Arsenal in wartime: 9 November 1914



November 1914: the country was at war.  And yet the Football League continued for the whole season.  At the start this was because of the feeling that “it would all be over by Christmas”.  By Christmas the feeling was “we’ve got this far, we might as well finish.”

By 1 November 1914 the war had reached the eastern Pacific where a Royal Navy squadron was defeated by superior German forces.  It was the first British naval defeat of the war losing two ships.  But the war did not directly affect that many people in Britain.  There was no conscription, no rationing, no air attacks.

There was however, on 3 November by a German naval raid on Yarmouth.  Little damage was done to the town since shells only landed on the beach, as German ships laying mines offshore were interrupted by British destroyers.

On 5 November, Britain annexed Cyprus and declared war on the Ottoman Empire, while the following day Carl Hans Lody became the first spy to be executed for treason during the War.  He was shot by a firing squad in the Tower of London.  It was the first execution for treason on UK soil since 1747.

And so amidst this changing background, but not much change in day to day life, football did continue.   On 7 November Arsenal lost 3-0 away to Birmingham in front of 15,000.  But that was not the only Arsenal news for on Monday 9 November it was announced that the most recent Arsenal share issue had resulted in the sale of 276 new shares had been sold to individuals.

So why were Arsenal selling shares?

It is something that most Arsenal history books ignore, largely because it goes against the standard narrative of Henry Norris the businessman crook.

In fact, the truth is that having rescued Arsenal in 1910 and built a new stadium at Highbury in 1913 using his own money, Henry Norris was now executing the third and final part of this plan, to create a club owned by the fans, not by businessmen or those with inherited wealth.

This was indeed a revolutionary model, and no one was quite sure how it would look.  But Norris was also willing to look to the future.  He constantly spoke out for votes for women, equal property rights for women, pensions for injured soldiers returning from the war, and state subsidized rail fares for commuters – among other radical changes.

The government were not of the same mind for the following Monday income tax was doubled, meaning that the working men were now fighting the government’s war and having to pay for it as well.  (Those with inherited wealth that earned interest via investments paid no tax on investments, nor on any property sold at a profit).

And not everyone was in favour of football continuing at this time however, although they supported the continuance of horse racing (for the sake of the horses).  And it was this attitude that led to one of the most amusing episodes in football reporting, as the Times ordered one of its staff to attend the next Arsenal match to report on what was happening, as part of their constant anti-football propaganda.

Unfortunately, what the hapless reporter did not know was that the game he went to was not a League match but a reserve game played at Highbury on 21 November.  His subsequent rampant, raging piece said that the crowd was tiny (which it was being a reserve match) and that there was no attempt to recruit men into the army (which there wasn’t since it was a reserve match).

In fact what was happening was that Henry Norris was himself encouraging Arsenal supporters to sign up at first-team games, and when they did, he set up and funded a training camp for them, where they worked until the Middlesex Regiment was ready to receive them – a long term project for which he was knighted in 1917.

His success in recruiting volunteers was such that he himself was recruited by the War Office.  Starting with no rank at all, by the end of the war he had become a Lt Colonel and was put in charge of conscription when that was introduced in 1917, After the war was won he was put in charge of overseeing demobilisation of the entire armed forces (except of course the professional soldiers).

As for Norris’ dream of selling Arsenal to its supporters, this continued until the boardroom coup of 1925 at which point Lt Col Sir Henry Norris (who had started the war simply as Henry Norris) was removed from the club.  The Hill-Wood clan took over, and immediately set about reversing the Norris policy of a club owned by the fans, and from here on shares were primarily bought by directors.  This was the policy that allowed the club in the 21st century to be sold to the Kroenke family with no fans as shareholders at all.

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