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Sport and the war

Photograph in The Tatler, 6 November, 1918

The football team of the Sterling munitions factory in 1918

Each week during the war, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News published the Sportsman’s Roll of Honour, a half page or more featuring photographs and obituaries of the seemingly endless list of casualties suffered by the sporting world. The First World War was to claim the lives of many talented sportsmen, among them the footballer Donald Bell VC, rugby player and England captain, Edgar Mobbs (who raised his own battalion known as “Mobbs’ Own” for the Northamptonshire Regiment), the polo player Leslie Cheape and New Zealand tennis player and four-times Wimbledon champion, Anthony Wilding.

Sportsmen were encouraged to join up together in battalions; a number of high-profile jockeys joined the 19th Hussars as troopers, and the 23rd and 24th Service Battalions, also known as the 1st and 2nd Sportsman’s Battalions, allowed men up to the age of 45 to join, the reason being that they would have a superior level of fitness to most. There was also a Footballers’ Battalion, but football itself had numerous critics during the war, drawing enormous crowds of young men who could have been answering the call of duty as opposed to watching “men footling at football” as The Tatler put it in November 1914. In its next issue, a letter from the front, where they were playing what was termed, “the greater game”, strongly demanded: “A law should forbid a football being kicked.” Eventually, football fixtures were suspended in the spring of 1915. Months before that, The Times had reported that every rugby international was already doing his duty and had joined up.

Other sports suspended tournaments, or carried on but in a much-reduced fashion. The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship immediately announced it would make no arrangements for another tournament while the war was in progress. The continuation of horseracing was debated and it was decided that meetings would continue but without the social element — especially as the king had announced he would not attend Ascot. The hunting world was a bastion of British tradition (and of great interest to readers of the ILN magazines), not to mention a source of horses for military use. It also continued to operate, with many women taking over as Master of Foxhounds. One news story in The Tatler and the ILN featured photographs of British officers enjoying hare hunting near the Front, complete with a pack of beagles brought over with the permission of the military authorities.