For Team and Country: Sport on the Frontlines of the Great War

For Team and Country: Sport on the Frontlines of the Great War

by Tim Tate

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For Team and Country: Sport on the Frontlines of the Great War by Tim Tate

Imagine Wayne Rooney, Andy Murray and Mo Farah exchanging the glamour of their careers for the brutality and bloodshed of war - and quietly giving their lives for their country. Today the news would be dominated by the sacrifice of Britain's most famous sporting icons.A century ago the brightest sporting stars of their generation did just that. Thousands of them rallied to their country's colours; many never returned from the mechanised carnage of the Great War, making the ultimate sacrifice in the hardest game of all.In this original and highly accessible book, Tim Tate reveals how sport itself was Britain's first and most vital recruiting sergeant in the fight against Germany and how sportsmen applied their unique talents on the battlefield, but also how a shared sporting spirit offered humane common ground amidst the horror of combat.Above all, For Team and Country tells the remarkable and inspiring stories of the sportsmen whose prowess on the field was matched only by their bravery in the King's uniform.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781784181468
Publisher: John Blake Publishing, Limited
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

TIM TATE is a multi-award winning documentary filmmaker, investigative journalist and bestselling author. His films have been honoured by Amnesty International, the Royal Television Society, UNESCO, the International Documentary Association, the Association for International Broadcasting, the (US) National Academy of Cable Broadcasting and the New York Festivals.

Tim has written eleven non-fiction books, and is the co-author of the bestselling Slave Girl (John Blake Publishing, 2009), which has spent more than three years in Amazon’s Top 100.

Read an Excerpt

For Team and Country

Sport on the Front Lines of the Great War

By Tim Tate

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Tim Tate
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78418-146-8



Young Britons prefer to exercise their long limbs on the football ground, rather than expose them to any sort of risk in the service of their country.

Frankfurter Zeitung, 1914

Two weeks after Britain declared war on Germany, The Times of London published what amounted to an editorial in the form of a poem in its august and influential pages.

Lad, with the merry smile and the eyes
Quick as hawk's and clear as the day,
You, who have counted the game the prize,
Here is the game of games to play.
Never a goal – the captains say –
Matches the one that's needed now:
Put the old blazer and cap away –
England's colours await your brow.

R. E. Vernède's 'The Call' was neither the first nor the last time that poetry was deployed as a weapon to support war, but the patriotic doggerel laid before breakfast readers that morning of 19 August 1914 captured precisely the intense – and almost universally assumed – relationship between sport and Britain's perception of duty to the country in its hour of need.

Five weeks later, on 24 November 1914, The Times returned to the fray with a new patriotic verse, 'The Game', by one A. Lochhead.

    Come, leave the lure of the football field
       With its fame so lightly won,
    And take your place in a greater game
       Where worthier deeds are done.

    No game is this where thousands watch
         The play of a chosen few;
       But rally all! if you're men at all,
       There's room in the team for you.

    You may find your place in the battlefront
       If you'd play the forward game,
       To carry the trench and man the guns
         With dash and deadly aim.

    Oh, the field is wide, and the foe is strong,
      And it's far from wing to wing,
    But we'll carry through, and it's there that you
      May shoot for your flag and King ...

      Then leave for a while the football field
        And the lure of the flying ball
      Lest it dull your ear to the voice you hear
        When your King and country call.

       Come join the ranks of our hero sons
         In the wider field of fame,
       Where the God of Right will watch the fight
            And referee the game.

With the crystal vision of 100 years' hindsight, this patriotic poetry, with its apparent belief that war was simply an extension of sport, seems tragically naïve. Within a few weeks, reality, wearing the drab uniform of mass and industrialised slaughter rather than the clean whites of the cricket pitch or the bright jerseys of football teams, would blow away the comforting images of sporting fair play. But the umbilical link between war and sport – or at least the British perception of sport – would not break. Indeed, it would be vital in the coming carnage. And, given the way the Great War began, it could hardly have been otherwise.

On Tuesday, 4 August 1914, the front page of the Daily Mirror was dominated by the long-awaited news that Britain was at war with Germany.


Great Britain is in a state of war with Germany. It was officially stated at the Foreign Office last night that Great Britain declared war against Germany at 7.00pm. The British Ambassador in Berlin has been handed his passport.

War was Germany's reply to our request that she should respect the neutrality of Belgium, whose territories we were bound in honour and by treaty obligations to maintain inviolate.

Speaking in a crowded and hushed House the Premier yesterday afternoon made the following statement: 'We have made a request to the German Government that we shall have a satisfactory assurance as to the Belgian neutrality before midnight tonight.'

'The German reply to our request, officially stated last night, was unsatisfactory.'

The King and Queen, accompanied by the Prince of Wales and Princess Mary, were hailed with wild, enthusiastic cheers when they appeared at about eight o'clock last night on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, before which a record crowd had assembled. Seeing the orderliness of the crowd, the police did not attempt to force the people back and went away.

A little later the police passed the word around that silence was necessary as the King was holding a meeting in the Palace, and except for a few spasmodic outbursts there was silence for a time.

Afterwards the cheering was renewed with increased vigour and soon after 11.00pm the King and Queen and Prince of Wales made a further appearance on the balcony and the crown once more sang the National Anthem, following this with hearty clapping and cheering. After the departure of the royal party some minutes later many of the crowd dispersed. Several enthusiasts, however, stayed outside keeping up the demonstration by shouting and waving flags.

The Times, meanwhile, informed its readers that the 'demonstration of patriotism and loyalty became almost ecstatic'. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, observed how, while he travelled between Parliament and Downing Street, he was 'always escorted and surrounded by crowds of loafers and holidaymakers'.

In the century since 1914, this outpouring of enthusiasm for a war which, had the celebrating crowds but known it, would ultimately kill more than 8.5 million men (and maim or cripple 21 million more) has often been portrayed as one of the more bizarre aspects of a conflict which, in its brutality, would stretch the word to its very limits.

But by far the strangest part of the declaration of hostilities was not its popular appeal but the fact that, given the protracted build-up to a war the entire country expected, the British Army was so disastrously ill-prepared for it.

Unlike Germany, Britain did not have (nor had ever had) a conscripted army. Instead it had operated its armed forces on a voluntary – and, frankly, often amateurish – basis. Commissions into the officer ranks were largely available for purchase, thus ensuring a steady stream of battlefield leaders whose chief attributes were a sufficiently large bank balance and the skill to pass the mess port round the table in the correct direction.

Throughout the various bloody wars fought across Africa for Queen and Country in the late nineteenth century it had become glaringly obvious that to defend and expand the British Empire soldiering needed to be put on a rather less capricious footing. Between 1906 and 1912, Richard Burdon Haldane, Her Majesty's Secretary of State for War, gradually reshaped the country's military might.

The major element of his reforms was the creation of a professional 'expeditionary force', a relatively small army specifically prepared and trained for intervening in a major war. Behind them were a full-time reserve army, and a new (effectively part-time) Territorial Force.

By the summer of 1914, the total strength of the Regular Army was 125,000 men in the British Isles, with 75,000 in India and Burma and a further 33,000 in other overseas postings. The Army Reserve boasted 145,000 men with another 272,000 in the Territorial Force.

Immediately after the declaration of war, Field Marshal Sir John French began transporting the British Expeditionary Force across the Channel. By September he had 164,000 men at his disposal. French's confidence that this would be quite sufficient to drive the German armies back across the Belgian border was not shared by his new enemies. Kaiser Wilhelm issued an order to his troops to 'exterminate ... the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army'. The German High Command would, within two months, oblige their monarch by wiping out the BEF almost entirely.

Sir John French's blithe assumptions about the war and the number of men Britain would need to fight it had not been shared by the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, Horatio Herbert, 1st Earl Kitchener. Almost alone in the government, he correctly predicted a long war that would last at least three years, require vast new armies to defeat Germany and suffer huge casualties before the end would come. Kitchener, a soldier to the core and the British Empire's 'Hero of Khartoum' after his victory at Omdurman in 1898 had secured control of the Sudan, bluntly warned that the conflict would plumb the depths of manpower 'to the last million'.

His solution was a 'New Army', made up entirely of volunteers to be recruited in a nationwide campaign. The iconic image of Kitchener's heavily mustachioed face appeared on posters, with an accusingly direct finger pointing outwards and the equally unforgiving instruction: 'Britons. Join Your Country's Army! God Save The King.'

Parliament sanctioned the enlistment of half a million volunteers, but in the first month of the war Kitchener asked for just 100,000 to put themselves forward; so great was public enthusiasm for the fray that it seemed the target would easily be reached. In some towns queues up to a mile long formed outside recruitment offices. Reports in regional papers, filed by news agencies, described a rush of London's young men to join up.

The HQ of the London recruiting district in Great Scotland Yard was besieged from an early hour yesterday by hundreds of applicants anxious to enlist. Towards the forenoon, the numbers increased, and the sight of the ever-increasing stream pouring into the building attracted considerable interest.

It was not – could not be – enough. By the time of the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 (the first major encounter of the Great War) both sides had dug themselves into defensive trenches and the pattern for four long years of slaughter was set.

Kitchener's New Army would need all the men it could get.It was time to close the pavilion doors, swap football boots for those of army-issue, cricket bats for Lee-Enfield rifles. The whistle had sounded. Britain needed its sportsmen.



Wellington said that the playfields of Eton won the battle of Waterloo, and there is no doubt that the training of the English boys in the cricket and football field ... taught them how to stand upand how to take and give a blow.

Headmaster of Ripon School

Speech Day 1884

The great and the good of Edwardian England had a very clear perception of the role of sport in what was then a strongly class-based society – and, in particular, of its symbolisation of the very essence of what it meant to be British. Fair play and good form; the importance of 'playing the game' over the vitality of winning; the character-forming obedience to authority and its orders – to the Edwardian mind these were the habits bred on the sporting field and to be placed, unquestioningly, at the service of King and Country.

That this vision was not, in August 1914, the experience or outlook of large swathes of the nation's sportsmen does not appear to have greatly intruded on the collective consciousness of those charged with running the game of war. In time it would, and thereby cause bitter divisions within the sporting establishment. But, as Britain and Germany took to the fields of Flanders that summer, there was an assumed progression from the changing room to the trenches.

Throughout the nineteenth century the private educational establishments, which catered almost exclusively to the fee-paying sons of the country's titled and wealthy (yet which were called, with typical English ellipticism, 'public schools'), began to introduce team games into their educational curricula. And they did so for distinct moral reasons.

Until then, these privileged establishments had been, in many cases, places for the titled scions of the Establishment to run riot out of sight of their parents. Guns were more commonplace than lessons; drinking, gambling and tormenting the communities in which they squatted (along with the equally character-forming practices of domestic slavery and sexual abuse imposed by the elder boys on their juniors) were the norm.

Gradually, Victorian educationalists began to wrest control of these schools back from the teenage hooligans sent to them. And they began to realise that through regular team games they could foster discipline and self-control in their unruly charges and simultaneously develop the temperament of young men who were, after all, supposed to transfer seamlessly from school to positions of privilege and authority in the ever-expanding British Empire. By the middle of the nineteenth century a simple equation, sport + teams = character, had become the accepted wisdom inside England's public schools. Sport fostered loyalty and selfless sacrifice for the team, and simultaneously promoted the holy trinity of courage, strength and comradeship.

If, a century later, this seems like rose-tinted nostalgia for a 'better' age, it should be remembered that until the end of the nineteenth century two of the three team sports (football, rugby and cricket) in which so much hope for their young players was invested were very different from the versions played today. Both rugby and association football were, as often as not, the youthful equivalent of close-quarter warfare. Broken bones and the spilling of blood were the norm and, indeed, were celebrated as essential for the development of true English character.

Association football (in itself a misnomer, since the Football Association came late to a game which had been fostered and developed in the so-called 'Great Nine' public schools) was characterised not by skilful passing but by mass rushes at the opposition by a group of burly forwards who were encouraged to hack brutally at their opponents' shins at every opportunity. When, following the FA's earliest bids to control the unruly sport, it was suggested that such 'hacking' be outlawed, one of the sport's grandees, Francis Campbell from Blackheath FC, countered that 'hacking is the true football' and that it encouraged 'masculine toughness'. He argued that the proposal to ban hacking emanated from 'those who like their pipes or grog or schnapps more than the manly game of football' and for good measure warned that 'if you do away with hacking you will do away with all the courage and pluck of the game, and [...] bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week's practice'.

The application of violence was, then, seen as essentially English – and its fostering in sport was what set the English apart from plainly less courageous continentals.

Rugby football, more even than its soccer forebear, worshipped at this shrine of righteous and somewhat unthinking violence. But as it developed and its players moved seamlessly from school or university into the British Army it began to mimic – or perhaps shape – what passed for military strategy. Rugby then was about throwing wave after wave of attackers at defensive lines with little more than the assumption that, at some point, one of the waves would break through. As a metaphor for the coming carnage on the Western Front, rugby was without equal.

To the great minds behind the development of public school sport there were two other major benefits in team games for their pupils – benefits which would, it was believed, prepare them well for adult lives in the service of their country. Firstly, by requiring the boys themselves to organise the matches, a sense of responsibility was inculcated in young and privileged adolescents previously noteworthy for their lack of it. This responsibility required them both to lead by example and to obey authority with appropriate deference and – most crucially – without asking too many awkward questions.

Secondly, team sports fostered an appreciation for order, good form and fair play (although, given the unrestrained violence involved, this term was remarkably elastic).


Excerpted from For Team and Country by Tim Tate. Copyright © 2014 Tim Tate. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Postscript and Dedication,

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