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Sport and the First World War

John Simkin

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There was an excellent article about sportsmen killed during the First World War in this week's Sunday Times. I have done some further research and have created a page on the subject.

On the outbreak of the First World War some of Britain's leading sportsmen joined the British Army. This including Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, the captain of England's rugby team. Capped 17 times in a match against France in 1914 he scored four tries. He was also chairman of the Huntley and Palmer biscuit business in Reading.

Poulton-Palmer was killed at Ploegsteert Wood on 5th May, 1915. A fellow officer reported that when he went round the company at dawn "almost every man was crying". Poulton-Palmer was one of 26 England rugby international players killed in the war. A further 30 Scottish internationals also lost their lives during the conflict.

Tony Wilding was Wimbledon's singles champion four years running (1910, 1911, 1912, 1913). He also won the doubles final four times. In June, 1914, Wilding lost the men's singles final to Norman Brookes. On the outbreak of the war Wilding joined the Royal Naval Air Service. Tony Wilding was killed during an attack on enemy sniper posts at Neuve Chapelle on 9th May, 1915.

Frederick S. Kelly won the Diamond Sculls at Henley in 1902, 1903 and 1905. He was also a member of the gold winning team at the London Olympics in 1908. In 1915 he fought at Gallipoli and won the Distinguished Service Cross for conspicuous gallantry. Kelly was killed at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre on 13th November, 1916.

In 1912 Gerard Anderson broke the world record at the 440-yards hurdles. Later that year he took part in the Stockholm Olympics. Unfortunately he suffered a freak accident in the final and finished without a medal. Anderson went to France with the Cheshire Regiment and was killed in action at Hooge, near Ypres, on 9th November, 1914.

During the First World War 210 county cricketers served in the armed forces. Of these, 34 were killed. This included Percy Jeeves, an outstanding allrounder with Warwickshire, was killed at the Somme in July, 1916. He was immortalized when the author, P. G. Woodhouse, who had been a great fan of the cricketer, named Bertie Wooster's manservant Jeeves.

Kent's Colin Blythe, who took 100 wickets for England in 19 test matches. Blythe was killed at Passchendaele in November, 1917.

It was football that provided the most soldiers during the war. At the beginning of the 1914 football season, Hearts was Scotland's most successful team, winning eight games in succession. On 26th November, 1914, every member of the team joined the British Army. This event had a major impact on the public and inspired footballers and their fans to enlist. Many professional players, joined the 1st Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

Seven members of the Hearts team never returned to Scotland. Three of the men, Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis, were killed on the first day of the Somme offensive. Another member of the team, 22 year old Paddy Crossan, was so badly injured that his right leg was labeled for amputation. He pleaded with the German surgeon not to operate. He told him: "I need my legs - I'm a footballer." He agreed to his request and managed to save his leg. Crossan survived the war but later died as a result of his lungs being destroyed by poison gas.

Donald Bell, a defender with Bradford City, became the first professional footballer to join the British Army. He enlisted as a private but by June, 1915 he had a commission in the Yorkshire Regiment. Two days after his marriage in November, 1915, he was sent to France.

Second Lieutenant Bell took part in the Somme offensive. On 5th July he stuffed his pockets with grenades and attacked an enemy machine-gun post. When he attempted to repeat this feat five days later he was killed. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action of 5th July. It is the only one ever awarded to a professional footballer.

Jimmy Speirs played for Glasgow Rangers and Clyde before signing for Bradford City. He became captain and scored the only goal when the team won the FA Cup final against Newcastle United in 1911. The following year he joined Leeds United.

On the outbreak of the First World War Speirs he enlist in the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders. He was posted to France in March 1916. After winning the Military Medal for bravery in the field he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Speirs was killed at Passchendaele on 20th August 1917.

Walter Tull, was another outstanding footballer who abandoned his career and offered his services to the British Army. Tull, who had played for and Northampton Town, joined the 1st Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. The Army soon recognised Tull's leadership qualities and he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. In July 1916, Tull took part in the major Somme offensive. Tull survived this experience but in December 1916 he developed trench fever and was sent home to England to recover.

Tull had impressed his senior officers and recommended that he should be considered for further promotion. When he recovered from his illness, instead of being sent back to France, he went to the officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. Despite military regulations forbidding "any negro or person of colour" being an officer, Tull received his commission in May, 1917.

Lieutenant Tull was sent to the Italian front. This was an historic occasion because Tull was the first ever black officer in the British Army. He led his men at the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches for his "gallantry and coolness" under fire.

Walter Tull stayed in Italy until 1918 when he was transferred to France to take part in the attempt to break through the German lines on the Western Front. On 25th March, 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil. Soon after entering No Mans Land Tull was hit by a German bullet. Tull was such a popular officer that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from German machine-guns to bring him back to the British trenches. These efforts were in vain as Tull had died soon after being hit. Tull's body was never found. Eleven former members of Tottenham Hotspur were killed during the war.

You can find a hypertext version, with photographs, here:


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When I’ve taught attitudes towards joining up at the beginning of the war I have used quotations from men who enlisted because they were unemployed or bored with their jobs. That the joined in search of excitement or the chance to travel to other countries.

However sportsmen like Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, Tony Wilding, Frederick S. Kelly, Gerard Anderson, Percy Jeeves, Colin Blythe, Donald Bell, Donald Bell, Jimmy Speirs and Walter Tull did not join for these reasons. They already had good jobs, status, excitement, chances to travel, etc. They were all at the peak of their careers. Donald Bell had just got married and Tony Wilding was engaged to a woman who was considered the most attractive woman in the United States. Yet, they voluntarily joined up and risked their lives to protect Belgium and France from Germany.

What does it say about the culture of the time? What does it say about people’s understanding of politics and warfare in the early years of the 20th century?

One approach is to speculate on how our leading sportsman would respond to a war today. Would Tim Henman or Wayne Rooney join up today? I think we all know the answer to that one. Why should it be so different? Are we all better informed today or are other factors at work?

It also might be worth looking at how people reacted to the deaths of their sons and husbands during the First World War. This could be compared to the way Reg Keys reacted to the loss of his son in the Iraq War.

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"The Greater Game: Sporting Icons Who Fell in the Great War", studies fourteen professional sportsmen who gave their lives in that most vicious of conflicts. Their intriguing yet tragic stories are drawn from the ranks of professional footballers, international rugby stars, Wimbledon champions, Olympic gold medallists, cricketing heroes, golfing professionals, a member of the Ice Hockey Hall of Fame and a Tour de France winner of the countries fighting for the Allied cause.


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