Footballers' Battalion

Leicester Fosse & The First World War: The Footballers’ Battalion

Following the outbreak of the First World War, Lord Kitchener’s Famous 'Your Country Needs You' recruitment drive for the Army prompted the MP for Brentford, William Joynson-Hicks, to arrange a meeting to discuss the formation of a Footballers’ Battalion.
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He was also influenced by the success of McCrae’s Battalion which was based on Heart of Midlothian footballers in Scotland and by the formation of 'Pals' Battalions'.

The meeting took place at Fulham Town Hall on 15 December, 1914. All of London’s professional players were invited. About 400 attended the meeting.

It was hoped that the proposed battalion would raise 1350 men. It would be open to all professional and amateur players and 'club enthusiasts'.

Given the small stature of many footballers, minimum height requirements were dispensed with. The plan was to allow players who enlisted to play the season out with their clubs while they were still training for the Army. Recruits would be paid an allowance over and above their football club wages, together with expenses incurred travelling to matches.

The London Clubs unanimously agreed to recruit at their grounds for the Battalion which was to be officially known as the 17th (Service) Battalion (Football) Middlesex Regiment.

By the end of the meeting, 35 players had volunteered. Ten of them were from Clapton Orient, (later to be known as Leyton Orient).

One of the volunteers was Frank Buckley, who later became the famous Wolverhampton Wanderers manager from 1927-1944.

Within a month, about 600 recruits had volunteered for the Battalion. Despite 13 Brighton players volunteering, the response of professional footballers generally was disappointing.

Most of the 600 were amateur players or fans. However, Number 1 Platoon of the Battalion was exclusively made up of professional footballers under the command of Buckley.

Initially, the Battalion was based, in pretty basic conditions, at White City. Training and drills were hard. Angus Seed, who had played for Leicester Fosse in 1913/14, and who went on to win the Military Medal as a corporal in the Footballers’ Battalion, wrote: ‘If they keep giving us the drills we had this morning, we will have muscles like stones’.

Recruiting continued. There were special posters displayed at London grounds. A short film showing the Battalion training at White City was shown in cinemas.

By February, 850 men, mostly from London and the South East, had joined the Battalion but only 122 (out of a possible total of 1800) were professional footballers.

Battalion strength had risen to 1,400 by the end of the season, by which time it had moved to a training camp at Dorking.

Leicester Fosse’s last fixture of the season (and of the War, as it turned out) was against Clapton Orient, most of whose players officials and staff had already joined the Footballers’ Battalion.

After the game, there was a military parade so that the supporters could give a rousing send off as they marched off to war. 

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