SPORT ON THE BATTLEFIELD: The contribution of sportsmen during WWI

SPORT ON THE BATTLEFIELD: The contribution of sportsmen during WWI

In the second of our new series of regular blogs, Fields in Trust Development Manager for London and East of England David Sharman discusses the contribution of sportsmen in World War I.

When sport is mentioned in the same breath as World War I if you’re anything like me the image that most likely comes to mind is that of the fabled Christmas truce football matches. When, on Christmas Day 1914, men from both sides of the trench ventured out, exchanged gifts, and played football. You’ll probably remember how this story was used really effectively in Sainsbury’s 2014 WWI centenary Christmas advert.

It’s an iconic image and a poignant sporting picture, underlining the importance of sport to WWI servicemen, but really only scratches the surface of the role sport played in WWI and the impact of wartime sportsmen. You might well be thinking ‘does sport really have any significant connection to the war?’ but the list of WWI sporting stories is astounding. One of the most affecting individual tales of such sportsmen is that of England and Saints Rugby player Edgar Mobbs. Rejected when enlisting as a commissioned officer for being too old at 32, Mobbs joined as a Private, inspiring so many others in the county to join up that 7th Service Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment became known as ‘Mobbs’ own’. He eventually rose through the ranks from Private to Lt Colonel, wounded twice before 1917 as he fearlessly led men; it’s rumoured that Mobbs would lead an attack by punting a rugby ball into no-man’s land before chasing the kick. In January 2017 at the Battle of Passchendaele, Mobbs, leading from the front as always, was shot in the neck and died. As he lay dying, he apparently passed the map reference of the enemy to a runner.

Football, unsurprisingly, was the game that was actually played the most by troops during WWI. It was often played behind the lines to keep morale and fitness up, and also to help officers forge links with their men. The nation’s game in fact spawned its own battalion, the 17th Service (Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. Walter TullThe 600 men of the battalion were mainly normal men attracted to join up and fight alongside their footballing heroes. Those footballers in the regiment came from clubs across the country, including the whole of Clapton Orient (now Leyton Orient), also Frank Buckley, then of Bradford City previously of Derby County, who would later command the battalion, and Walter Tull. Walter Tull was incredible for a number of reasons; he was only the 2nd black player to play in the football league, for both Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, brushing off fan racism all the while, but he was also the first black officer ever to lead white British soldiers in battle. He was made an officer, despite black men being banned from receiving such a position in the British Army, due to his exceptional leadership skills-amazingly rising from Private to Lieutenant. He served gallantly with the Football Battalion, right through the Battle of the Somme and later in Italy, before returning again to France. On 25th March 1918 at Favreuil he was shot far out in No Mans Land. He had become such a popular officer that several of his men made brave but doomed attempts to rescue him, under heavy machine-gun fire. His body was never recovered.

Captain Wilfred Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment, also used football to inspire his men to go over the top on the first Day of the Battle of the Somme. He too, like Edgar Mobbs used a ball, this time of the round variety, and urged his men across no man’s land, dribbling and kicking the ball on as they went. He was shot and killed trying to throw a grenade on reaching the German lines. The platoon eventually captured the enemy trench and retrieved the balls, one of which is now at the Princess of Wale’s Royal Regiment Museum.

Cricket also had its heroes during the Great War. From casual amateurs such as Siegfried Sassoon to renowned players like Kent’s Kenneth Hutchings. One of the most poignant cricketer’s tales to me is that of Captain Cyril Rattigan. A player for Cambridge University and the MMC, on November 13th 1916 Cyril found himself not on a pitch, but pinned down in a shell hole by a sniper for 5 hours with one of his officers Lieutenant Downing. Just as they were about to make a run for it Captain Rattigan saw a wounded man laying close by. He decided to make an attempt at rescuing the man, Lieutenant Downing reporting his words, “I’m going to have a shot at getting him in”, he stood upright to head over to the man and was shot in the head as he commenced. He lost his life trying to save another.

There are countless stories of sportsmen in WWI, not necessarily as well known or as prestigious as the few given above, but just as valuable. Our own Centenary Fields programme offers clubs, as well as other landowners the chance to dedicate their pitches and parks as Centenary Fields, Wanstead RFCprotecting them forever and commemorating those past players that served in WWI that might not be as well known. One such club currently applying is Wanstead Rugby Football Club. Twenty two of the club’s members were killed in World War I, one of them being Edward Brunton. Edward was in fact a member of that 1st Football Batallion, clearly a man of varied sporting interests. He died on the 13th November 1916, the same day as Cyril Rattigan, on the first day of the 2nd battle of Ancre, the final British large-scale operation of the Battle of the Somme. The Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history, lasting over 4 months, is being commemorated this year as we mark its own centenary. We hope to complete the dedication of Wanstead RFC’s ground before the centenary of Edward Brunton’s death.

If you are a member of a club, founded over 100 years ago and are interested in protecting the ground through the programme then please do see if you can find any records at all of past members service during WWI; these sportsmen too deserve to be remembered. We hope that during Centenary Fields we can shed light on as many such individuals as possible; though the horrific toll this war took means that there will of course be countless more stories. It is our hope to honour the many by protecting these Centenary Fields forever as a living legacy.

Centenary Fields aims to create this legacy by protecting any playing field, public park or other green space that has some kind of connection to World War I, perhaps being the very fields these men and others like them would have played on before going to war. These sites will thus be safeguarded forever via one of our deeds of dedication. You can contact your Fields in Trust Development Manager for your region via the details found here if you would like any further information on the Centenary Fields programme.


David SharmanDavid Sharman is Fields in Trust Development Manager for London and the East of England. He can be contacted by any of the below means.

t: 020 7427 2123


David Sharman is the Fields in Trust Development Manager for London and the East of England. He has been in the post since July 2015, supporting and safeguarding fields in the region, also working on active national partnership projects with the Carnegie UK Trust and the Lawn Tennis Association during this time. David came to Fields in Trust from a environmental and conservation background, working in project manager roles for organisations such as the BBC Wildlife Fund and Talk Action.


Pictured above from top to bottom are:

  • Army Service Corps football match, Christmas 1915
  • Walter Tull
  • Wanstead Rugby Football Club