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Play Up! Play Up! And Play The Game! Football and the First World War

The British team in Italy

The British team at a football match between British and Italian Armies. © IWM (Q 26569)

During this World Cup year, it is worth reflecting on the role of football and sport in general during the First World War. Local football teams volunteered as pals’ battalions, most famously the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, also known as the Football Battalion. Walter Tull was both the first black professional footballer and the first black officer in the British Army.

Sport was a regular feature of the front. Used as part of the soldiers’ training, it was a way of maintaining fitness and agility during the slow trench warfare. Sport also boosted morale; the army recognised the benefits of sport and exercise for mental health.

IWM’s photographic collection  has some fantastic images of all kinds of sport being played by soldiers across the world, including in Egypt, Palestine and Salonica. Captured by both official and amateur photographers, the atmospheric pictures show soldiers engaged in a physical activity that was not war.


Scottish troops in Stavros

Scottish troops playing football with the temperature at over 90 degrees in the shade. Stavros, July 1916. © IWM (Q 32183)

Officers versus other ranks football match, Salonika, 1915.

Officers and men of 26th Divisional Ammunition Train (Army Service Corps) playing football in Salonika, Christmas 1915.© IWM (Q 31576)

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