How did Britain think football could help win WW1?

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1. The nation's favourite game

Like many millions of people in Britain today, football is in my blood. Whether you play in front of thousands in huge stadiums, or in the park, this simple game is part of our way of life.

100 years ago, in 1914, it was just the same. Thousands played every week, and hundreds of thousands watched.

When war broke out, football didn't just go away. World War One would be unlike anything that had come before. Most of the country was drawn into the fighting, whether at home or at the front. This is the story of how football would play its part too.

2. In recruitment

In 1914 Britain's small professional army was outnumbered and suffering heavy losses. The War Office needed men, and knew where to look.

Footballers and fans were a captive audience and ideal for war service. In December 1914, a new 17th Battalion of the London-based Middlesex Regiment was formed, specifically for professional and amateur players, and fans. They would be known as the Footballers' Battalion.

3. In training

The British Army had recognised the value of sport since the 1800s, but the First World War saw football become a key tool in preparing a new army of young civilians for life on the front line.


The nation’s favourite sport was used as an engaging and accessible way to build physical fitness in new recruits.


Football fostered unit solidarity and strengthened relationships between soon-to-be comrades. Loyalty and commitment to a battalion’s objectives would be valuable assets in a soldier.


Long periods of inactivity were part of a soldier's day to day life. Officers used football to instil positive habits in their men so they used their free time well: better they were running around make-shift pitches than the local taverns.


Mental fitness was as important as physical strength. Following the introduction of conscription and disastrous losses at the Battle of the Somme, playing games like football would help bolster battalion spirits.

4. At the front

Click on an image to hear how football formed a central part of the front line experience of WW1

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5. At home

Competitive, professional football continued to be played in Scotland throughout the war. But south of the border in England it was a different story.

At the end of the 1914/15 season the Football League suspended competition.

Sport makes way for war

Friendly matches still took place, but the big stadiums were now being used for the more pressing matter of fighting a war.

Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane ground became a munitions factory. Staff working there made protective clothing for use by soldiers on the front line, such as leather hoods and 11 million gas masks. Production was mostly staffed by women.

Women take to the field

All over Britain women were doing crucial work in munitions, heavy engineering and ship-building. In their spare time this new army of workers was encouraged to play football – it would keep them fit, encourage team work, and boost morale.

Pulling in the crowds

Women's teams were formed across the country. The most famous was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC. In 1917, their first major game drew a crowd of 10,000 to Preston North End's Deepdale stadium. Their star player was Lilly Parr – 6ft tall and scorer of 1,000 goals.

Competitions, such as the Challenge Cup in the north-east, were formed. The Munitionettes’ Cup, as it was known, was won in 1918 by Blyth Spartans who beat a steelworks team from Teeside 5-0 at Middlesborough's Ayresome Park stadium in front of 22,000.

When the war ended and the soldiers returned home, the professional game in England resumed. Soon after, women's football was banned. But, throughout the country, football had found a new following.

6. Footballers at war

Thousands of professional footballers served in WW1, many of them recruited to set an example and attract more men to join up. But they weren't just there to make up the numbers.

Jermaine Jenas joins former team-mate Ledley King to discuss Walter Tull, one of Britain's first prominent black professional footballers and distinguished WW1 soldier.

7. A roll call of bravery

What happened to the players who gave up football and took up arms?

Leigh Roose (Arsenal)

The Welsh international goalkeeper was a famous eccentric. He was one of 14 past-and-present Arsenal players to fight in the war.

Leigh Roose


Awarded Military Medal

Roose's body was never recovered. He was one of three former and one existing Arsenal players to die in the war.

Charlie Buchan (Sunderland)

Today he remains the club's all-time leading goalscorer, Buchan was one of 18 past-and-present Sunderland players to fight in the war.

Charlie Buchan


Awarded Military Medal

Buchan became a football commentator for the BBC after the war. However, Sunderland sacrificed a lot in the war, losing seven former players.

Sandy Turnbull (Man Utd)

Old Traffford's first ever goal scorer, but later accused of match fixing. One of 22 past-and-present Man Utd players to fight in the war.

Sandy Turnbull


Posthumously cleared of match fixing

Sandy Turnbull was the only player from the 1914/15 squad to lose his life. But six former Manchester United players died in the war.

William Angus (Celtic)

Joined the Highland Light Infantry regiment. He was one of 53 Celtic players past-and-present to fight in the war.

William Angus


Awarded Victoria Cross

Seven former Celtic players died. Attendances were low with many working in munition factories on match day. The team won four league trophies during the war.