Monday, 4 August 2014

West Ham United and the First World War

Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August, 1914. Cricket and rugby competitions stopped almost immediately after the outbreak of the First World War. However, the Football League continued with the 1914-15 season. Most football players were professionals and were tied to clubs through one-year renewable contracts. Players could only join the armed forces if the clubs agreed to cancel their contracts.

On 7th August, 1914, Lord Kitchener , the war minister, immediately began a recruiting campaign by calling for men aged between 19 and 30 to join the British Army. At first this was very successful with an average of 33,000 men joining every day. Three weeks later Kitchener raised the recruiting age to 35 and by the middle of September over 500,000 men had volunteered their services.

On 6th September 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle, appealed for footballers to join the armed forces: "There was a time for all things in the world. There was a time for games, there was a time for business, and there was a time for domestic life. There was a time for everything, but there is only time for one thing now, and that thing is war. If the cricketer had a straight eye let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle." Some newspapers suggested that those who did not join up were "contributing to a German victory.

Frederick Charrington, the son of the wealthy brewer who had established the Tower Hamlets Mission, attacked the West Ham United players for being effeminate and cowardly for getting paid for playing football while others were fighting on the Western Front. The famous amateur footballer and cricketer, Charles B. Fry, called for the abolition of football, demanding that all professional contracts be annulled and that no one below forty years of age be allowed to attend matches.

West Ham had high hopes that they could win the Southern League for the first time and refused to cancel the contracts of their professional players. In Syd Puddefoot they had the country's most promising young goalscorer. West Ham won six of their first 12 games. Puddefoot got nine goals during this period. George Hilsdon and Richard Leafe were also in good form and got 7 between them. Once again West Ham were challenging for the Southern League title.

In October 1914, the Secretary of State, Lord Kitchener, issued a call for volunteers to both replace those killed in the early battles of the First World War. At the beginning of the war the army had strict specifications about who could become soldiers. Men joining the army had to be at least 5ft 6in tall and a chest measurement of 35 inches. However, these specifications were changed in order to get more men to join the armed forces.

The Bishop of Chelmsford paid a visit in Bethnal Green where he gave a sermon on the need for professional footballers to join the armed services. The Stratford Express reported on 2nd December 1914: " The Bishop, in an address on Duty, spoke of the magnificent response that had been made to the call to duty from the King. All must play their part. They must not let their brothers go to the front and themselves remain indifferent. He felt that the cry against professional football at the present time was right. He could not understand men who had any feeling, any respect for their country, men in the prime of life, taking large salaries at a time like this for kicking a ball about. It seemed to him something incongruous and unworthy".

Under considerable pressure from the government, the Football Association eventually backed down and called for football clubs to release professional footballers who were not married, to join the armed forces. The FA also agreed to work closely with the War Office to encourage football clubs to organize recruiting drives at matches.

The Athletic News responded angrily: "The whole agitation is nothing less than an attempt by the ruling classes to stop the recreation on one day in the week of the masses ... What do they care for the poor man's sport? The poor are giving their lives for this country in thousands. In many cases they have nothing else... These should, according to a small clique of virulent snobs, be deprived of the one distraction that they have had for over thirty years."

Three members of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee visited Upton Park during half-time to call for volunteers. Joe Webster, the West Ham United goalkeeper, was one of those who joined the Football Battalion as a result of this appeal. Jack Tresadern joined the Royal Garrison Artillery. An intelligent man, he quickly reached the rank of lieutenant.

West Ham United supporters also formed their own Pals Battalion. The 13th (Service) Battalion (West Ham Pals) were part of the Essex Regiment. On 5th March 1915 the East Ham Echo reported that Henry Dyer, the Mayor of West Ham, held a concert on behalf of the West Ham Battalion: "During the evening the Mayor briefly addressed the men. He remarked that it was the first time he had the opportunity of speaking to the Battalion as a whole. He was proud of them and when they had gone away a close watch upon their movements would be kept."

In his book War Hammers: The Story of West Ham United During the First World War, Brian Belton argues that the battle cry of the West Ham Pals was "Up the Irons." They saw action at the Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Cambrai. The war took a terrible toll on these men. Over the next three years the battalion suffered casualties of 37,404 killed, wounded and missing.

Not all the West Ham players joined the armed forces. According to Brian Belton: "Syd Puddefoot, worked long, exhausting and often dangerous shifts in munitions factories." Five former West Ham United players were killed in action during the war: Fred Griffiths, Arthur Stallard, William Jones, Frank Cannon and William Kennedy. West Ham's star forward, George Hilsdon, had to endure a mustard gas attack at Arras in 1917. This badly damaged his lungs and although he played briefly for Chatham Town after the war it brought an end to his professional football career. Fred Harrison was also badly gassed on the Western Front and never played football again.

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