Norris at the Arsenal: March 1918, crowds drop, rationing, the war turns


by Tony Attwood

The war that was going to be over by Christmas 1914 was still laying waste to much of Western Europe in the spring of 1918, and killing its young men.  America was in the war, which helped the Allies, but French troops were wavering.  Russia was no longer in the war which helped Germany, but Austria was wavering.  And in football the London Combination continued, for those not at war, as an amateur league.

At the start of March 1918 in addition to bread, sugar, butter, margarine, bacon, ham and lard, milk and cheese were now rationed, with all meat soon added to the list.   Each of the local authorities was in charge of issuing ration cards and the councillors were given the unenviable task of excluding certain groups from rationing.  This was yet another contentious no-win situation for the council.  Choose no one, or create a select list and either way they would be criticised.  The Labour Party, growing in support in the country all the time, but not represented on the council, used the local paper to complain about the selections that were made.  The Chronicle, which had taken on the mantle of official opposition took up the cause.  Sir Henry Norris and the council would get complaints no matter what they did.

On 2 March, Arsenal played Millwall Athletic away and won 3-0, but there were only 3,000 in the ground whereas this match last season had attracted 10,000.  Indeed it was one of a number of curious attendance figures at this time.  Certainly the weather was cold and wintry and the temperature on the next day only reached 3 degrees.  I don’t have the exact figure for Saturday, but I imagine it to be equally cold.  Temperatures did not rise until the latter part of the month, which could explain the crowd figures somewhat, but even so, the supporters’ heart seemed to have left football.

I have in previous episodes also been mentioning the new Education Bill which had gone through Parliament, raising the school leaving age to 14.  However it was a Bill fraught with financial problems, since education was to continue to be organised by the local authorities – in this case the London County Council and this increase in the number of pupils was going to cost them a significant amount.  Teachers were excluded from military service during the first world war, and so were still all being paid.

Now the Council’s had the duty of preparing new pay scales for teachers and the Education Committee (on which Sir Henry Norris sat, but was not often present because its meetings clashed with his War Office work) had presented its plan to the main council after much argument and debate.

And on the afternoon of 5 March the final recommendations of the Education Committee of the LCC went before the full Council who then… rejected it in a four hour session.

Meanwhile back in Fulham, progress towards Tank Day, which had been forced upon the Borough by the government, in an effort to raise enthusiasm for the latest round of War Savings bonds, was not going well.  Once again the Borough Council was blamed for the lack of sales of the bonds, but the reality was that after three and a half years of war and numerous other savings schemes, plus the rationing, and the early decision not to repatriate the bodies of the fallen, the nation had a declining interest in investing in the government.

After the poor attendance for the Millwall game there may have been concern at Highbury that the crowd for the game against Tottenham on 9 March might also show a further decline – 9,000 having attended the last home game in this fixture.  But in fact the crowd at Highbury showed more resilience for a match against the new enemy, as opposed to the old enemy Milwall of course being the local rivals before 1913) as 15,000 came along to see a 4-1 home win.

The following Wednesday 13 March, the Education Committee of the LCC were forced to debate what to do in the light of the rejection of its plan for teachers’ pay by the full council.  Sir Henry had either had enough of this, or had more pressing duties in the War Office for he didn’t attend.

He might also have been considering what else he could do to make Tank Day more of a success, for that was to take place two days later on Friday, 15 March.   In the end, Sir Henry and his wife Edith met the tank at the boundary of Fulham and Hammersmith and walked beside the tank through the streets to inaugurate “Tank Day” in Fulham.  They processed to Walham Green (close to Eel Brook Common) where Sir Henry made a speech about the importance of the War Bonds, which encouraged some prominent businessmen in the region to sign up.  There are no records of how many of the lower orders signed up.

The following day Arsenal were away to Chelsea, another game that would previously have expected a good crowd to attend.  Arsenal lost 4-2 and the crowd was only 4000.  However these seems to have been part of a general decline in Chelsea numbers as only 5000 turned up for the fixture earlier in the season. In the previous wartime seasons they had been the best supported club in London.

On 19 March there was a full meeting of the London County Council at which Sir Henry was relieved of his role on the Education Committee, and indeed there was no attempt to persuade him onto other committees.  There is no indication of ill feeling about this – no one was really going to suggest that a Lt Colonel at the War Office was not doing important war work in relation to ensuring that those men who had been conscripted were serving their country, and that the area conscription offices were properly administered so they could keep up to speed with the young men who became old enough to serve.

The following day there was an unexpected turn of events when it was announced that for the first time since the war had begun there would be local elections, with these being held in October 1918 – throughout the war until now all elections at all levels had been put on hold, with those in office in 1914, continuing.

It was also announced that Fulham was to be divided into two constituences – undoubtedly as a result in the growth of the population (in part due to the work of the Henry Norris partnership which had, until the war broke out, been building houses wherever it could find and buy unused land).

As it happened the elections were eventually postponed when the time came, but the expectations of them must have aroused the interest of the parties opposed to the Conservatives, who at noted before, currently held every seat in the Borough until this point.  The local paper which had been running its campaign against the Conservative dictatorship in the Borough also gave the news full coverage.

In a further political move, the following day William Hayes Fisher MO, 1st Baron Downham PC, KStJ  and MP for Fulham (as well as Minister of Information in David Lloyd George’s First World War coalition government) met a London Labour Party deputation as part of his job as President of the Board of Trade.  It is interesting that although a Conservative, he saw eye to eye with the Labour Party on the topic of the need to for the government to enter the house building market post-war.  After the last general election, in 1910, Labour were the fourth largest party gaining 42 seats (out of 56 in which they stood).  The number went up to 57 in the end-of-war 1918 election, but they were marginalised by the coalition government elected to rebuild, rather than transform, the country.  The coalition won 523 out of 614 seats.

Sir Henry, as a private property developer undoubtedly did not agree that government could be efficient as a builder but for the moment he did not speak out on the issue; the had enough on his plate.

But now, in Europe, at last, the end was about to begin.  On 21 March Germany launched the Spring Offensive (also known as the Kaiser’s Battle or the Ludendorff Offensive), along the Western Front.  And it looked at first like it was a success, because it resulted in the deepest advances by either side since 1914.

The thinking behind the offensive was that with each week that passed the Allies were getting stronger as the USA began to make a significant impact on the war by bringing new troops who were not war weary, plus material resources, at a time when Germany’s one new resource was the 50 or so very war-weary divisions that had returned after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which saw the end of fighting on the Russian front.

Unfortunately for Germany, and fortunately for the Allies, the great advances that the offensive made were also its undoing, for they relied on bravado, surprise and a continuing belief in German might.  What was missing was any sense of administrative analysis or logistics (thank goodness Lt Col Norris, the administrative mastermind, was the most patriotic of Englishmen).  For as could easily have been by anyone versed in administration and analysis, the German supply lines had no chance of staying up with the crack troops who had been selected to lead the attack and who were under orders to advance as fast as possible.  Thus the soldiers who were expert in rapidly gaining new territory repeatedly found themselves surrounded by the Allied troops, while they themselves ran out of food and ammunition.  The supply line simply couldn’t keep up; the great advance eventually was the great fiasco.

Of course there was no reporting of the development in the English papers, where life continued in what for the past three years had become normality: rationing, and returning injured soldiers, with under-estimates of the vast numbers who were simply lost in the seas of mud and the trenches, not to mention the ocean warfare.

So life continued, and the football also continued, as Arsenal lost 1-3 at home to Brentford on 23 March in front of 6000.  That evening, just a couple of miles along the road from Highbury, in Wood Green, the American magician William E Robinson, going under the name Chung Ling Soo, performed his regular act of tricks at the Wood Green Empire in which he purported to catch two bullets fired from a gun.  The trick went wrong, one of the bullets perforated his lung and he died in hospital the following morning.

Sir Henry meanwhile continued to juggle his work in the War Office with his responsibilities at the LCC and the Borough of Fulham.  On 26 March I suspect the War Office won as once again (as it always would since Norris was a military man worling under military orders) he did not attend the County Council meeting.

29 March was Good Friday, the start of the regular run of three football matches in four days.  Arsenal began inauspiciously with an away game at West Ham on this day, losing 1-4, with 10,500 in the crowd.  The following day they beat Crystal Palace at home 3-0, in front of a crowd reported by TheArsenalHistory files as just 800.

Now I don’t know what had caused such a drop in the crowd numbers, but this was the smallest crowd of any match, home or away, that Arsenal played in during the four seasons of the wartime leagues.  I don’t think it was the weather, nor was there any dramatic news announcement in the papers.   Perhaps there were problems with the underground system (exactly the sort of thing the official censor did not like to have announced for fear of aiding the demands for nationalisation being put forward by the Labour Party).

But one way or another, if that figure is indeed correct (and I have no reason to think otherwise) an almost empty Highbury watched Arsenal win.

It meant Arsenal ended the month having won three and lost three…

Game Date Opposition Venue Res Score Crowd
29 2/3/18 Millwall Athletic A W 3-0 3,000
30 9/3/18 Tottenham Hotspur H W 4-1 16,000
31 16/3/18 Chelsea A L 2-4 4,000
32 23/3/18 Brentford H L 1-3 6,000
33 29/3/18 West Ham United A L 1-4 10.500
34 30/3/18 Crystal Palace H W 3-0 800

But it also meant that Arsenal had scored 14 in six, and conceded 12.  26 goals in six games at least meant there was some entertainment even if it was not all going Arsenal’s way.

Footnote and index:

We are currently evolving a complete series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  The full index to the articles that cover the period from 1910 to this point are given in Henry Norris at the Arsenal

Perhaps the most popular element in the Norris story is that of Arsenal’s promotion to the first division in 1919.  Therefore we have separated that story out below.  It raises in part the question of the validity of the chief critic of Henry Norris: the Arsenal manager from 1919 to 1925 who Norris sacked.  Thus in the selection below we include articles which consider the question as to the validity of Knighton’s testimony.

For the complete index on Norris at the Arsenal please see the link above.

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel

The Third Allegation

The Fourth Allegation

Did Henry Norris really beg Leslie Knighton to stay and offer him the hugest bonus ever?  And if so, why were there no new players?

The Fifth Story:

The Sixth Allegation

The Seventh Allegation

The Eighth Strange Story

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