It was not only enemy action that put soldiers out of action. Football was the most common organised sport played in the British Army in the Great War, but in-game injuries could render men unable to do their duty.
Football was widely played in the British Army during the First World War. Matches were organised between companies, batteries and battalions. The 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment’s war diary for 1916 includes around twenty matches. Indeed the first entry of the year reads:
“1 Jan 1916 – Ribeaucourt Billets RIBEAUCOURT. The Battalion played the 17th Kings Liverpool Regt at Football and lost 2 – 0. In the last minute of the game 2/Lt.A.Grover met with an unfortunate accident breaking his leg in two places.”
Albert Grover later joined the 2/4th London Regiment and served with distinction, ending the war as a Lieutenant Colonel, having earned the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross. The address on his medal index card was on Sarsfeld Road, Balham.
Another wartime casualty of the ‘beautiful game’ was Percy Ernest Rapps, a clerk at the National Telephone Company. He had joined the 1st London Brigade, Royal Field Artillery on 17 September 1914 and went out to France in October 1915. By June 1917, he was a bombardier in “V” 56 Trench Mortar Battery – the ‘heavy’ trench mortar battery attached to the 56th (London) Division.
After playing football for his battery on 29 June 1917, he was sent to hospital suffering from synovitis in his right knee. A few weeks later, he was sent back to the UK, to the 4th Scottish General Hospital in Glasgow. He never went out to the Western Front again, being stationed in Ripon and Larkhill for after he left hospital at the end of 1917.
Private H.T. Barrett of the 25th Middlesex Regiment was so badly injured in a football match while in training that he was discharged from the army in October 1916 without having served overseas.
Anthony Costello from Crouch End joined the 1st County of London Yeomanry in September 1914 and arrived in Egypt in April 1915. In May 1916 he was transferred to 9th London Company of the 2nd Imperial Camel Corps.
Playing football in Palestine in late December 1917, he was injured. In his own words (witness statements were taken after any accidental injury):
“I was playing football for the Signal Section HQ 2nd Camel Brigade against No 8 Coy when I was charged over and fell on my left arm, breaking the left radius.”
His team’s captain, Sgt Jones, makes it sound a bit less intentional on the part of the other player, describing it as a collision and saying that no blame should be laid on either player.
Costello returned to his unit in mid-February and served out the rest of the war in Egypt and Palestine with the Camel Corps and later in the Royal Engineers.
Organised sports were obviously not one of the major causes for injury during the war, but personal service records can throw up these odd occasions where soldiers were put out of action for a few weeks. Sometimes this sporting injury was enough to rule a man out of front-line service or even military service altogether.