisting by around the following March & Hearts going to similar lengths north of the border where McCrae's Battalion in effect served a similar purpose for the Scots. A notable first came from within the ranks as Walter Tull, then playing for Northampton Town, went on to become the first black infantryman in the history of the British Army. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he was killed in action in March of 1918 prior to the cessation of hostilities by the same November.


Amazingly, if he or any of his Pals mates went back to play for their clubs, while they were given leave to do so they were not given travel expenses, the clubs themselves having to subsidise them. A sobering thought given the amount of attention now given to the sums incurred by modern day top brass...


However, the matches they would have played in, were non-competitive- with the (regional) War Leagues between 1915 & '19 replacing the abandoned league seasons & the FA Cup postponed until permanent ceasefire. Sheffield United & Pompey technically retaining it during the war years having won it just prior to the First & Second World Wars respectively, the latter beating a Wolves team managed by the aforementioned Major Buckley.


Perhaps the most famous game of all, though, was one recognised by some as an unofficial international clash between English & German troops on the Western Front, part of the famed Christmas Day Truce- & not sanctioned by either the British or German officer class.


A ball booted from the trenches into No Man's Land got things going after the Germans sent a messenger offering a ceasefire agreement, the match itself subsequently referenced by Paul McCartney (see the video for his festive Pipes Of Peace offering) & The Farm (sleeve for the All Together Now single). Multiple such encounters took place, historian Gerald De Groot offering possibly the simplest explanation for the outbreak of kickabouts in that "Fraternisation led inevitably to football. Men who could not otherwise communicate shared a common language in the game.”


The German FA itself had only been formed fourteen years earlier- the DFB (Deutscher Fussball-Bund) coming into existence in late January of 1900. Fussball itself had been introduced to the country in 1874, the Dresden English Football Club founded as the name suggests by Englishmen living & working in & around Dresden itself. Coverage of their initial matches in the newspapers of the time perhaps reflects a certain degree of bemusement on the part of correspondents- take this from the Zeitung of Leipzig.


"Some twenty young men in a costume, namely in different colours to distinguish them. A kind of woollen or silk underjacket, with or without sleeves, short-fitting leg coverings that show the bare knee, long stockings, [and] very comfortable shoes or lace-up boots make up the ensemble” playing a game where “the ball is propelled forward with the foot" .


The Viktoria Trophy appears to have been the main tournament contested between 1903 & '44, with play suspended following the commencement of the First World War. Its last final saw the team of the Luftwaffe (perhaps unsurprisingly the most successful of World War Two), Luftwaffen-SV Hamburg, lose to Dresdner SC.


In a similar manner to the War Leagues of England, under the Third Reich the German system was reorganised into the Gauliga (between 1933 & 1945) as proposed by Reichsportfürer Hans Von Tschammerer und Osten, head of the German Reich Commission for Physical Exercise (the original German Cup also bore his name as the Tschammerpokal, first won by FC Nurnberg).


Teams from occupied countries were also allowed to compete in a sort of return to the founding principles of the DFB which allowed such clubs to compete as long as they were members of one of its regional associations- indeed DFC Prag (from Prague) were beaten by VFB Leipzig, who became the first German league champions in May 1903. 



Schalke would take on their mantle & regularly win the title during the Nazi hold on football, leading de Konigsblauen (the Royal Blues) to frequently be held up as an example of the sort of Aryan physicality demanded by the Fatherland, before England won perhaps the most pivotal victory of a long shared history of sorts with the old enemy.

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