It is sometimes assumed in the collective memory that football in England ceased to be played with the suspension of the leagues at the end of the 1914/15 season but as Alexander Jackson points out in his highly readable account of the game during the First World War it very much continued albeit on a very different basis.
Indeed it wasn’t that the sport was itself suspended but rather that the payment of players was and a return to amateurism was eventually decided on although only after some debate as to whether it was appropriate for it to continue at all. A series of regional leagues was established and as the war progressed with conscription eventually being introduced the sides were made up of those who were exempt, players on leave and those drawn from nearby military bases. It could lead though sometimes to players being loaned by a home side to the visitors occasionally to their own detriment.
Through a series of informative chapters Jackson examines the various arguments about the benefits of the continuation of the game, it’s impact on the nation (although he is only concerned with England), the various scandals that arose and football’s post war legacy. There is a brief chapter on women’s football but as the author points out there has been a flowering of writing recently about this aspect.
As Jackson contends given the extent that the men’s game did continue it is unlikely that the women did supplant it nationally which some modern media accounts suggest but rather that it was more popular in some regions where the men’s game had been reduced. Certainly a large number of women’s teams were formed and many matches were played which raised much money for charity as did the male fixtures. That women’s football was effectively banned a few years after the conflict ended was due to a combination of factors and many teams that were formed out of factories quickly folded but a desire for gender roles to be restored to a pre war status quo was likely the most dominant one.
The book is at it’s most interesting when exploring the competing pressures that football faced in deciding to continue through the war years with a chapter given over to the Tribunals that were established to determine if men were fit enough to be sent to the front which were often inconsistent in their approach to the men brought before them including footballers or with some showing more sensitive leniency than others. One sad case was that of Norman Gaudie a promising player in Sunderland’s reserves. He was also an absolute pacifist and after having a death sentence commuted to hard labour he was shunned by his community on his return.
The final few chapters cover the post war period in which there was a hope that the values of amateurism that had been brought back during the conflict would continue to flourish but also show that in the overall bid to appease Germany it led to the England team giving the Nazi salute in a 1938 match. However as Jackson concludes at the end of his intelligent and lively book that although the FA learned lessons from the previous conflict in how football was conducted in wartime it also realised the importance of the sport to the nation’s overall wellbeing during such a time.
Benjamin Peel is a playwright and author of Not a Game for Girls which explores the most successful of the women’s football teams established to boost wartime morale, . Football’s Great War is out now and published by Pen & Sword Books.