The Soldier’s Game

In 1914 football was part of daily life across Britain and like us today the First World War generation had a passion for football, a game which grew hugely in popularity in the early part of the 20th century. Football became (and still is) ‘the soldier’s game’.

It was a morale booster, and a weapon to combat the bleakness of the trenches. Back at home, many women when they weren’t busy contributing to the war effort took to the pitch in unprecedented numbers to organise and play in football matches that raised both morale and funds for wounded soldiers and for bereaved families.

Today it’s hard to imagine footballers like Harry Kane being required to swap a Spurs kit for khakis and a rifle. But thousands of players like him did just that. Almost 3,000 professional footballers served during the First World War and sadly 300 of them paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Alex ‘Sandy’ Turnbull was one of them. He played for Manchester United before the war and scored the first goal at Old Trafford. He died at Arras in July 1917 leaving a widow and four children.

Walter Tull, the British Army’s first mixed-race officer to command white troops, was formerly of Tottenham Hotspur. He died at Arras in 1918. There was Newcastle United’s Donald Bell, who, had there not been a war, would’ve played international football, but instead he won a Victoria Cross by knocking out a German machine gun post.

The list goes on, and as chairman of the Army Football Association I recognise the need to tell the story of these men to future generations. I also believe in the enduring and inclusive appeal of the soldier’s game.

Football still plays an important role in Army life, from forging friendships among soldiers to helping maintain fitness and developing skills such as teamwork and strategy. In makeshift dusty pitches in Afghanistan, football was often played between us and our Afghan and European allies.

Almost every country where our forces need to engage with a local community you can bet that one of the first things we do is arrange a football match with the locals.

It is therefore fitting that this November the Army Football Association is proud to organise the Games of Remembrance. In Nottingham two commemorative matches (women’s and men’s) between the British Army and the German Army will be played to honour the soldiers from both sides who lost their lives in the First World War.

A century later, football’s grip on the Army is going strong and I’m certain that a round leather ball will accompany our troops wherever they are in the world for some time to come.

Major General Mitch Mitchell is Chairman of the Army Football Association