October 1917: Arsenal slip into sharp decline; Norris gains a new appointment

by Tony Attwood

Leaving aside the awful events happening in the world around them and focusing just on football, Arsenal entered the autumn of 1917 in a good mood.  The new London Combination season had started with four wins and one defeat – the best run for Arsenal in the wartime league.  Better, they had scored 13 and conceded just two, and had three times played in front of crowds of 10,000 or more – twice at home and once away to Chelsea.

Unfortunately the playing record could not be maintained, for of the 15 matches played in the remaining months of the year only four were won.  Nothing particular happened to the team, there was not a sudden loss of key players, but one way or another the upturn in results could not be maintained and only once more in the year did Arsenal score four.

As for the war, although in retrospect we can see that events in 1917 were the decisive factor in ending the war, there was no sign of it in London at this time.  Britain’s naval blockade had made an impact on Germany, the German plan of unrestricted submarine warfare had brought the United States into the war, and the British shipping losses never reached the height that Germany had anticipated as a central part of their war plan.   Indeed on the contrary, the shipping losses started to decline after April 1917, and the modified convoy system began to have a significant effect in getting food to Britain (although rationing of different food continued to be introduced through 1917).

The French army had suffered mass mutinies in the first part of the year, and this led to a change in French plans of action but not their capitulation, and eventually the Allies did create a Supreme War Council to unify planning which again acted in the allies favour.

But overall the evolution of the war was determined by two separate and opposing events in 1917.  Germany signed an armistice with revolutionary Russia and American troops poured into Europe to support the Allies.

Above all, both sides in the war knew that they could not continue much longer, as signs of civil unrest over the privations caused by the war continued in virtually every country involved, and the thought began to occur to the political classes and landed gentry that if the whole of Russia could overthrow its government, maybe that could happen elsewhere.  Emperor Charles I of Austria even attempted to make peace with France without Germany knowing, in 1917.

But of course much of this was not known in Britain due to strict control of the newspapers, and where it was made public the news was censored and re-written for domestic consumption.  Meanwhile in London local examples of the growing civil unrest did ultimately become known as threats of strike action began to appear, supported by people who felt they simply could not exist on the wages they were being paid.

In October one such development was reported in Fulham (where of course Sir Henry Norris was Mayor, and thus the dominant political figure), as the grave diggers threatened to go on strike.

In an attempt to overcome the sort of decline in morale that this type of threat signified, the government resorted to putting on events aimed at diverting discontent and improving the nation’s spirit.  Sally Davis reports one such on 13 October held at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground to celebrate the (largely imaginary) life of the great English heroine Boadicea.

Meanwhile back with the football Arsenal had started October with a 2-2 draw away to Brentford in front of 4,000 fans, but on the day of the pageant at Chelsea, Arsenal lost to Crystal Palace away 0-2.  It was a clear sign that, for Arsenal, the good times of September were over.

As for Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris he was now fully ensconced in his work as a deputy director of recruitment, with his responsibility covering much of the south east.  And for the moment at least he seems to have had enough of a grip on the workload to be able to attend the first full meeting of the London County Council on 16 October.

He was also nominated yet again as Mayor of Fulham, and with elections of all types having been abandoned on the outbreak of war he simply continued in the job.  The entire council was, as noted before, Conservative, and his profile not only in the Borough but in the whole city (and indeed following his creation of the Footballers’ Battalions further afield as well) was so high, that no one was ever likely to oppose him from within his own dominant party.  Only the local Fulham newspaper found him fair game.

In accepting the nomination of Mayor for yet another year (his ninth in the job) Sir Henry made a magnanimous speech noting that he himself was often credited with work carried out by the Borough’s officials and its Town Clerk Percy Shuter, and that those working for the council should get the credit where it was due.

Certainly this was true – Sir Henry was by now a very famous man even though no one knew of his work in the government (save by the fact that at official functions and in the War Office he was obliged to wear his Colonel’s uniform).  But there is no doubt that he was as aware as anyone that more and more criticism was likely to come his way, as the council tried repeatedly to cope with an ever increasing workload with an ever diminishing staff and budget.

On 20 October Arsenal drew 2-2 at Highbury with West Ham with a crowd of just 6000 in the ground.  It meant that after their flying start to the season Arsenal had now gone four games without a win.

Back in the council chamber the London Council Council noted and accepted the proposed change to schooling that would be implemented after the war.

By 1914 Britain had a basic educational system, though for most schoolchildren it did not take them beyond the elementary stage of schooling which ended at the age of 12/13.  This approach had been established in reforms to the education act in 1899 and Henry Norris, like most youngsters, left school at 13, seemingly against the wishes of his parents.

It was the Education Act that was debated in 1917 and introduced in 1918 that raised the school leaving age to 14 and in essence marked the start of schooling for all, without cost.  The Act was based on the research and programme established by H A L Fisher who was the prime mover in the reform.  He stressed that education was vital not only to the well-being of the individual, but also to society.  It was in fact a recognition that the war effort was being hampered by the lack of education of many of the young men who were conscripted, and the utter reliance on the old boys network of fee paying schools to create its officer class.

In this regard Sir Henry Norris was a stand out example of the fact that youngsters from ordinary working class backgrounds could make a significant contribution to society, as he was most certainly doing in the war.

The Act that came into law in 1918 transferred 60% of the cost of schooling back to central government, which thus reduced the pressure on funds from the London County Council.  With Sir Henry’s appearances at LCC meetings being erratic because of this War Office work, it seems he missed the discussion of this at the LCC Education Committee which accepted this change – which was a shame.  He was probably the only member of the Education Committee who had actually been through the basic state provision of schooling in the pre-war period, and who had left school that early.  Most if not all of the other members of the committee would have gone to a public school, and many then gone on to university.

On 27 October Arsenal played their last game of the month – and it was another defeat, this time away to QPR in front of 4500; Arsenal lost 0-2.  Thus in the last five games they had scored just two goals and got two draws and three defeats.  An extraordinary decline after the successes of September.

Finally, on 29 October we get a rare glimpse of what was going on in the War Office, as Henry Norris became the Director of the South-East Recruiting Region as well as being the military Deputy Director of recruiting in the region.

This appears to be a unification of a military and civilian role.  The military role had already been established and resulted in Sir Henry’s promotion to Lt Colonel, but conscription (known euphemistically as National Service – a term which survived until November 1960) was also a civil matter enacted in law and under the control of the civilian Secretary of State for National Service in Parliament.   The appointment of the civilian role of Director of South East Recruiting was for wartime only whereas Sir Henry like all military men would be entitled to maintain the rank of Lt Colonel for the rest of his life, even after he retired from the army.

Thus the amalgamation of the civilian and military role in recruitment made a lot of sense in that it maintained a civilian (ie Parliamentary) control of what was happening, while giving the army direct involvement in recruiting the men it needed to fight the war that Parliament had declared.

Here is the list of games for the month…

Game Date Opposition Venue Result Score Crowd
6 6/10/17 Brentford A D 2-2 4,000
7 13/10/17 Crystal Palace A L 0-2 7,000
8 20/10/17 West Ham United H D 2-2 6,000
9 27/10/17 Queens Park Rangers A L 0-2 4,500

Data for these games comes from TheArsenalHistory.

Here is the story so far.  If you are particularly interested in Arsenal’s promotion to the first division in 1919, you will find details of the articles covering these matters here.

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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