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From the football pitch to the battlefield: More stories of footballers of the World Wars

Discover the stories of Commonwealth footballers who lost their lives in the World Wars.

Footballers and the World Wars

Footballers in Military service

winter's day; a football match in an open field, with cricket screen, trees and buildings behind. A line of soldiers, some wearing grey coats, watches from the near touchline. A few are seated on benches.

Image: A winter's day football match, Anthony Gross (IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 46))

Competitive league football was banned during the World Wars in the UK.

There was an exception in Scotland during World War One. The Scottish Football Association allowed the league to continue for morale reasons, but the Scottish Cup was not played for five years.

Subsequently, professional footballers turned out in their thousands to serve in the army, air force, navy, and merchant fleet alongside those who used to cheer them on from the terraces.

In the First World War, many clubs were reluctant to release their players at the start of the conflict. Young, fit, and used to working in a team, professional footballers had all the attributes of good soldiers.

With backlash forming against the pro clubs, The Football Battalion, aka the 17th (Service) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, was formed in 1915, with many professionals in its ranks.

In Scotland, the 16th (Service) Battalion, Royal Scots, was founded. Affectionally known as McCrae’s Battalion, the unit featured a high number of sportsmen, especially footballers joining up en masse. 

16 of the great Heart of Midlothian side of 1914-1915 joined the battalion as one, for instance. More than 500 Hearts supporters also joined up, showing the powerful propaganda value held by serving footballers.

The soccer stars turned soldiers were noted for their conduct during the First World War. 

One of the Football Battalion’s commanders, Colonel H.T. Fenwick was certainly full of praise, saying: “I knew nothing of professional footballers when I took over this Battalion. I have learnt to value them. I would go anywhere with such men. Their esprit de corps was amazing.”

Come the Second World War, professional players once more had their contracts terminated or suspended for the duration of the war.

Some of the legends of British football signed up, including Sir Stanley Matthews and Sir Tom Finney.

During both wars, local and exhibition matches were permitted to raise morale. Inter-service, regiment and division matches were organised and played too.

Elsewhere, servicemen with downtime could often be spotted holding impromptu kickabouts near the front or in their billets and barracks worldwide.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the First World War’s Christmas Truce where, legend has it, spontaneous games of football were played up and down the line as the guns fell silent on Christmas Day 1914.

How many footballers were killed in the World Wars?

 Men from Bolton Wanderers Football Club serving together with a battery of artillery (53rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 42 Division, 11 Corps). THey are wearing half-and-half coloured football shirts and standing on the goal line between the posts.

Image:  Bolton Wanderers players, aka the Wartime Wanderers, serving together in the Second World War (IWM (H 7496))

In the First World War, it is estimated some 2,000 professional footballers enlisted or were conscripted into the armed forces. 

300 or so were killed.

The death toll was lower for football professionals in the Second World War. 80 lost their lives during the conflict with many more taken as prisoners of war.

Commemorating the fallen footballers of the World Wars

A rain-slicked Arras Memorial and Stone of Remembrance

Image: The Arras Memorial, one of many CWGC sites commemorating professional footballers killed in action

Today, those footballers who died in military service during the World Wars are commemorated by Commonwealth War Graves memorials and war graves worldwide.

Many professional footballers are commemorated in the cemeteries and memorials of the Battle of the Somme, such as Thiepval, Serre Road No.2, the Arras Memorial, and Delville Wood Cemetery, having fought and fallen during one of the war's toughest offensives.

The sportsmen of McCrae’s Battalion are commemorated at sites across France and Flanders, reflecting their areas of service. The Tyne Cot and Ploegsteert Memorials are just some of the sites commemorating McCrae’s Battalion men.

You can learn more about the painstaking work that goes into maintaining our cemeteries and memorials here.

World War footballers’ stories

Below are some of the interesting stories of soldiers who lost their lives in the World Wars commemorated by Commonwealth War Graves.

Lieutenant Harry Goslin

Harry Goslin in his Bolton Wanderers kitImage: Lieutenant Harry Goslin (Public Domain)

Henry Goslin, born 9 November 1909, was better known as Harry to football fans up and down England as, before he was patrolling battlefields, was marshalling defences for Bolton Wanderers football club.

Between 1930 and 1939, Harry made 306 appearances for Bolton, scoring 26 goals.

At a match held at Bolton’s home ground Burnden Park on April 8, 1939, still some months before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Harry addressed the crowds saying after the game, he and the rest of the Bolton side, would be joining the Territorial Army. 

On the outbreak of war in September, Harry and the rest of the Wartime Wanderers as that Bolton team came to be known, joined the 53rd (Bolton) Field Artillery Regiment of the Royal Artillery. 

The unit saw action in France and North Africa before reaching Italy in 1943.

During the fighting on the Moro, the 53rd (Bolton) Field Artillery was in support of the Eighth Indian Division. Harry was present at the construction of the Impossible Bridge as one of the forward artillery officers helping coordinate artillery cover.

On the 14th, the Indian Army positions in the centre of the Allied line came under heavy fire, with bombs striking the line. 

Harry’s observation post (OP) was hit by frenzied mortar shelling. An enemy mortar became lodged in a tree under which Harry was sheltering. Its delayed fuse went off shortly after, hurling shrapnel and wood into Harry’s back.

Harry was initially paralysed and evacuated for treatment. He struggled against his injuries for four days before finally passing away. 

Harry is buried in Sangro War Cemetery. He was the only Wartime Wanderer to lose his life in the Second World War, although several of his teammates were injured during their time in service.

Fireman & Trimmer Benjamin Thomson

Benjamin Thomson in his Kilmarnock kit playing a football match as seen in a cigarette card portrait.Image: Benjamin Thomson (courtesy of Alexander Marchi)

Benjamin Thomson was born on the 8th of June 1913 to John and Janet Thomson of Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland. 

Growing up “Benny” was immediately considered a promising athlete and footballer, starting out at the age of 17 as a junior footballer with Kilwinning Rangers in 1930.

Less than 4 years later, in 1934, he was soon considered good enough to make a move to the local First Division club, Kilmarnock FC, the oldest professional club in Scotland. His Scottish League debut took place in January 1935 at Kilmarnock’s home ground of Rugby Park in a 0-0 draw against Airdrie.

During this time, he gained a reputation for being extremely skilful, showcasing a keen sense of position and managing to score numerous goals from the position of winger.

Thomson's prowess as a goal-scorer emerged in the 1935-36 season, where he netted 11 goals in Killie's campaign, a feat he repeated in 1936-37.

The pinnacle of his goal-scoring success occurred in the following season when he scored an impressive 20 goals for Kilmarnock, achieving two goals in a game on five different occasions.

Perhaps the highlight of his footballing career was during the 1938 Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Thomson played a pivotal role by scoring twice in Kilmarnock's famous 4-3 victory over Rangers FC.

He went on to play a big role in the infamous Scottish Cup Final against East Fife later that month. East Fife at the time were in the Second Division, one division below Kilmarnock. 

The first match ended in a 1-1 draw, the replay game was watched by a crowd of almost 92,000 spectators. 

During the replay game Thomson levelled Danny McKerrell's opener for The Fifers with a penalty. Unfortunately for Benny Thomason and his Kilmarnock team, they ended up losing 4-2 after extra time, marking East Fife's sole Scottish Cup triumph.

By the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Thomson had made 160 appearances and scored 51 goals for Killie, and he was married to Catherine Thomson, of Saltcoats, Ayrshire. 

During the war he served as a fireman and trimmer in the Merchant Navy. He was posted aboard the SS Balmore, a 1,935-ton cargo steamer. 

On the 12th of November 1940 Benny Thomson lost his life along with 26 other crew members after the steamer sunk after an air attack, in position 52N-17W, while on passage from Huelva for Glasgow with 2800 tons of pyrites and cork.

He is remembered and commemorated on the CWGC’s Tower Hill Memorial in London as well as by Kilmarnock Football Club in their World War memorial garden outside Rugby Park. 

Our thanks to Alexander Marchi for sharing Benjamin’s story.

Corporal Thomas Gracie

Thomas Gracie in his Hearts kit.Image: Thomas Gracie (Public Domain)

Thomas was born in Dennistoun, Glasgow on 12 June 1889 to parents Robert and Harriet Gracie.

Leaving school, Thomas studied bookkeeping before finding work as a meat salesman. At this time, he was playing Junior football for Shawfield (junior football in Scotland is the equivalent to the English non-league game) but was offered the chance to go pro in 1907.

That year, Thomas was approached by third-place Airdrieonians. Following that, Thomas had spells for Hamilton Academical and Arthurlie before joining Morton in 1910.

Thomas’ career took him south of the border when, after an England-Scotland match at Goodison Park, he was signed by Everton. He stayed for one year with the Toffees before moving across to Anfield to play for Liverpool.

After only making sporadic appearances for the Reds, and feeling underappreciated, Thomas moved back to Scotland. He was signed by Hearts manager John McCartney for £400.

The Edinburgh side started the 1914-1915 season well with Thomas at Centre Forward, winning their first eight league games. Thomas scored in a 2-0 victory over champions Celtic that season.

However, with the approach of the First World War, many thought it inappropriate for professional football to carry on in wartime.

Despite Hearts looking like title contenders, they were the target of public scrutiny. Thomas, being the top scorer for Scotland’s leading side, was targeted personally, which weighed heavily on him.

When Liberal politician and business Sir George McCrae announced the formation of his sportsman-oriented battalion, Thomas and 15 of his Hearts teammates instantly enlisted.

Balancing military training and football, Hearts were seemingly still unstoppable. With league games still going ahead in Scotland, Hearts were on a 20-game unbeaten run between October 1914 and February 1915.

Eventually, the effects of military duties and competitive football saw Hearts’ form drop off, only to be pipped to the title by Celtic by four points.

Thomas ended the season as the league’s joint top scorer, sharing the honours with Ayr United’s James Richardson with 29 goals apiece. 

Sporting setbacks aside, Thomas was soon facing a serious personal struggle.

In March 1915, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Sharing his condition with Hearts’ manager McCartney, Thomas continued with both his playing career and military service. He even scored four goals in the same month he received his diagnosis.

Thomas was still with his battalion when they were sent south to England for training in June 1915. Within weeks, Thomas began to feel serious fatigue. At first, he was moved to a Leeds hospital for treatment but was soon transferred back to Glasgow.

Thomas died on 23 October 1915 in Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow. He is buried at Craigton Cemetery.

Thomas was one of seven Hearts players to lose their lives in the First World War in military service. Many more were so badly injured by their wartime experiences they never played football professionally again.  

Share your stories today on For Evermore

For Evermore: Stories of the Fallen is our online resource for sharing the memories of the Commonwealth’s war dead.

It’s open to the public to share their family histories and the tales of the service people commemorated by Commonwealth War Graves so that we may preserve their legacies beyond just a name on a headstone or a memorial.

If you have a story to tell, we’d love to hear it! Head to For Evermore to upload and share it for all the world to see.

Tags Football Second World War First World War