December 1914: The Footballers’ Battalion formed by Arsenal chairman and others

by Tony Attwood

The war, the population of the UK had been told in August 1914, would be over by Christmas.   But as December dawned it was very clear that this was nonsense.  It was also becoming very clear that this truly was indeed a world war.  A war on a scale never perceived or imagined before.

And as such it was of course, affecting football. In retrospect that seems a ludicrously trivial thing to say, but it is the focus here: Henry Norris, Arsenal, football, December 1914.

And at the time, comparisons were indeed made between crowd attendances in the previous season and in this were made it was quite clear that there was a constant decline.    As the first match of December confirmed.

For this game Arsenal were away to Bury, and even in the second division Arsenal were always an attraction to supporters of other teams, for they were one of the most famous clubs, despite their singular lack of trophies.   They were the club of the men who made the armaments, the soldiers’ own club, the club that invented away support, and just about the only club in the League that had been set up by working men, for working men.   They had of course been taken over since then, but the image lived on, especially in a time of war.

So whatever league Arsenal were to be found in, they would attract an above average crowd which in the case of Bury would be around 8400.  Indeed Arsenal’s match there had drawn a crowd of 10,000 in the previous season.   But this year on 5 December the crowd for Bury v Arsenal was 5,000.  And this mattered to Arsenal as much as Bury, because at this time (and indeed for many years hence) the away team got a share of the gate receipts.

With the war news heavily censored, there was space to debate crowd figures in the press, and The Islington Gazette ran a piece that said that the number of supporters at matches was running at half the previous year.  This however was an exaggeration.  By the end of the season the First Division had reported crowds down 38% while the Second saw a decline of just under 40%.  Not half, but not good.  Arsenal’s figures at the end of the season were down 39%.  Also not at all good, but certainly still not down by half.  And still not down to the level seen in latter years in Plumstead.

However in this match, and worse from Arsenal’s point of view, was the fact that the club lost a game that they might normally have expected to win. 2-0 down at half time they were 1-3 down at the end.

The following Monday the final of the London FA challenge cup was played – this against Millwall Athletic (who later morphed into the modern day Millwall).  Again it was bad news all round.  A crowd of just 2,000 and another defeat: 1-2.

On 8 December a meeting was held at Stamford Bridge, organised by the FA, in which most of notable men from London football clubs were present, as well as the hierarchy of the FA.  The aim was to discuss further the response of football as both a social and a commercial operation, to the war.

It was at this meeting that the idea was proposed of approaching the War Office with the idea of  forming a battalion made up of volunteer footballers.  Not surprisingly, given his growing eminence in both London and footballing affairs Henry Norris was elected onto the organising committee, along a representative from each of Millwall, Clapton Orient and Chelsea, plus from the FA and League.

The true reality of there now being a world war being fought came with the news following the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December – it was a decisive British victory over the German fleet.   And there was another propaganda victory the following day as the Royal Navy’s first aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, was commissioned.

But back with the football, on 12 December, Arsenal’s bad run continued with a home defeat to Preston North End, in front of 10,000 fans.   The following Tuesday, 15 December, having obtained permission to proceed from the War Office, the proposers of the football battalion held a public meeting at Fulham Town Hall (the venue giving a clue to Norris’ position within this organisation) to launch the idea.

Speeches were made urging footballers to sign up, and there was use, according to Sally Davis, of references to Henry Newbolt’s 1907 poem Vitae Lampada which contains the phrase that became highly popular as a symbol of traditional British virtues and values, “Play up! Play up!  And play the game!”

But this event, and subsequent revelations, showed that although there was much urging of players to sign up, there was less enthusiasm from the players themselves.  We have already noted that when Charlie Buchan suggested he would sign up, his club told him that if he did they would sue for breach of contract.   And now Henry Norris admitted that no one from Fulham had volunteered as yet, although some players did volunteer at the end of the meeting, as well as Arsenal’s assistant trainer Tom Ratcliffe.

Ratcliffe, of whom I know comparatively little, survived the war and returned to Arsenal, staying on to work under Leslie Knighton until the manager was sacked.   Ratcliffe was not sacked but resigned on hearing that the manager was departing and Herbert Chapman arriving.  That suggests Ratcliffe had forged a fairly close relationship with Knighton, unlike Joe Shaw who survived the period and moved on to work under Champman after that handover.

(Incidentally Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph spells Ratcliffe’s name without the “e” at the end.  I can’t verify that, but since he also says in his article concerning the formation of the battalion that in December 1914  “Arsenal players were working hard in the armaments factory in Woolwich,” we might prefer to go with the spelling with the final e.  Arsenal players were by this time full-time professional footballers, and besides had moved from Plumstead to Islington into lodgings in the summer of 1913.  They were not part timers or amateurs, still doing shifts at the factories on the south side of the Thames, a 90 minute journey away from Highbury.)

Joseph McLauchlan who played 16 times for Arsenal between 1911 and 1913 had moved on to Watford by this time and was one of 35 volunteers that came from this meeting along with Ernie Williamson who went on to become an Arsenal keeper.

Nine players from Clapton Orient, six from Croydon Common of the Southern League, four from Brighton, three each from Chelsea and Watford, and two each from Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Luton Town all signed up.  During the course of the conflict the 17th Middlesex, the footballers battalion, lost 900 men.

According to Sally Davis, in a speech three years later, “Henry Norris told his audience that he too had volunteered for active service at this meeting,” applying for a commission in the Footballers’ Battalion.  He said he was rejected on the grounds of his age (49), poor eye-sight, and the point that he would, in he words of Davis, “serve his country more efficiently by staying as mayor of Fulham and leading the whole borough to do its duty.”

And so was launched the Footballers’ Battalion: the 17th (Service) Battalion (1st Football) Middlesex Regiment.  However as Henry Norris also admitted in that speech, recruitment to the battalion was so slow that in December 1914 he and several other prominent supporters of the Regiment worked together and agreed to pay inducements to the battalion’s recruiting sergeant for every man recruited.   This was completely illegal, but it seems Joynson-Hicks contributed 1 shilling per man, and Hayes, Fisher and Norris 6d each.

On 16 December there was a German naval raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, a raid that claimed extra significance as it saw the death of the first Kitchener “your country needs you” volunteer, Theo Jones.   Two days later on 18 December, Egypt became a British protectorate.

The following Saturday, 19 December, for a reason that I have not been able to fathom, some teams didn’t have league matches.  It wasn’t a universal arrangement – Tottenham, for example played Sunderland that day, but some other clubs had no game.  Nothing is shown in the records as to the missing games being postponed, but the fact remains Arsenal, among others had no league match and so held a friendly against Swindon Town.  2000 turned up and Arsenal lost 1-2.

Stories of an unofficial Christmas Truce between British and German soldiers then began to circulate on Christmas Eve although it should be noted that on that day, for the first time, a German aircraft dropped bombs over Dover.  On Christmas day itself British aircraft launched from warships attacked the German port of Cuxhaven with submarine support, although it was reported that little damage was caused.

There was a full round of league matches on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day and at last The Arsenal got their act back together beating Leicester Fosse away 4-1 (an impressive victory as it was only 1-1 at half time) and then the following day 6-0 at Highbury.  King got a goal in each game (his first in December) and Lewis on the wing got a hattrick – his first three goals of the season.  He only scored one other in all 24 games he played in the entire campaign.  However the game saw a sudden drop in Arsenal’s crowd: only 6,000 turned up.  The previous year on Boxing Day 30,000 had come to Highbury to see the match against Bradford PA.

The Boxing Day match marked the end of the games for The Arsenal in 1914 leaving the League table looking like this…

Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GAvg Pts
1 Derby County 19 13 3 3 38 14 2.714 29
2 Huddersfield Town 19 12 2 5 34 16 2.125 26
3 The Arsenal 20 10 4 6 42 24 1.750 24
4 Birmingham City 19 10 4 5 33 19 1.737 24
5 Bristol City 19 9 4 6 41 27 1.519 22
6 Preston North End 20 8 6 6 25 25 1.000 22
7 Barnsley 19 10 2 7 23 27 0.852 22
8 Fulham 19 9 3 7 30 23 1.304 21
9 Hull City 18 9 3 6 30 23 1.304 21
10 Wolverhampton Wanderers 20 8 3 9 33 29 1.138 19
11 Bury 19 8 3 8 33 35 0.943 19
12 Lincoln City 20 7 5 8 24 28 0.857 19
13 Leeds City 20 7 4 9 36 29 1.241 18
14 Leyton Orient 19 6 6 7 23 23 1.000 18
15 Grimsby Town 20 6 5 9 20 41 0.488 17
16 Stockport County 19 6 4 9 20 26 0.769 16
17 Nottingham Forest 20 5 6 9 26 35 0.743 16
18 Blackpool 19 6 2 11 21 35 0.600 14
19 Leicester Fosse 19 4 2 13 18 48 0.375 10
20 Glossop North End 19 3 3 13 16 39 0.410 9

The Henry Norris Files

Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

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