Henry Norris is knighted for setting up the Footballers’ Battalion. June 1917

By Tony Attwood

If you have been reading this series from the beginning you will know that Henry Norris spent a huge sum of money recruiting two football battalions drawing on players initially from the London area and then beyond, after the outbreak of war.

However you may have been a little confused in that if you have looked on some sites such as Wikipedia or Spartacus where you might not have seen either the mention of Henry Norris’ name, nor indeed many details of how the battalions were set up.

Yet there is considerable and incontrovertible evidence as I have reported throughout this series of articles, that the battalions were indeed set up and financed by Henry Norris, as has been reported here, and there is even greater evidence that occurred at this point in our history of Henry Norris at the Arsenal, for on 4 June 1917 Henry Norris was knighted specifically for this work.

So why is Henry Norris’ name not mentioned in other histories?

If you read elsewhere you may see the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put forward in association with the football battalions.  Conan Doyle was very much more well known that Norris, not least as the creator of the immediately popular Sherlock Holmes stories, but his role in the creation of the battalions was tiny.  He had however very publicly objected to football continuing in the 1914/15 and used his fame as an author to make an appeal for footballers to volunteer and that was about it.

Others joined in this attack on football, including the gentleman footballer and cricketer CB Fry who demanded that all football contracts should be cancelled in 1914 and it was their cause that got most of the publicity at the time not least as they were both closely associated with the governing classes.

Fry finally got his way in 1915 with the closing down of the League.  He also demanded that no one under the age of 40 be allowed to attend matches – the sort of bellicose unenforceable nonsense that the Times newspaper supported – as we have noted – but this came to nothing.

But it was Henry Norris who took the practical stand in this, and while football was allowed to continue as a professional activity in 1914/15 he used the matches as a recruiting arena, and initially recruiting young men generally as they attended games, and later specifically setting up the Football Battalion.

However Norris was not well known at the time – at least in the public arena.  He was known in football circles as a director of both Arsenal and Fulham, and was known locally as the Mayor of Fulham, but beyond that his was not a widely known name.  His work in the War Office for which he ultimately gained very senior rank in the army as we shall see was, by its very nature, secretive and covered by the Official Secrets Act.

The third name put forward as the developer of the Footballers Battalion is that of Sir William Joynson-Hicks, Bt, 1st Viscount Brentford.  He is credited in Wiki as forming the idea of the “pals battalion” – that is a battalion of men who enlisted together in local neighbourhoods and stayed together in a battalion.

Joynson Hicks was undoubtedly involved in the footballers scheme, and he was essential to its achievement, since it was he who was able to propel it forward through being an MP and a Viscount.  He thus could get the ear of those in the War Office.

But there is little doubt that it was Henry Norris who proposed the idea in the first place, and who then made it work – not least because he was of course a director of Fulham and Arsenal, and thus able to advertise the scheme immediately to two Football League clubs.  It was from this publicity that other clubs took up the call and overcame resistance to allowing players leave their clubs in 1914/15.  Indeed we have already noted that Charlie Buchan reports in his autobiography that he was told by his club that if he did sign up, he would be sued for breach of contract.

As Mayor of Fulham, Norris was able to get in touch with and meet Hicks, and so give him the proposal for a Pals Battalion made up of footballers extra prestige, and extra chance of success, by having Hicks at the initial meetings.  Hicks probably got permission to proceed from the War Office (for although Norris worked for the War Office later in the war, there is no evidence that he did so at this moment, although it was through his work as a recruiter that Norris was brought to the particular attention of the War Office) and so both Hicks and Norris attended the meeting on Tuesday 15 December at Fulham Town Hall to launch the idea of the Footballers’ Battalion.

However as we have seen already, it was Norris who not only pushed the scheme forward,  but who also funded the scheme, and now as we shall see this month, who was ultimately rewarded with a knighthood for setting up the scheme.  The whole operation undoubtedly also helped with Norris’ subsequent promotion in the army.

In the course of setting up the first Footballers’ Battalion, in addition to men from Fulham and Arsenal, 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 at this first meeting.  Many other amateur players of the game joined later what became formally known as the 17th (Service) Battalion (1st Football) Middlesex Regiment.  Tragically in the course of the war it lost 900 men.

As Henry Norris admitted in speeches, recruitment to the battalion was slow and 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, while Norris and other contributed 6d each.  Norris then personally paid their wages while they were in initial training.

I suspect that one other reason why Henry Norris’ name is not overtly connected today with the Regiment, despite the recognition he got at the time for this undertaking and for the funding of the regiment, is because of the re-writing of Arsenal’s history following the takeover of the club by  Samuel Hill-Wood in 1927.  Sir Henry Norris was forced to resign as a director at that point because he was involved in a legal case against Fulham; League rules said that all disputes had to be resolved by the League not the courts.   Indeed at that moment the whole board of Arsenal resigned and Hill-Wood and his followers seized the moment and took over.  But Sir Henry was still a shareholder and there are reports of him asking some difficult questions at shareholders meetings thereafter.

It was the court case of 1927 that started the blackening of Norris’ name, but matters did not quieten down.  The history of the club that appeared in Arsenal handbooks began to re-write various parts of the club’s true history, not only by omitting its involvement in the establishment of the Footballers’ Battalion, but also removing the split in the club of 1892 (in which the working men saw off a takeover by a small group of middle class gentlemen who saw those running the club as not fit to do so), the financial rescue of the club by Norris in 1910, Norris’ work in making public the match fixing that was going on from 1912 onwards, and the real reason why Arsenal was elected to the first division in 1919.

This massive re-writing of reality reached industrial proportions with the publication of the notorious and wildly inaccurate Leslie Knighton autobiography in 1948.  Although George Allison’s autobiography which reflected his association with Arsenal from 1910 to 1947 was published at the same time, and spoke very positively and warmly about Sir Henry, it is the Knighton autobiography written over 20 years after he left the club, and without any reference to club documents and with no supporting evidence, that is generally cited, and which became the definitive source of information on life at Arsenal under Sir Henry.

Thus selective reading of the club’s history caused whole elements of the past of which Arsenal should be hugely proud have now been effectively removed from the records.

Indeed if you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that we have located numerous incidents and events which undermine the Knighton telling of stories about Sir Henry Norris and Arsenal, in many cases uncovering events that are completely contrary to the reporting by Knighton in his autobiography.

Thus as a direct result of this writing of Sir Henry Norris out of the club’s history, we pay our respects each November as a club to those who gave their lives in the service of their country, without any recognition of the central role that Arsenal and Henry Norris played in the war effort.

However this was not the case at the time, for  on 4 June 1917 Henry Norris, was knighted in the birthday honours list in recognition of his unstinting work in raising the footballers battalion.

He subsequently received official congratulations from the Fulham Territorial Force; from Fulham Board of Guardians, and from the other councillors currently serving London Borough of Fulham.

But what is interesting is that the Fulham Chronicle did not join in the celebration of such an honour for its MP nor the extraordinary work he had undertaken at his own expense.  Instead they chose the event as a chance to criticise Sir Henry – something they had been doing increasingly of late.  The matter of the Bishop of London’s gardens mentioned in previous articles had, it seemed, been the tipping point, and Sir Henry Norris, who had been such a regular contributor to the local media before the war (although not to the Chronicle) was now seeing what it was like to take on the media.

As the official event itself, Henry Norris attended Buckingham Palace to be knighted by King George V on 13 June 1917 in the midst of the first ever daytime bombing raid over London!

The story continues…


The Henry Norris Files Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

Section 6 – 1915

Section 7: – 1916

Section 8: 1917

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