Rugby League in World War One

- - This post is a very slightly edited version of chapter one of Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain. You can find my article on English Rugby Union and the First World War by clicking here.

Like the authorities of all sports, it took the Northern Union (NU) General Committee some time to respond to the outbreak of the war. When it met on 11 August it provisionally decided to continue with the season. This initial response to continue with the season was taken before militarist hysteria had fully gripped the country. But by September, professional football of whatever code was under severe pressure to suspend its activities while Britain was at war.

The Football Association (FA) became a favourite target of the anti-football campaigners, despite the fact that the War Office had declared itself ‘favourable to the continuation of football.’ In London, the Evening News stopped the publication of its football edition and newspapers were full of letters condemning those who continued to play. ‘A Soldier’s Mother’ writing to the Yorkshire Post captured the spirit of those who called for an end to football: ‘If a Zeppelin were to hover over football grounds in England and drop a few bombs amongst the idle loafers gathered there, then perhaps, and I feel not until then, would those shirkers wake up to a sense of their duty to their King and their country.’ Regardless of the propaganda of the national and local newspapers, there were many who thought the continuation of football would be good for morale: an editorial in Athletic News argued that sport

will assist to keep the body fit and the mind calm until such time as right is vindicated. Courage, determination and patience are demanded of non-combatants, and sport tends to the development of these virtues. Let us not hastily give up that which has served a free people so well.

Such arguments did not stop those who clamoured for an end to football from claiming the moral high ground, with RFU spokesmen occupying its most elevated reaches. RFU secretary Rowland Hill claimed that the FA Council ‘had allowed one of the greatest sports in the world to be solely and entirely governed by commercial principles.’ Yorkshire Rugby Union official James Miller felt that ‘playing fields were being desecrated at the present time’ and that ‘it was necessary to compel those who idled around the streets – those shirkers and bullet-funkers – to join the ranks.’ The references to shirkers indicated the underlying class prejudice at the heart of much of this criticism and Miller had little hesitation in pointing an accusing finger, regretting ‘that members of other football bodies had not responded in a like manner. It seems to me that a hot blush of crimson must come into the faces of those footballers who remained at play when others went abroad to fight their battles for them.’

In fact, the NU was no less patriotic than the RFU. Joseph Platt, the NU secretary, had declared that it was ‘the bounden duty of every player as well as every football enthusiast of suitable age and capacity to give his best service to the nation’ but its decision-making machinery lagged behind events. It wasn’t until 8 September that its governing General Committee met in Manchester to discuss the clamour for the football codes to suspend operations. Taking a lead from the F.A., the meeting unanimously passed a resolution stating that

matches be played as usual, as it is impossible for all men to take up active war service, and it is thought unwise to have no relaxation from the more serious objects of life. … all clubs be asked to encourage their players to join the army for active service, unless their employment is such that by not doing so they equally serve the country’s welfare.

The committee also recommended that clubs provide facilities for enlistment at matches and that they should not sign new players from outside of their immediate districts.

In fact, the decision to continue playing did nothing to deter its players from enlisting in droves. The Manchester district league was decimated after only three weeks of the war due to a huge loss of players. In early September the St Helens league suspended activity for the duration after losing virtually all of its players to the forces; over 70 per cent of eligible men had joined up following Lord Derby’s personal recruitment drive in the town. In Bradford, the local league was reduced to just four sides and numerous other amateur NU sides simply stopped playing. At a professional level, every club lost men to the army. Runcorn shed almost all of its playing staff as twenty-three players volunteered. At Oldham, the club doctor re-enlisted as a colonel in the 10th Manchester Regiment and was allowed to address the players on their patriotic duty; nearly all enlisted, including the club secretary A.J. Swann. Swinton and Broughton Rangers both offered their grounds to the military and Wigan reserved one stand for free admission to men who had signed up. The NU appears to have escaped the criticism directed at soccer clubs that they were insufficiently supportive of attempts to recruit at matches, although there are few records of any recruitment actually taking place at NU grounds. By April 1915, Joe Platt could announce that 1,418 amateur and professional NU players had enlisted. 

Nevertheless, the pattern of volunteering did differ markedly between the NU and the RFU. In general, men in white collar occupations and the professions enlisted earlier and more enthusiastically than the working classes. Recruitment of workers in textiles areas, which were severely affected by the sudden interruption to international trade, was particularly low, although miners, the NU’s other major industrial constituency, had a higher percentage of volunteers than most working class occupations. The low levels of family allowances paid to soldiers and the well-known delays in making the payments were also a disincentive to working men enlisting. As Athletic News pointed out, unlike the usually single and often financially-independent young men of rugby union, many working-class footballers could ‘not afford to throw their wives and families on the fickle charities of the public by enlisting'.

But even if the NU had wanted to follow rugby union and abandon the season there were other factors to take into consideration. As Hunslet president Joe Lewthwaite explained, ‘It must be borne in mind too that football is a business concern in many cases. What would be said if works were closed down? Football is run largely on commercial lines. If the grounds are closed, will the landlord forego rent, and the authorities their rates?’ Although the builder of Hunslet’s new stand publicly offered to forego his £2,500 payment until the end of the war in response to Lewthwaite’s rhetorical question, the reality was that the fortunes of the game at the professional level were almost entirely tied to its commercial success. 

This became clear almost as soon as the season started. By the first week of October there was already concern that attendances at matches had fallen to half those of 1913. Similarly dramatic decreases at soccer matches had already led to the Football League proposing a cut in players’ wages for the duration. On 8 October NU official John Houghton wrote to clubs noting that ‘the past five weeks shows a marked falling off in gate receipts and members’ subscriptions, the average income being reduced by as much as 50 per cent’ and recommending that each club discuss with its players the need to reduce wages and costs. Houghton feared that the game’s poorer sides could not survive the fall in gate receipts and that ‘the loss of four or five clubs would so materially cripple the League that it is felt that the continued existence of the League would be in serious jeopardy.’ 

Although there were some positive responses to what was a non-binding request - Keighley players agreed to a 50 per cent pay cut ‘until better days arrive’ - commercial reality dictated that the bigger clubs simply continued to pay their players at pre-war levels while the weaker clubs continued to struggle. Faced with an impending financial crisis and a desire to demonstrate that professional NU players were making sacrifices for the war effort, a special meeting of clubs was called for 20 October. The attendees heard that only one club, Halifax, had not seen a decline in gate receipts. Crowds at both Leeds and Hunslet had fallen by a half, Wigan season-ticket holders had fallen by two-thirds, Hull’s turnover had fallen by almost £700 compared to the previous season and St Helens season ticket sales had collapsed from £420 in 1913 to just £19. By sixteen votes to five, the meeting imposed a wage cut of 25 per cent, make similar cuts to referees’ fees and ordered all clubs to report players’ wages levels and the savings made from the cuts. 

The decision was met with uproar from players with the leading clubs. Within days Wigan, Halifax and Huddersfield players declared themselves ‘keenly opposed’ to the wage cut and in response the Wigan committee appealed for a delay in its introduction. But the General Committee was unbending: ‘it is, though with the utmost regret, thought better that unwilling players should be sacrificed’ rather than concessions be made. In response, players at Wigan, Halifax, Huddersfield, Rochdale and Oldham went on strike on Saturday 7 November, while those at Bradford and York turned out under protest. The following Friday players’ representatives from 13 clubs met in Manchester to discuss the situation. They decided to play that Saturday’s matches under protest and elected a four-man deputation to meet with League officials the following week. 

The four men elected represented the very cream of the Northern Union. As well as Harold Wagstaff there was Gwyn Thomas, who chaired the players’ meeting, was a 21 year-old full-back from Treherbert who had joined Wigan after captaining London Welsh while barely out of his teens. Charlie Seeling was a veteran Wigan forward from New Zealand who had toured Britain with both the 1905 union and the 1907 league All Blacks while Leeds’s Australian centre-threequarter Dinny Campbell was to prove one of his club’s greatest players. On 17 November they met officials to outline their case. In fact, the clubs’ resolve was already crumbling by the time the meeting took place.

Earlier that week referees from Lancashire and Yorkshire had met and resolved to strike if the cuts to their fees were implemented, while 14 clubs had called for an end to the arbitrary imposition of wage cuts on the grounds that it represented interference in their own business affairs. Some, such as York, were even supporting the players’ demands. The following week yet another special general meeting of the clubs voted to rescind the wage cuts both for players and referees, deciding that ‘any deduction in a player’s wages shall be by mutual arrangement only between individual clubs and players.’ It was also resolved to set up a relief fund for clubs in financial difficulty which would be funded by a levy on gate money and donations from clubs and players. Although the threat of a complete strike by players was now averted, the next fortnight saw strikes by Salford and Wakefield players against their clubs’ attempts to cut wages.

The season continued but enthusiasm drained away as war casualties mounted and it became clear that the conflict would not be over quickly. Increasing numbers of spectators and players joined up – Gwyn Thomas enlisted just before Christmas 1914 and, along with Wigan’s Lance Todd, became one of a handful of NU players to receive a commission – while the longer working hours caused by the needs of war production in industrial areas meant that the opportunities to watch sport were drastically reduced. The season also became increasingly uncompetitive as Huddersfield simply destroyed the rest of the league, winning every competition open to them, scoring 103 points against five in the three finals they contested and losing only two games during the entire season.

There was a palpable sense of relief when the season finally came to an end with Huddersfield’s anticipated demolition of St Helens in the Challenge Cup Final. The following month the NU voted to suspend operations for the duration, except for schoolboy and under-18 competitions. Widnes’s John Smith proposed the suspension, asking if there was ‘a single person who can honestly say that he got any satisfaction at all out of football last season?’ while Wakefield’s J.B. Cooke admitted that one of the reasons they had voted to continue in September was that ‘there was hardly a man among them who thought that the war would continue very long.’ He had now changed his mind however: ‘After 10 months of hard fighting, with dreadful losses to the country and lives, they realised what the great game that was going on in France really meant.’

II

However, within the ‘great game’ rugby union was undergoing a resurgence  with matches being organised for new recruits almost as soon as the first volunteers arrived in training camps in September 1914. In contrast, matches played under NU rules by services teams were virtually non-existent. The only recorded example in the first months of the war was in January 1915 when a Miners’ Battalion team of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry played Featherstone Rovers at Otley’s rugby union ground to raise money for the widow of a Corporal Dixon of Featherstone. Even army matches played on NU grounds at this time were rugby union games. Nor does it appear that NU football was played much in army units on active service, although Rochdale winger and 1914 tourist Jack Robinson, who was badly wounded at Neuve Chappelle in March 1915, reported that they had played ‘rugby’ during the battle while bombs were dropping, saying that ‘our boys out yonder will have their game of football under all sorts of conditions. It comes as a tonic and a relaxation from trench duty and I cannot understand anybody in England ever questioning the advisability of the game.’

But in fact, rugby of whatever code occupied a distant second place when compared to the popularity of soccer with troops in the field. Douglas Clark’s war diary for 1917 describes a number of soccer matches of varying degrees of formality in which he played while in France but only one game of ‘rugby’. Harold Wagstaff was reduced to playing soccer while stationed in Egypt due to a complete absence of any form of rugby. The danger of injury and the difficulty of playing on an improvised pitch naturally gave soccer a natural advantage. A 1915 letter from an unidentified officer in a Lancashire regiment which played both rugby and soccer encapsulated the problem:

The slush on our football 'pitch' is awful. Shall recommend that in the future all football matches be postponed until the mud is knee-deep. We were called the mudlarkers at home and truly we've sustained the reputation since coming to France. Our last football will be in use on Monday, and I dread to think of it bursting in this dreary hole. I suppose I shall have to improvise a ball or two from pigs' bladders - anything to keep the game and the boys going. 

The simplicity of soccer’s rules and the ease with which a game could be organized gave it an additional advantage over the handling codes. But its popularity was also based on more than technical simplicity. As J.G. Fuller has noted, army soccer was a ‘practical exercise in class collaboration’, a sport which men of all ranks could play and which helped to cement esprit de corps among the troops. Outside of regiments from NU areas or South Wales, rugby was generally viewed as a game almost exclusively for officers. Soccer was the sport of the masses and therefore the ranks. 

Despite this, the beginning of 1916 marked a rise in rugby union’s fortunes, when conscription brought in to the army many NU players who had not already volunteered and greatly expanded the pool of players available to military rugby union sides. The first major union match to be played in the north took place in April 1916 between a ‘North of England Military Team’ and an Australasian representative side at Headingley. When selected, all of the North’s players had been officers and rugby union men, but when the final teams were announced two weeks before the match was due to take place, the North had been augmented by four non-commissioned men: Harold Wagstaff, Ben Gronow and Douglas Clark of Huddersfield plus Willie Davies, captain of Leeds, all of who had recently been called up. For the Antipodean side, Oldham’s Viv Farnsworth, Huddersfield’s Tommy Gleeson and Hull’s Syd Deane and Jimmy Devereux were selected.

Although this wasn’t the first time a NU player had played rugby union during the war - Gwyn Thomas had turned out for the Barbarians against South Africa in November 1915, his fellow Wigan player Percy Coldrick had played for Newport in January 1916 and three NU players, including Huddersfield forward Fred Longstaff, had appeared in a union match at Leicester that February  - the prominence of the game and the players involved raised obvious questions about the validity of the RFU’s longstanding ban on NU players. ‘The teams will play under Rugby Union rules, but they will do so as soldiers of the King; questions of amateur or professional principles do not come into view at all,’ explained the Yorkshire Post.

Perhaps inevitably, the NU players dominated, scoring fourteen of the points in the match as the North won 13-11, with Wagstaff, who had only ever seen one rugby union match before that day, much less played in one, beating several opponents and running half the field to score a memorable try. Three weeks later the team beat the Tees and Hartlepool Garrison in front of 7,000 spectators and on 20 May, now boasting seven NU players, they defeated a Welsh side chosen by the Welsh rugby union secretary Walter Rees before a crowd of over 15,000 at Liverpool’s Anfield soccer ground.

The success of the side opened a debate over the RFU’s ban on NU players. Ever since the 1895 split, the RFU had banned for life any rugby union player found guilty of playing NU football or playing with someone who had played NU football, regardless of whether any payments had changed hands. Now it seemed that the war could bring about a breach in that intransigence. Sir William Forster-Todd, the Lord Mayor of York, argued that ‘the fact of the professional footballer and the university student rubbing shoulders and shedding their blood together in the trenches’ would lead to the distinctions between the NU and the RFU disappearing after the war. C.C. Lempriere, who captained Hull before and after the 1895 split, believed that rugby ‘under whatever rules … is far better preparation for the fighting and combative spirit of mankind if, as now, there is call for their display. Why then should a different standard, as between amateurs and professionals, be any more obtained in Rugby football to that obtaining in cricket and Association?’

But these arguments carried little weight with the hardline supporters of amateurism in the RFU ‘War-time recognises no rules,’ pointed out W.L. Sinclair sagely in the Athletic News. ‘But in times of peace the cherished canons of Rugby football will once more be observed. Rugby Union men will be tolerant of the Northern Union player, but there can be no intermingling of the two organisations in common system of play.’

But the fact that many rugby union officials had voted with their feet and included NU men in their sides regardless of the rules meant that the RFU had to act to maintain control of the situation. On 4 October 1916 the RFU therefore issued a statement to clarify its position:

Northern Union players can only play with Rugby Union players in bona-fide naval and military teams. Rugby Union teams can play against naval and military teams in which there are Northern Union players. Munitions workers cannot be regarded as naval and military players. These rulings only obtain during the war.

This was not so much a concession as a recognition of the new status quo. It allowed the RFU to embrace national unity while also signalling its intention to remain an exclusive organisation as soon as the war ended. Nevertheless, the temporary lifting of the ban was seized upon by the more active recruiters for military sides. In particular, Major R.V. Stanley, the Oxford University representative on the RFU Committee, had been working since at least December 1915 to recruit NU players to his Army Service Corps (Motor Transport) team at Grove Park in south London. When the new season began the week after the RFU announcement, his diligent work was clear to all - the A.S.C. team included Huddersfield’s Wagstaff, Clark, Gronow and Rosenfeld, Rochdale’s Joe Corsi and international Ernest Jones, together with Oldham’s Frank Holbrooke. They then proceeded to tear apart almost every other team in the south of England, including Australian and New Zealand services sides, winning 25 out of 26 games and scoring 1110 points while conceding just 41. In the process they broke the senior club record for points in a season.

Their only defeat was 6-3 loss to a United Services side which included eight rugby union internationals plus Wigan’s Billy Seddon and Leeds’ Willie Davies. Even in the heat of the match, the team was expected to observe the etiquette of social and military rank: Wagstaff called his winger, the Harlequins’ player Lieutenant Nixon, ‘Sir’ and Nixon reciprocated by calling the centre ‘Wagstaff’. The attention which Grove Park’s success brought was not all complementary. Echoing the criticisms of football in 1914 the team was accused of being ‘a dumping ground of professional slackers’, a characterisation probably not unconnected with the fact that the A.S.C. was unfairly seen as an easy option for soldiers and was known by its detractors as ‘Ally Sloper’s Cavalry’, after the work-shy cartoon character of the era.  

A similar side was assembled at the Devonport Royal Navy depot which eventually comprised nine NU players, captained by Willie Davies and featuring at various times his team-mate and future international Joe Brittain, future England captain Jonty Parkin and Harold Buck, who became rugby league’s first £1,000 transfer in 1921. Unlike the A.S.C. side which broke up when its members were posted to France in April 1917, the Devonport side played together for the rest of the war, making three tours of the north of England. By playing against NU club sides and under NU rules, the Devonport tours were contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the RFU’s laws but the prevailing atmosphere of national unity meant that there was little that could be done to stop them. In May 1917 a Yorkshire NU representative side had even played against and defeated a New Zealand army team including three All Blacks under union rules at Headingley. 

Despite this intermingling of players, it is noticeable that despite the public debate, no NU player or official called for unity of the two games - other than lifting the ban on players, the most radical proposal was former NU chairman J. B. Cooke’s call for an annual charity match between them. No NU player with a services rugby union side expressed a desire to carry on playing union after the war and even W.L. Sinclair admitted that most rugby union converts to NU preferred the thirteen-a-side game. The same appears to be true of spectators in the north - with the exception of the 1916 match at Anfield, none of the rugby union games in which NU players participated in the north attracted larger crowds than the major NU games during the war. Few attracted more than 4,000 spectators and even the showpiece North versus Australasia match at Headingley in April 1916 attracted somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 spectators. Two weeks later 13,000 saw the Leeds versus Dewsbury NU match on the same ground. 

III

Crowds of such sizes underlined the continuing strength of the NU in its heartlands. Despite the formal suspension of competitions in June 1915, the professional game had continued on a regional basis organised by the Lancashire and Yorkshire county committees. And despite difficulties due to the enlistment of players and spectators, the majority of clubs continued to play. Only four didn’t compete in the 1915-16 season, but to bolster the ranks Brighouse Rangers, Featherstone Rovers and St Helens Recreation were promoted from district leagues to join the senior clubs for the duration, although Featherstone only lasted one season.

The announcement of conscription in 1916 also helped clubs to justify playing because they would not be accused of keeping men from volunteering. Wakefield, Warrington and Widnes, all of which had closed for the 1915-16 season, recommenced playing in 1916 following its introduction. Some experienced a surge in their fortunes due to munitions factories in their areas. Barrow, despite being forced to close by the town’s military authorities at the start of the war, soon re-established themselves and, boosted by an influx of players and spectators into the local shipyards for war production, became one of the dominant teams of the war, winning the unofficial championship title in 1917-18. Dewsbury were even more successful, finishing champions in the 1915-16 and 1916-17 seasons, and attracting players and crowds due to the town’s prominence as a manufacturer of woollen cloth for uniforms.

In recognition of the economic fragility of professional sport in wartime, the NU’s 1915 annual general meeting banned payments to players and relaxed registration rules to allow players to play for clubs based near their work or military base. Naturally the ban on payments was widely ignored and the freeing of players from their pre-war club registrations also created difficulties; none more so than in October 1917 when Billy Batten was selected to play by both Dewsbury and Hull in the same match. He plumped for Dewsbury and helped them to a 32-0 victory.

Despite the supposed war-time camaraderie, there is no evidence that the war led to a more chivalrous mode of play. As the Yorkshire Post pointed out after six players had been sent off in two Leeds matches in March 1917, games were ‘fought in a much rougher and keener spirit than was the case in the normal competition days’. Nor were crowds any better behaved. The Runcorn and Keighley grounds were shut after crowd trouble in March 1915. Six months later the Brighouse versus Rochdale match was abandoned by the referee due to crowd trouble and the November 1917 derby between Broughton Rangers and Salford ended ten minutes early after spectators joined in a fight between players. The occurrence of these incidents was no greater than in pre-war times - in the four years up to 1910, eight instances of crowd disturbances were reported to the NU - but the fact that they continued in war-time suggests that the social pressure to behave differently during a national crisis was neither as strong nor as prevalent as supporters of the war would have hoped. 

The same reluctance to change pre-war behaviour was also true for the RFU leadership. Within a month of the war ending, RFU secretary C.J.B. Marriott had written to a Royal Artillery team based at Ripon in North Yorkshire forbidding them from playing planned matches against NU sides. On 14 January 1919, at its first committee meeting since war broke out, the RFU’s first act was to pass a resolution stating that NU players could play rugby union in the services only if they did not play NU football or sign for an NU team while in the services. It tightened its restrictions further in April when it announced that ‘civilian clubs are not permitted to play against Service teams containing Northern Union players.’

Such shenanigans indicated that the core leadership of the RFU was determined to re-establish the status quo ante bellum, despite coming under  pressure internally towards the end of the war to moderate its stance. Those leading the RFU saw the war as a complete vindication of their pre-1914 policies, not a cause for change. The authority which it had gained during the war and its close identification with the military allowed the RFU to brush aside easily the reformers in its ranks: ‘moderation is impossible’ was how one supporter summed up its position.

Much of this authority came from the huge and tragic toll of death that had cut a swathe through the RFU’s ranks during the war. Rugby union’s supporters were proud of their mortal sacrifice and pointed to the hundreds of dead players, twenty-seven of them England internationals, as a justification for its assumed moral superiority over other sports. The NU too lost numerous players at all levels: Billy Jarman, Fred Longstaff and Walter Roman of the 1914 touring side were killed, St Helens’ 1907 New Zealand tourist Jum Turthill lost his life and Hull’s Jack Harrison was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917 for his bravery at Oppy Wood in France.

At a club level, Leeds lost fifteen of fifty-one players who served, Widnes lost thirteen, Hull twelve and Swinton nine. But no figures for the total number of NU players killed, either at professional or amateur level, were ever compiled. The only information for the sport as a whole available is that relating to fifteen of the professional clubs published by Athletic News’s  correspondent in 1919. Of 760 players of these clubs who served in the armed forces, 103 lost their lives. 

Unlike the RFU and its clubs, which sought to create what George Mosse has described as a ‘cult of the fallen soldier’ and celebrate the deaths of players and supporters, the NU never produced a roll of honour or lists of players’ war records, and the memorials which were so common at rugby union clubs were either short-lived, such as one erected to Jack Harrison at Hull, or non-existent. The sport’s annual handbook, the Official Guide, for the first season after the war did not even mention it. Wakefield Trinity’s annual report for 1918-19 not only makes no reference to the war but does not refer to the death of its captain, W. L. Beattie, in action in France in 1917. The minute books of the Yorkshire Society of Referees contain not a single reference to the war at all between 1914 and 1918. Indeed, the only remembrance ritual which the game as a whole undertook was the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph before the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. Even this seems to have petered out by the mid-1930s - and this symbolism could also be interpreted, in the absence of any militarist rhetoric accompanying the ceremony, as part of rugby league’s attempt to establish its legitimacy in national sporting traditions. 

This contrast with rugby union’s elaborate rituals of remembrance can partly be explained by the differing social purpose of the club in the two sports. Rugby union clubs were essentially social institutions organised for the purpose of playing the game, comprised chiefly of current and former players, and equipped with a full bureaucratic structure like any other form of middle-class association. Senior NU clubs were professional organisations designed for the purpose of providing entertainment. Amateur NU clubs generally had no wider purpose other than to organise matches and training. Almost none had any level of permanent organisation other than that needed to rent a pitch and arrange fixtures. There is no way of knowing how many members of amateur clubs were killed - only forty-two clubs were listed in the 1919-20 Official Guide, down from 210 in the 1914-15 edition, but this decline was probably in large part due to the economic and organisational difficulties facing clubs. Nor is there any way of knowing how many thousands of supporters of NU clubs never returned from the war to take their places back on the terraces.

There are also deeper reasons that explain the contrasting remembrance of the war by the NU and the RFU. Perhaps most strikingly, the everyday experience of death and injury was profoundly different for the working class and the middle class. For members of the working class, especially those in heavy industry, death in the course of daily work was not an unusual occurrence. For example, in 1913 there were 1,149 fatal accidents in the British coal industry, a shocking figure which itself was overshadowed by a record 1,818 deaths in 1910, and 178,962 non-fatal injuries. In December 1910 344 men lost their lives in an explosion at the Pretoria pit in Westhoughton, near Wigan.

Although even this could not compare with the 20,000 men slaughtered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it highlights the daily familiarity of working-class people with death and serious injury. And, as Joanna Bourke points out, ‘even without the war, physical disabilities were not rare in many communities. It was also a common part of urban life and employment.’ As late as the 1960s, sociologist Dennis Marsden noted that in Huddersfield textile factories ‘disablement was an everyday fact of working at the mill’. But for professional and white collar workers, who provided the backbone of rugby union, this familiarity with mortality and serious disablement was largely unknown. Thus faced with the awful loss of sons, brothers and friends, they reached to create a ‘cult of the fallen soldier’ in order to justify the sudden and devastating appearance of everyday death in their midst. For rugby union and other sections of the middle classes, this highlighting of their sacrifice had the broader political purpose of reasserting Edwardian middle-class values and leadership during a period of great social dislocation.

One must also consider the extent to which patriotic militarism was popular within the working class. Clearly in certain areas and in particular sections of industrial workers the war was indeed popular. For example, around 25 per cent of miners had enlisted by mid-1915, although even here it can be argued that the prospect of escaping from pit life was a greater push to enlistment than the pull of patriotism; the truth was perhaps a shifting amalgam of reasons. Certainly the initial ‘rush to the colours’ in the early months of the war was far more apparent among middle-class and white-collar workers than it was among the majority of the working classes.

And in certain areas of the country there was a positive resistance by sections of the working-class to wartime jingoism. The large-scale industrial conflicts in South Wales, Glasgow and Sheffield have been well-documented by historians but it is also noticeable for our purposes that Huddersfield was a also centre of anti-war feeling. The town had a long tradition of radicalism and in 1914 demonstrated no great enthusiasm for the declaration of war. Peace meetings were staged regularly without interference and by 1917 the town had become, in the words of historian Cyril Pearce, ‘a virtual citadel for the anti-war cause’. This would suggest that, at the very least, pro-war enthusiasm was not as widespread or as uniform as has previously been believed, and that this was reflected to some extent by the attitudes shown towards remembrance by the Northern Union, and perhaps also the Football League.

So whereas rugby union had pledged itself not to forget the war, the NU showed little desire to look back on it - indeed, references to the war by NU administrators and players are comparatively rare. To some extent this also reflected a degree of irritation that developed during wartime about the way the game had been treated. The Army had shown a marked reluctance to organise matches under NU rules even in the north and it was felt that there was a distinct lack of publicity given to its war dead in comparison to those of rugby union. When the war was mentioned after 1918 it was generally at international matches, when the links between the competing nations during the war were referred to as a sign of international friendship. For example, when Warrington hosted a visit by the pioneering French club Villeneuve in 1934, an article in the match programme pointed out that:

There was no question of amateurism or professionalism in the Great War. English and French men fought and fell side by side on the battlefields of Flanders, irrespective of their standard in life, and now in times of peace it is most gratifying to know that Frenchmen and Englishmen can join together on the playing fields of our two great countries.

The implication that rugby union’s attitude to rugby league ran counter to the experience of the war was made most pointedly by S. G. Ball, the manager of the 1920-21 Australian tourists who, after the French rugby union authorities had forced the cancellation of an exhibition match in Paris, told his players that ‘Northern Union players of England and Australia had helped France in the Great War, but had they been Germans the French Rugby Federation could not have treated them worse.’

This use of the war and the common sufferings of soldiers of Britain and other nations to argue for ‘democratic’ reform of sport was made explicit by a NU supporter writing during 1916 to Athletic News: ‘as the war in this country is being fought on democratic lines, so will the future government of this land be on more democratic lines. There will be far less class distinction than we have been accustomed to. Merit will be recognised. Is it not possible that this may obtain in our sports?’

The idea that the war should serve as a catalyst for social change was in direct contrast to the views of the RFU and more in line with mainstream liberal and social democratic thinking, perhaps best expressed in the call to build a post-war ‘land fit for heroes’. Even in the necessarily limited context of sporting culture, it adds weight to the idea that disillusionment with the war at this time was more prevalent among the working-classes than the middle-classes. Indeed, the months immediately following the war were marked by soldiers striking to demand demobilisation and major strikes in the mines, cotton industry and the railways, among others, emphasising the sense that the working classes felt they were owed something for their sacrifices during the war.

Similar disenchantment with the war and militarism could be detected in soccer too. John Osborne’s study of Athletic News, in many respects the house organ of the Football League, has shown how its attitudes changed at the end of the war. ‘There was no more talk of training players in drill and marksmanship and, in a more impressionistic light, the language of even the match reporting signified war weariness,’ he noted, pointing to a substantial decline in the use of military metaphors to describe the action on the pitch. This is not to say that the NU or the Football League were articulating a political programme, merely that they reflected to some extent the prevailing feelings of their working-class supporters. And even conservative working-class patriotism differed from that of rugby union and its followers. Despite the tremendous weight of official patriotism on the national psyche, working-class men also proved stubbornly resistant to embracing its structures; the British Legion, even with its national network of social clubs, never had more than 500,000 members, less than 10 per cent of the total number of men who served. 

If Britain was still divided at the end of the war, rugby was no less so.