This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of The Football Pink fanzine which was released in August 2014 and was themed ‘War’ to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

LAURA JONES looks at the influence of writing upon society’s attitudes towards footballers and sportsmen during the Great War.

Whilst Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was the poster boy for the War Office, the writer Arthur Conan Doyle was the government’s unofficial copywriter. The creator of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes was a vociferous crusader for the war effort and he wrote numerous essays during the conflict in order to campaign, motivate and eulogise about the Great War.

On 20th August 1914, sixteen days after Britain had declared war on Germany, Conan Doyle published the first of his Great War essays The Causes of the War.

Ten days later, the article was republished but with a major difference. The essay was rebranded ‘To Arms!’ and one paragraph was added that had a significant impact on the country’s football players and supporters. Within the newly submitted paragraph were the following words:

‘In Germany, every man from the ages of sixteen to fifty-five is with the colours. The last man has been called up. And yet we hear – we could not bear to see – that young athletic men in this country are playing football or cricket, while our streets are full of those who should be in our camps…Shame, shame on the man who fails his country in this, its hour of need!’

And thus begins the vilification of football that would last beyond the Great War, through the inter war years and even into the Second World War.

To Arms is a propaganda pamphlet. Within its 11 pages the Scottish writer gives his version of events on why Great Britain entered into a war with Germany. He blames political hatred and petty jealousy as the reasons why Germany hates Britain. Conan Doyle passes these facts as ‘common knowledge’ and that over the years Germany had become ‘intoxicated by her success in war and by her increase in wealth.’

Doyle’s words could equally have been said about the British Empire’s rampage across the world in the previous centuries. The irony is not lost when you read one of Conan Doyle’s later essays The Devil’s Doctrine, where he lists the ‘wrong’ assertions that the German press were making at the time against Great Britain. These included ‘the Boers were eager to re-conquer South Africa’, ‘the Empire was an artificial collection of States’ and that ‘India loathed us.’

Conan Doyle’s statement of ‘one would not have thought it possible that people could be always wrong’ seems ironic today, as it was the effects of the First World War that began the disintegration of the British Empire.

The author goes on to paint a picture of a nation that has lived in Britain’s shadow and how we have been nothing but a ‘friend’ and ‘ally’ to them.

In a less than subtle way Conan Doyle describes Germany as ‘she’, the fickle, greedy, fallen woman. ‘I have shown how we have in very truth never injured nor desired to injure Germany in commerce nor have we opposed her politically until her own deliberate actions drove us into the camps of her opponents.’

The message to the men he is addressing is…do you really want this woman telling you what to do. An assault on one’s manhood is a common theme in To Arms, a festering undercurrent of Doyle’s own feelings.

Arthur Conan Doyle was a dedicated sportsman and frustrated military man. At the age of 40, he volunteered to be a solider in the second Boer War but his age and weight counted against him.  He never served in battle but offered his services as a doctor. It was here that he wrote The Great Boer War, a 500-page tome chronicling his time in Africa.

When the First World War was declared, Conan Doyle again volunteered his services. ‘I am fifty-five but I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances, which is useful at drill.’ His offer was again, declined by the War Office and like before he used the power of his pen to do what he believed was his duty.

The frustration of being unable to serve his country can be felt throughout To Arms, and those unwilling to volunteer felt the full force of his words. As a keen sportsman he found it unfathomable that young, athletic men did not want serve their country. Conan Doyle had played football as an amateur for Portsmouth City F.C. and cricket for Marylebone (M.C.C.).

Because he was a sportsman and a willing soldier, it is evident that he thought others should follow his example. He is the epitome of the father living vicariously through his sons, projecting his unfulfilled ambition and pushing the men of the United Kingdom to where he longed to be.

Conan Doyle was backed in his quest to guilt the national male population into ‘voluntarily’ enlisting.  To Arms, had a preface article written by the 1st Earl of Birkenhead, F.E. Smith, who was the Member of Parliament for Walton in Liverpool. The Earl would later become Lord Chancellor and a great personal and political friend of Winston Churchill.

Smith was also military minded. He joined the Territorial Army prior to war being declared, where he served as a Captain. Like Conan Doyle he had a great belief in the duty that men should do for King and country.

His preface reiterates the government’s stance on the reasons for going to war with Germany. In an attempt to out-author Conan Doyle, Smith conjures up a future vision of a dystopian society where the ‘Germanization’ of the people would lead to us becoming ‘conscripts under German war lords.’

‘Better to choose the path of righteousness, of duty and patriotism, however stony the road, rather than the soft way of dishonour and leisurely ease.’

This ‘leisurely ease’ was a thorny issue for the upper echelons of society. Football had become a professional sport and working class men were now making a living as paid sportsmen. This angered the gentlemen amateurs greatly, including Smith.

‘What of the great Northern cities…which send tens of thousands to cheer their representatives on a football field but are unmoved by the terrible experiences of our men on the field of battle.’

The southern men don’t escape the Earl’s contempt either. Whilst the Northerners are grasping and unfeeling, the London men he sees around town are more concerned with the fairer sex than signing up for war; ‘Thousands and thousands of able-bodied unattached young men, nearly all of them with girls of their own age.’

F.E. Smith, in only a matter of a few paragraphs had divided the nation into north and south, middle class and working class, football and all other sports.

Conan Doyle and Smith’s pamphlet wasn’t just an accusation about the continuation of football, it was a finger firmly pointed at the working class.  The sports that surrendered their leagues and competitions were mainly gentlemen amateurs from hockey, rugby union, lawn tennis and golf. In November 1914, former Oxford rower A.F.Pollard wrote a letter to The Times.

‘Every club that employs a professional football player is bribing a needed recruit to refrain from enlistment, and every spectator who pays his gate money is contributing towards a German victory.’

According to Matthew Taylor in his book The Association Game, a history of British football, there was a fight back by the Manchester based Athletic News who wrote that the outcry was ‘nothing less than an attempt by the classes to stop the recreation on one day a week of the masses.’

Whether Arthur Conan Doyle’s propaganda pamphlet had a direct effect on mobilising the masses is difficult to tell. Recruitment reached its peak in the first week of September 1914, only a week after its publication, but other newspapers were also doing the War Office’s bidding. Between these articles and news of the first major action at the Battle of Mons, they were enough to see over 750,000 men voluntarily sign up by the end of September 1914.

The idea of being paid to play football was now becoming morally ‘repugnant’, as Airdrieonians Chairman, Thomas Forsyth, described it. The Scottish FA had a vote to suspend the league but the decision was to carry on regardless.

As the English and Scottish leagues persisted, the dissenting voices became louder including notable social reformer Frederick Charrington, who started a campaign to have football forcibly suspended in Britain. His campaign included public denouncements such as Conan Doyle’s and private acts to induce shame.

Football tried to mend its reputation through the recruitment of Pals Battalions. These were specially created battalions aimed at groups of friends or colleagues who could join up together so the prospect would be less daunting.

After the Scottish FA’s decision not to suspend the league, sixteen players from Heart of Midlothian F.C, decided to join the 16th Royals Scots (known as McCrae’s Battalion) along with 500 Hearts supporters.

The 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment was also created which included the entire Leyton Orient squad (or Clapton Orient as they were known then). 

By November 1914, a number of professional footballers had signed up as soldiers but this didn’t impress an already skeptical nation. Of a potential 1800 professionals only 122 had volunteered and the Football Association was attacked for using this as just a publicity exercise.

Football suffered greatly from its perceived reputation of cowardice and money grabbing.

Arthur Conan Doyle wielded his pen like a sword and it penetrated the manhood of the game. Some would say the traits the professional footballers were accused of then still remain today.

‘Have you, who have read this, played your part to the highest? If not, do it now, or stand forever shamed.’


 Cover artwork by Daniel Duncan @DanielDuncan

Cover artwork by Daniel Duncan @DanielDuncan