Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, a heated debate took place in the letters pages of many national newspapers about the continuance of professional football during a time of national crisis. Whilst Lord Kitchener was pushing to enlist 100,000 new recruits to the army, pressure was mounting to abandon the Football League so that both fans and players could ‘play the greater game’. The issue was also raised in the House of Commons and, such was the strength of feeling that it was even suggested to King George V that he should withdraw his patronage of the Football Association.
As a result of the fierce criticism that the game was attracting, the 17th Middlesex (1st Football) Battalion was raised on 15th December 1914 during an enthusiastic meeting at Fulham Town Hall, just yards away from Chelsea Football Club’s home ground of Stamford Bridge. That afternoon 35 professional footballers from clubs across London enlisted on the platform, including three players on Chelsea’s payroll: Teddy Foord, Dave Girdwood and reserve goalkeeper William Krug.[ii] The local newspaper reported “A number of prominent men have enlisted in the battalion, and their example will no doubt inspire others to place at the service of the nation those physical endowments which their fondness for one of the finest British games has brought to rare perfection”.[iii]
When William enlisted, he was 21 and still living at home with his family in a one room furnished flat on the ground floor of 40 Novello Street, Fulham. At 5 8¾in (175cm) tall, he was at least half a head taller than most of his peers and, as a professional footballer, was of course of athletic build and at the peak of physical fitness. Like many other young men at the time, William signed up for “the duration of the war” rather than the alternative terms of service of “three years”, possibly thinking that this would be shorter as it “would all be over by Christmas”.[v]
The “Old Die Hards” was just one of the so called “Pals” battalions created during local recruiting drives with the promise that recruits would be able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours, and colleagues, rather than be randomly assigned to diverse units.
Over the next few months, another 200 or so professional players joined the battalion, and the ranks were further swelled by many amateur players, officials, and football fans eager to serve with their favourite players. Initially, professional players were released from the army to play every Saturday for their respective club, but professional football was suspended for the rest of the war after the FA Cup Final held on 24th April 1915. This match became known as the “Khaki Final” due to the huge number of soldiers in uniform, some on leave and many injured, in the crowd who witnessed Sheffield United beat Chelsea 3-0.
Just two weeks after the Khaki Final, William married his sweetheart, 23-year-old factory worker Harriet Obee, at Fulham Town Hall[vii], the same building in which he signed up for the army less than six months previously. Harriet was the granddaughter of Richard Mayhew and, as such, a cousin of mine.
Since he had enlisted, William and his comrades had been undergoing military training at White City in West London. Although they attended lectures on bayonet fighting and musketry, the emphasis remained on drill and physical fitness. The battalion, by now numbering over 1,000 men, soon transferred to a small camp in Holmbury St Mary, near Dorking, then on to a massive camp near Mansfield which could accommodate more than 30,000 soldiers from Lord Kitchener’s New Armies. The 17th Middlesex were joining the 33rd Division, where they would become part of the 100th Brigade and undertake more training exercises at brigade level.[viii] By August the Footballers’ had moved to Salisbury Plain where they had their first experience of firing rifles on long ranges[ix] before leaving for the Western Front in November 1915.[x]
William was probably very excited at last to be heading towards the action almost a year after he’d enlisted and took the opportunity to send a postcard back to Stamford Bridge whilst on route to the front to say he was fine[xi] but none of his training could have prepared him for the reality of life in the trenches of the Somme valley.
Over the next few weeks, the general routine was for William and his section to spend 4 days in the fire trench (front line), 4 days in close reserve, where they would have to be ready to reinforce the line at short notice, and finally 4 days at rest. Trench life was one of considerable squalor with so many men living in a very constrained space being unable to wash or change for days or weeks at a time. The trenches tended to be filthy with empty tins and waste mixed with human waste from the latrines. Vermin, including rats and lice were present in high numbers, along with the maggots and flies that thrived on decomposing human and animal corpses in No Man’s Land, and sometimes, particularly during the winter, trenches flooded leaving them filled to waist height with a combination of water, mud, and other effluent. Men suffered from exposure, frostbite, trench foot (a non-freezing cold injury of the skin caused prolonged exposure to damp, cold, unsanitary conditions) that would cripple a man, and many other diseases brought on or made worse by this terrible environment.
Active service in the fire (front) trench was generally the same: half an hour before dawn came the ‘Stand To’ when the men stood on the trench firestep with their bayonets fixed in anticipation of a German attack. Half an hour after dawn came the ‘Stand Down’ and the rum ration might be issued. The men would clean their rifles before eating breakfast, washed down with strong sweet-tasting tea, then all manner of officer inspections might follow, including gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, iron rations and socks. Throughout the day, the men would be kept busy with such tasks as sentry duty, repairing trenches, digging latrines, or bringing up stock of duckboards, grenades, and other supplies from the rear. Half an hour before dusk the men would once again ‘Stand To’ until half an hour after darkness had fallen. Throughout the night, the trenches were a hive of activity with wiring parties sent out into No Man’s Land to repair gaps in the barbed wire, and patrols sent out to report on enemy activity and the state of their defences. If the enemy artillery or snipers were active, wounded men might need to be carried to the regimental aid post, usually in a reserve trench, for treatment.
Despite their horrendous situation, William and his fellow Chelsea teammate Teddy Foord continued their upbeat correspondence with their old club and an extract was printed in a match programme: “Teddy Foord and Krug have written to say they are fit and well after a spell in the trenches. Foord has put in a good many shots, some of which he hopes have caused the opponents to be one or two down and Krug (goalkeeper) does not seem at all disappointed at the fact that he has let everyone go past without stopping a single shot.”[xiii]
On 22nd December 1915, the 17th Middlesex battalion completed their first tour of duty and marched back to billets about 2 miles behind the front line near Loos where they had a chance to enjoy a Christmas Day with entertainment, a good lunch and a game of football against a team from the Royal Engineers (which the Footballers easily won 19-1).[xiv]
In the early 1916, the battalion moved south to Vimy Ridge and undertook its first offence action near Souchez then, in July, they fought at Delville Wood and September at Guillemot. Many footballers were among the dead and wounded. The battalion was part of the attack near Serre in November 1916, once again sustaining heavy casualties and, on 28th April 1917, the 17th Middlesex was virtually annihilated at Oppy Wood during the Arras Offensive.
It is not known whether William took part in all the action, but his military record indicates he was lightly wounded in the leg and gassed twice during the summer of 1916. The following March William was admitted to hospital in Rouen with a fever, possibly trench fever – a moderately serious disease transmitted by body lice. He was repatriated to England a couple of weeks later, but, by May 1917, he was suffering from sciatica so badly that he spent over six months in hospital being treated at the Eastern Command at Shoreham-by-Sea, one of the new Command Depots used to rehabilitate wounded soldiers who had not recovered enough to return to active service but were well enough not to require hospitalisation. By November he was posted to the 5th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment at Chatham, a reserve battalion used for home service as part of the Thames and Medway Garrison. William did not return to France, however he was promoted twice, to Lance Corporal then Corporal before he was demobilised in February 1919 from Chatham aged just 26.
It’s quite impossible to estimate the true human cost of the First World War, but nearly one quarter of the men who served in the 17th Middlesex lost their lives during active service. Many, many more were left mutilated and/or traumatised by their experiences and struggled to readjust to civilian life and virtually none of the professional footballers were able to resume their career at top level[xv].
A generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them.[xvi]
After the War, William was awarded the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 14-15 Star. Then, in 1919, following the death of their infant daughter Harriet, he, his wife and toddler son Willie, moved to Tonbridge in Kent, where their daughters Ethel and Sheila were born. William died in 1929 aged just 37 adding his widow and children to the generation of women without a husband and children without a father.
[i] Imperial War Museum © IWM Q 81329
[ii] When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War by Andrew Riddoch & John Kemp, published by Haynes in 2009
[iii] Fulham Chronicle 18 Dec 1914 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk
[iv] Imperial War Museum © IWM Art.IWM PST 12071
[v] British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920: The National Archives Microfilm Publication WO363 via Ancestry.co.uk
[vi] Imperial War Museum © IWM Art.IWM PST 0968
[vii] British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920: The National Archives Microfilm Publication WO363 via Ancestry.co.uk
[viii] When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War by Andrew Riddoch & John Kemp, published by Haynes in 2009
[xii] Imperial War Museum Art. © IWM ART 722
[xiii] I When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War by Andrew Riddoch & John Kemp, published by Haynes in 2009
[xvi] Samuel Lynn Hynes: A war imagined: the First World War and English culture published by Atheneum in 1992
[xvii] Kent & Sussex Courier 01 Feb 1929 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk