Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, a heated public debate took place about the continuation of professional football during a time of national crisis.
Several prominent personalities of the day, such as WG Grace and FM Roberts saw fit to pass comment. The issue was also raised in the House of Commons. Such was the strength of feeling that it was even suggested that King George V should withdraw his patronage of the Football Association.
Professional players in particular were vilified by large sections of the press as unpatriotic shirkers who put their own interests before those of their country.
The row grew increasingly vitriolic, and in late November 1914 the football authorities belatedly realised that something had to be done. The following month, the Rt. Hon William Joynson Hicks raised the Footballers' Battalion at a meeting in Fulham Town Hall with some 35 professional footballers enlisting immediately.
As an incentive, new recruits were permitted to play every Saturday for their respective clubs. Over the next few months, another 300 plus professional players enlisted (from clubs including West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Clapton (now Leyton) Orient, Plymouth Argyle and Grimsby Town).
The ranks of the 17th Middlesex were further swelled by numerous amateur players, officials and football fans eager to serve alongside their favourite players. In May 1915 a second Footballers' Battalion (23rd Middlesex) was also created. The 23rd Middlesex would later see action on the Western Front and Italy.
The 17th Middlesex were sent to France in November 1915 where the men's first experience of the trenches took place around Loos. In the spring of 1916 the battalion moved south to Vimy Ridge, where it was blooded in its first offensive action near Souchez. During this period, the battalion football team unsurprisingly trounced every Army team against which it played, winning the Divisional Football Tournament without conceding a goal.
In July 1916, the 17th Middlesex entrained for the Somme, where it fought at Delville Wood and Guillemont. Many footballers were among the dead and wounded. It needed a draft of 716 men to bring the battalion back up to strength in mid-August. In November the battalion attacked near Serre, during the final stages of the Somme offensive; once again sustaining heavy casualties.
On 28 April 1917, the battalion was virtually annihilated at Oppy Wood during the Arras offensive. After a period of reconstitution, the 17th Middlesex then faced the full onslaught of the German counter-attacks at Cambrai, where it held its ground under severe pressure, one of its officers winning a posthumous VC.
Despite its proud record, the battalion was disbanded in February 1918 when the number of battalions within a brigade was reduced from four to three in the wake of manpower shortages. By the end of the war more than a thousand men that had served with the 17th Middlesex at some stage of the Great War had lost their lives.
The 17th Middlesex football team in the Autumn of 1917. Back Row: L/Cpl Jack Doran (Coventry City), L/Cpl Pat Gallacher (formerly Tottenham Hotspur), Pte John Spick, RSM Alfred Sabine, Pte Joe Webster (West Ham Utd), Sgt Alfred Hollanby, CSM Gibson (Nottingham Forest), Pte Gardiner. Middle Row: L/Cpl George Pyke (Newcastle Utd), Lt Bennett, Capt Cosmo Clark, Lt-Col George Kelly, Capt Robert Templeman, Lt Claude Gann, Pte John Woodhouse (Brighton & Hove Albion). Front Row: Pte Jack Dodds (Oldham Athletic), Pte David Kenney (Grimsby Town), Capt Percy Barnfather (Croydon Common), Pte John Nuttall (Millwall), Sgt Charles Stewart (Croydon Common).
THE MEN OF THE 17TH MIDDLESEX
Clubs included Aston Villa, Brighton & Hove Albion, Manchester United, Manchester City, Derby County and Bradford City. One international cap in 1914. Legendary Wolves manager 1932-1944. A ruthless disciplinarian, who was renowned for his ability to unearth talent, his finds included Billy Wright and Stan Cullis. Also managed Norwich City, Walsall, Hull City and Leeds United.
Played for Brentford, Huddersfield Town, Chelsea, Everton, Plymouth Argyle and Millwall. He also played on two ccasions for England, scoring in both matches. Awarded the Military Medal during the war. A snappy dresser with a fine singing voice, he starred in the 1930s football film The Great Game alongside a young Rex Harrison.
Celebrated amateur footballer. One of the greatest players of his age, he played for Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, scoring the first ever League goal at White Hart Lane. Record goal scorer for England (29 goals in 23 matches) until Tom Finney surpassed his haul in 1958. Also represented Great Britain at the Olympic games in 1908 and 1912.
Strong, attacking centre-half with Nottingham Forest and Tranmere Rovers. His career was curtailed by the war. His son, also called Joe, grew up to become one of the true greats of English football both as a player and a Manager.
Tricky winger, who played for Manchester United and Liverpool. One of the key protagonists in the infamous fixed match at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Liverpool on Good Friday 1915, he subsequently received a lifetime ban from the game, which was later rescinded.
Walter Tull was one of the first black players to appear in The Football League. He played for Spurs and Northampton Town. Tull later received a commission and was killed at the head of his men while trying to stem the German Spring Offensive.
Accomplished centre-half who played for Reading, Manchester City and Coventry City. England amateur international. Also represented Great Britain at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, although he missed Great Britain's 4-2 victory over Denmark in the final because of injury. Later coached in Stuttgart.
One of the greatest Welsh footballers of all time. Despite being badly wounded on the Somme, he recovered to lead an unfancied Cardiff City side to FA Cup glory in 1927. This is still the only occasion on which the FA Cup has ever left England.
Wing-half who played for Bolton Wanderers and Aston Villa. In the 1913 FA Cup Final against Sunderland, Barber headed the winning goal. Badly wounded in the leg at Guillemont, he defied Doctors' orders to play in an Inter Hospital Fund game in June 1918.
Capped by England, this roving inside right's clubs included Northampton Town, Woolwich Arsenal, Everton, Sunderland, Fulham and Nottingham Forest. Known 'as the life and soul of the dressing room wherever he went', he later became a respected coach in Holland.
Goalkeeper who started out as a shipbuilder before playing professionally for West Ham United. Went on to play for Chelsea and Brighton. Whiting was renowned for his prodigious kicking ability. Once reputed to have cleared the opposition crossbar from his own area. 'Pom-Pom' Whiting made 320 appearances for Brighton.