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The Footballers' Battalions

15 December 2014

On 15th December 1914, 100 years ago today, the first players signed up to the Footballers' Battalions at Fulham Town Hall.

Today marks 100 years to the day that the first players signed up to the Footballers' Battalion.

Officially known as the '17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment', the Footballers' Battalion was formed on 15th December 1914 at Fulham Town Hall, when 35 men from 11 clubs signed up straight away.

A ceremony commemorating this very special anniversary will take place this evening at Fulham Town Hall.  Organised by Leyton Orient Supporters Club and Hammersmith & Fulham council, the event will also be attended by representatives from The Football League and The Football Association.

Below is an account of the 1914 meeting, including extracts we’ve republished from a report featured in ‘The Sportsman’ the following day:

“Yesterday’s meeting at the Fulham Town Hall, kindly lent for the purpose by the Mayor, Mr H.G. Norris, must be pronounced a success. It was arranged for the purpose of…the Footballers’ Battalion, officially known as the 17th Service Battalion Middlesex Regiment of Kitchener’s Army, and was attended by four or five hundred officials and players and others interested in the Association game. It had been intended to use the smaller hall, but the players trooped in as one party just before the time fixed (half-past 3) in such numbers that a move was made to the larger one, which was practically filled.”

The meeting was chaired by Mr W. Joynson-Hicks, M.P.  As well as the local Mayor, Capt Wells-Holland (Clapton Orient), J. B. Skeggs (Millwall) were among those on the platform. 

Also in the hall were directors and officials of most of the leading professional clubs in London, including Messrs C. D. Crisp, J. Hall, and G. Morrell (The Arsenal), A. J. Palmer (Chelsea), S. Bourne (Crystal Palace), T. A. Descock, M. F. Cadman, and P. McWilliam (Tottenham Hotspur), P. Kelso (Fulham).

Joynson-Hicks opened proceedings with what was described as a splendid speech, including a now famous quote:

“I am inviting you to no picnic. It is no easy game against a second-rate team. It is a game of games against one of the finest teams in the world.” - Rt. Hon Joynson Hicks addressing recruits for the Footballers’ Battalion.

Joynson-Hicks had the previous day received the sanction for the formation of the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.  Several conditions had been agreed to, including that players under contract be given time off during Army training to enable football to be played until the end of the season in accordance with their contracts.

At the time there were about 2,000 players actually earning their livelihood at football, with a further 2,000 working alongside playing.  The aim of recruiting players to the Footballers' Battalion was to encourage others to join them, with the level of pay for those who joined outlined at the meeting.

“They wanted each to become, as it were, a recruiting officer to his club; they wanted the amateurs, the people who played, and those who looked on. Several queries were asked, which elicited the fact that the pay of the single men would be 7s. per week with all found; for the married men the same with 12s. 6d. allowance for their wives (3s. 6d. extra if resident within the London postal area) and further allowances for children, according to their number. The pay of the players will be provided as usual, and the committee will furnish the travelling expenses of those returning from camp to take part in Saturday games.”

Addressing the players in the room, Lord Kinnaird, K.T. (President of the Football Association) endorsed the appeal to them to set the example by being the first to join the Footballers’ Battalion

“The first player to step on the platform was the Clapton Orient right-winger, F. W. Parker, who was born at Weymouth twenty-eight years ago. Buckley (of Bradford) and Needham (Brighton and Hove) were also in the first batch. Once or twice there was a lull, but a few inspiring words from the platform - Mr H. Glibbery, father of the Essex goalkeeper, also addressed a few words as to the excellent way in which his sons found themselves treated at the front - provided a stimulus, and eventually thirty-five were secured. Clapton Orient and Croydon Common responding especially well.

“These were at once enlisted. Mr S. Bourne (Crystal Palace) enquired whether it might not be possible to secure the transfer to the Footballers’ Battalion of some of those who had recently joined but would prefer to be with their old football friends? The chairman replied that it was, of course, a matter for the War Offi ce authorities, but the committee would see what could be done in the matter.”

The following is the full list of the men who became the first to enlist in the Footballers’ Battalion at that historic meeting 100 years ago today:

Thomas Ratcliff (assistant trainer)

Bradford City
Frank Buckley

Brighton & Hove Albion
Archie Needham, Ralph Routledge, Frank Spencer, John Woodhouse

William Krug, David Girdwood, Edward Foord

Clapton Orient
Fred Parker, Jimmy Hugall, Nolan Evans, Harold Gibson, Bob Dalrymple, William Jonas, Edward King, Arthur Tilley, Richard McFadden, Thomas Pearson

Croydon Common
Ernie Williamson, Thomas Newton, Dick Upex, Cyril Smith, Albert Tomkins, Percy Barnfather

Crystal Palace
James Bowler, William Middleton

Luton Town
Hugh Roberts, Frank Lindley

Southend United
Frederick Robson

Tottenham Hotspur
George Bowler, William Oliver

Reg Williams, Alexander Stewart, Joe McLauchlan

It would be November 1915 before the Footballers' Battalion would leave for the Great War, and over the next few months another 300 or so professional players enlisted from around 50 football clubs, including West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Leyton Orient, Plymouth Argyle and Reading. The ranks of the 17th Middlesex were further swelled by numerous amateur players, officials and football fans eager to serve alongside their favourite players.

Special recruiting posters were displayed at grounds of London clubs, specifically aimed at the home supporters. A Millwall supporter would thus find himself being exhorted to ‘Let the enemy hear the ‘Lion’s Roar’’.

In May 1915 a second Footballers’ Battalion (23rd Middlesex) was set up. Both Battalions would be involved in fierce fighting over the coming years.

By the time the war ended in November 1918, over 1,500 men, who had served with the Footballers’ Battalions at some stage of the Great War, had lost their lives.

The Footballers' Battalion is remembered today with a memorial in the village of Longueval in northern France, which was unveiled by The Football League in 2010.

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