Army Football in the Great War


Sport has always been an integral part of life in the British military and the First World War was no exception. Whether played as part of an organised inter-unit competition or a quick ad-hoc kickabout behind the lines, football was by far the most popular form of recreation for the troops serving both at home and abroad.

Football is easy to set-up, its rules are simple, and when organised into competition between opposing units such as battalions, regiments or services, it was a great way to strengthen esprit de corps and bolster morale. The many competitions organised during the War were often played at a very high standard, which is not surprising when one considers battalions such as 17th Middlesex or 23rd Middlesex could field sides composed entirely of professional footballers. 

Away from the Front, there were a number of charity matches played in Britain to raise money for various war funds. These included games between a British Army XI and their Belgian counterparts, and encounters between battalion teams such as those from 17th Middlesex and Football and Southern League sides.

Football was also widely-played at prisoner of war and internment camps, most famously at the Ruhleben civilian detention camp 10km west of Berlin, where a number of former professional footballers, including England internationals Fred Pentland, Steve Bloomer and Sam Wolstenholme, were held for the duration of the war. The players created the Ruhleben Football Association and organised league and cup competitions which were often watched by thousands of spectators.