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Swansea Town Football Club during the First World War: an insight of the 1914-15 season.

For everyone associated with sport, the declaration of war on Germany in August 1914 created enormous uncertainty about what the future held. It fell close to when the football and rugby seasons were set to commence.

‘Business as usual’ was the government’s advice to sporting authorities. The footballing authorities argued that fixtures should continue because football was good for maintaining morale. By contrast, rugby decided to suspend playing just nine days after the declaration of war.

After uncertainty and intense debates, football took the decision to continue for the 1914-15 season. Some accused football of not doing its bit for King and Country, whereas others claimed it provided a way of boosting morale during wartime. This story explores what happened to Swansea Town Football Club during the 1914-15 season. By using the Swans as a case study, it will provide an insight into the reception football received from its decision to continue during war time.

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Swansea Town Football Club Team Photo 1914-1915.

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'Signing On' Sporting News Cartoon 5...

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'A Closed Book' Sporting News Cartoon...

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Sporting News Cartoon - 'The Day' ...

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Sporting News Cartoon Saturday 9 January 1915

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Swansea Town Football Club Programme Cover vs...

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'Now the Day is Over' Sporting News...

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'Football Out Weighed' Sporting News...


The calm before the storm…

Before the declaration of war, Swansea had enthusiastically awaited the start of the new season. Despite only being founded in 1912, they had already won the Welsh League and the Welsh Cup in their short history. They were eager to win more trophies.

The Cambria Daily Leader reported how the Vetch Field was in excellent condition; everything was ready for the hard and gruelling season ahead.[1] A new manager, John William Bartlett, was appointed prior to the outbreak of war and football season, on the 8 May 1914. He came highly recommend with an excellent reputation. He had turned down an offer from the German F.A. to take charge of the whole of South Germany on their behalf.[2] In hindsight, it was probably a blessing in disguise. The team had managed to hold on to a number of players such as fans favourite Jack Nicholas and inside forward Ivor Brown.

The Swans also acquired more players. One of the new additions was Ben Beynon, a recruit from Swansea Rugby Football Club (RFC). Too young to sign up for armed service, he played as an amateur for the Swans. The squad was boosted further by the arrival Welsh international T.J. Hewitt from Chelsea and Amos Lloyd from West Bromwich.[3]

The storm arrives but football continues…

Despite the best preparations both on and off the pitch, Swansea could not avoid the outbreak of war. As can be seen in the 'signing on' cartoon, players were encouraged to take a different form of signing on for the 1914-15 season. Instead of signing contracts for football, enlisting to fight was encouraged.

It became apparent that football would be transformed by the war. Not only were players being encouraged to enlist, football grounds obtained an additional role. The Football Association agreed with the War Office that clubs should ‘be requested to place their grounds at the disposal of the War Office on days, other than match days, for use as Drill Grounds’.[4] Grounds, including the Vetch, were made available to the military for drills or training at any time other than a Saturday afternoon. Some football clubs even decided to give their players rifle practice.[5] Although not everyone at Swansea was happy with the intervention from the War Office. One member of the board suggested that the War Office could only have the ground if it took over the club’s liabilities.[6]

Despite football clubs assisting the war effort with the use of grounds, opinion still differed over if football should be continuing. Historian Richard Holt argues that despite football grounds being used extensively for recruiting, there was a strong moral pressure to stop the Football League for the duration of the war.[7] The President of the Welsh Football Association (FA) noted it would be nothing short of panic legislation to interfere with football as ‘football filled a large place in the life of the nation, its stoppage would be attended by man undesirable results’.[8] One writer to The Cambria Daily Leader held a different opinion to that of the Welsh FA’s President. The writer described the situation ‘as pathetic that there should be a question as to whether it is better for a football field to remain in possession of a body anxious to shoot goals or whether they should act with gracious loyalty’.[9]

The decision to play on made controversial by the actions of rugby…

The comparison to rugby highlights the controversy of football’s decision to continue.  As can be seen in 'closed book' cartoon, rugby was a closed book with the lock swiftly attached. Nine days after the war broke out, the RFU made a country-wide appeal. National, county and club games were cancelled for the duration, only a handful of charity matches were played.[10] One of these charity matches featured a Welsh XV against a Barbarians XV at Cardiff in April 1915, this being used as a method of recruitment to the Welsh Guards.[11]

Rugby appeared to be taking the moral high ground, causing a bigger headache for the football authorities. The bottom of the cartoon notes that the playing of football was undesirable thus highlighting the pressure it was receiving. The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) encouraged enlistment. They circulated a note to clubs which stated: ‘if only every man in every First XV in Wales were to enlist, what a magnificent body there would be at the service of our country’.[12] Llanelly RFC declared itself ‘heartily proud’ of the response of the young men of Llanelly and district to the call of King and Country.[13]

Although it appeared some soldiers on the frontline felt differently. They did not share the same enthusiasm of the WRU to end rugby for the duration of war. One soldier wounded at Mons wrote to The Cambria Daily Leader to state how he ‘looked in vain for the rugby reports when in hospital’.  Additionally, the Swansea boys were said to be ‘terribly cut up’ when they found out that the All Whites were not playing.[14]

Victory over the giants of Blackburn Rovers …

Despite the initial controversy, football continued for the 1914-15 season. The highlight of the season for the Swans undoubtedly came with the legendary 1-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers in the first round of the English FA Cup. There was one team expected to enter the second round without trouble: that team was Blackburn Rovers.[15] The event offers the perfect example of the morale boost football provided on the home front. 'The Day' cartoon sees ‘Birdie’ dressed up going into battle. Interestingly it was as a German. The cartoon uses the war as a form of entertainment by suggesting, that just like the Germany army wanting dominance on the battlefield, Swansea wanted control on the football field. With Birdie dressed as a German, the war appears to be less serious by providing a form of entertainment.

The victory offered a welcomed break from the seriousness of war. The first leg ended in a 0-0 draw, Swansea earned a replay at home. The name alone of the opposing club set the town alight. Kitchener, the Kaiser and local controversies were all forgotten in the excitement.[16] Applications for tickets were well in demand, having received applications from Monmouthshire, Carmarthenshire and several other outlying counties.[17] An energetic crowd of around 16,000 passionate fans cramped into the Vetch Field. A moment of magic from Ben Beynon put Swansea ahead. It was met with ecstatic roars and hymns sung greater than ever before.[18] After the victory wounded soldiers who saw the match from the stand, by the courtesy of the directors, wrote to congratulate the team.[19] The war on the home front appeared forgotten for the afternoon due to the famous victory.

Soldiers on the frontline celebrate…

Soldiers eagerly anticipated the result of the match. A German advance being met with the request to ‘call round again’ in the 'an engrossing "occupation"' cartoon, signifies the impact football had on front line morale. No matter what people at home felt, soldiers awaited the news with great excitement. Sapper Begley, of the Royal Engineers, stated how he and the other Swansea Boys in the Regiment were delighted to hear of the defeat of Blackburn Rovers.[20] A driver in the Army Transport Service, stationed in France, wrote to congratulate Swansea. He wished he was at home to watch but King and Country needed him.[21]

Celebrating victory but background pressure…

Despite Swansea’s outstanding victory, discussion of the war could not be avoided. As can be seen in the match day programme, young male spectators of the cup-tie were requested to enlist. Despite football continuing, it was overshadowed by the war. There was an underlying pressure that the war should take priority over football. Although footballers had already started to join the army. The previous November saw 2000 of the 5000 professional footballers join the forces.[22]

Match day recruitment was not unique to the Vetch Field. In some instances, the recruitment elsewhere had not gone to plan. In November 1914, a speech by Colonel Burn at the Chelsea ground failed to produce one recruit.[23] Later on in the same month, only six volunteers came forward at a game between Cardiff and Bristol Rovers.[24]

Moving forward, Swansea met Newcastle away in the second round. Having travelled to Newcastle for the game to finish as a draw, the Swans were defeated 2-0 in the replay at the Vetch. Despite defeat in the cup, it cannot be denied that the initial controversy was almost all but forgotten once the season started. The excitement provided by the historic cup run dominated debate and offered a welcomed break from the war.

The season stutters to an end…

For the Swans, the season did not end with the celebration that was optimistically anticipated at the start. With it being the second time in three years that Swansea were in a Welsh Cup Final, they were optimistic of victory. A 1-0 defeat to Wrexham in the controversial replay was to be the result of Swansea’s last game for the 1914-15 season.

It can be seen in the 'now the day is over' cartoon how a battered and defeat birdie left the Welsh Cup final replay empty handed. Poignantly the sunset in the background reflects the setting of priorities in regards to football. Despite support and opposition to the continuation of football, the 1914-15 season was not short of entertainment. It was described by the South Wales Weekly Post as ‘the most memorable football season in the recollection of the longest follower of the game – a season which has made some of the best known and cleverest soccer combinations in the country quiver in their foundations’.[25]

It was not only in Swansea where it was accepted football should now take a backseat. In the English FA Cup final, known as the ‘Khaki Final’, Lord Derby presented the cup to Sheffield United stating ‘you have played with one another and against one another for the Cup; play with one another for England now’.[26]

Football answers the call to serve King and Country…

Professional football was suspended until further notice at the end of the season in 1915. As can be seen in the 'football out weighed' cartoon, public interest weighed down heavily and was vastly superior compared to that of professional football. The cartoon shows that when football answered the call, it did so in a way which evoked pride and duty. This in fact differs to the reason why football ended.

Falling gate attendances, dwindling profits and domestic pressures meant it was practically no longer feasible to play on. Travel restrictions meant that crowd sizes were diminishing by the week.[27] With contracts due for renewal in April 1915, the League announced the decision to cancel the following season’s programmes. The League expressed that ‘every eligible young man will find it in the service of the nation a higher call than in playing football’.[28] For Swansea, it meant no more professional football being played until the 1919-20 season.

Summary

Despite differences in opinion, football did continue for the 1914-15 season. The case study of Swansea Town Football Club has been used to explain how the continuation of football was perceived by society. It became clear that objections and pressures came primarily from the home front. Although pressures were mostly forgotten once the season began, the war was occurring in the background. It would only be a matter of time before football would have to be postponed until further notice. The decision to play on boosted morale, especially to the soldiers on the front line. Football offered a much welcomed break from talk of the war and death in the trenches. Regardless of how the decision to play on is understood in Swansea, the real victims were the 35,000 young Welshmen killed in the war; among them a host of amateur, professional and international football players.[29]







[1] The Cambria Daily Leader, 31 July 1914, p.2.





[2] David, Farmer, Swansea City 1912-1982 (London: Pelham, 1982), p. 26.





[3] Farmer, p. 26.





[4] James, Walvin, The People’s Game: a Social History of British Football Revisited, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2000), p. 93.





[5] Martin, Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales 1900-1939 (Cardiff: Cardiff University Press, 2005), p. 51.





[6] Ibid., p. 51.





[7] Richard, Holt, Sport and the British: A Modern History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 276.





[8] North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality, 21 August 1914, p. 2.



[9] The Cambria Daily Leader, 10 September 1914, p.4.





[10] Derek, Birley, Playing the Game: Sport and British Society, 1910-45(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 59.





[11] Dai, Smith and Gareth, Williams, Fields of Praise: The Official History of the Welsh Rugby Union 1881-1981 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1980), p. 202.





[12] Ibid., p. 201.





[13] Llanelly Star, 5 September 1914, p. 5.





[14] The Cambria Daily Leader, 3 October 1914, p.6.





[15] Farmer, p. 28.





[16] Ibid., p. 28.





[17] The Cambria Daily Leader, 4 January 1915, p. 6.





[18] Geraint H., Jenkins, Proud to be a Swan: The History of Swansea City AFC 1912- 2012 (Talybont : Y Lolfa, 2012), p. 22.





[19] The Cambria Daily Leader, 15 January 1915, p.7.





[20] The Cambria Daily Leader, 26 January 1915, p. 7.





[21] The Cambria Daily Leader, 25 January 1915, p.4.





[22] Walvin, p. 93.





[23] Tony, Mason, Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915 (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), p. 252.





[24] Colin, Veitch, 'Play up! Play up! And Win the War! Football, the Nation and the First World War 1914- 15’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20.3 (1985), 363-378 (p. 373).





[25] South Wales Weekly Post, 24 April 1915, p. 6.





[26] Walvin, p. 94.





[27] Johnes, ‘A History of Sport in Wales’, p. 47.





[28] Birley, p. 74.





[29] Johnes, ‘Soccer and Society’, p. 53.





 


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