PETER FROST discovers that football played a number of interesting roles in World War One.

The overwhelming theme of the 1914 1918 War has always been Lions led by Donkeys. Brave young men, on both sides, seduced by Jingoist propaganda, fighting like lions, led by an incompetent senior officers there only by accident of aristocratic birth.

Walter Tull

Walter Tull perhaps the most unusual officer in Britain’s WW1 army. He was one of Britain’s very first black professional footballers and the British Army’s very first black combat officer.

Born in 1888 in Folkestone the son of a slave from Barbados and a girl from Kent he was in an orphanage by the age of nine.

Walter loved football. East London amateur club Clapton spotted his talent and young Walter helped them win several important London Cups in the 1908-09 season.

Scouts from Tottenham Hotspur soon spotted and signed the young black player. Spurs paid Tull a £10 signing fee and £4 per week.

He soon moved to Northampton Town. Just like today throughout his career he suffered racist abuse.

By 1914 Glasgow Rangers had made a bid for Walter Tull. But a bigger game was about to kick off – War was declared.

Tull was quick to volunteer. Promotion came quickly – he was made a sergeant.

In July 1916, at the Somme, Tull developed trench fever and was sent home to England. When fit again he trained as an officer.

Tull became the first black combat officer in the British Army ever, in 1917. On the Italian front he was mentioned in dispatches.

Back in France in March 1918 Tull led an attack against heavy machine-gun fire. A fatal bullet pieced his skull. Walter Tull was just 29.

The campaign to award this forgotten hero the Military Cross continues to this day.


When the men marched away to war women did what had previously been thought of as men’s work. They drove lorries, made munitions, all kinds of skilled and heavy work but the most unusual by far was playing professional football.

Thousands turned up on Saturday afternoon to see women’s teams like  Blyth Spartan Munitionettes. The North East team was made up of women who worked in  Blyth’s Docks. In two years playing the Munitionettes were never beaten. Star player Bella Reay scored 133 goals and later played for England.

Women’s football became amazingly popular. The Munitionettes Cup, held in 1918, attracted 30 teams from all over Britain.

Women were as popular on the pitch as the men had been before the war but when the troops returned the teams were disbanded.

Women tried to continue to play, but in 1921, the FA banned women’s football at their grounds. Football they decided, like so much else was work reserved just for men.


Most famous football legend of the War was, of course, the Christmas truce matches held between British and German soldiers on Christmas morning 1914. There were at least four such matches despite the best efforts of pompous officers on both sides to scotch such traitorous enjoyment.

The Times on 1 January 1915, published a letter reporting “a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench.”

The Glasgow News on 2 January reported that a team of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, beat a team of Germans 4 – 1.

We don’t have scores for other matches played at Ypres, or Le Touquet but we do know that in the absence of a proper ball, a bully beef tin was pressed into service.

More important we know that working class lads on both sides had more in common with each other than they did with the aristocratic officers who led both armies to the slaughter.

This article was syndicated in various papers in Europe to mark the centenary of the start of World War One on 2 August 2014.



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