It will be a surprise to very few to know that sport in Loughborough, both immediately prior to and during the First World War was far removed from the global force it is today.
Many folk with scant knowledge of our thriving market town link its name primarily with the amazing achievements of athletes and other sportsmen and women past and present based at Loughborough University and Loughborough College.
With its myriad of world class facilities and national sports bases, Loughborough has the unofficial, but only semi- jocular title, of the ‘sporting capital of the UK’. Combine the successes of Loughborough competitors at recent Olympics and Paralympics and they would finish handsomely high in the international medals table.
Its glaring omission, with respect to Non-League clubs who bear the town’s name to this day, has been a high class football club. The great irony is that had come and gone before the commencement of the hostilities of the Great War in the shape of Loughborough FC, who competed in Division Two of the Football League for five seasons and even inflicted an 8-0 defeat on mighty Arsenal, the heaviest defeat in that famous club’s history even to this day.
That glorious occasion happened on Saturday, December 12 1896 and could not even be explained away by the fact that Woolwich Arsenal, as they were known then, were playing two matches on the same day – for it was the first team who made the trip to Leicestershire, whilst the reserves easily disposed of Leyton 5-0 in the third qualifying round of the FA Cup.
The historic goings on at the Loughborough Athletic Ground were recorded for posterity by a scribe from the Loughborough Herald, who reported there was reason for optimism even before kick off as Alf Shelton, the famous Notts forward was in the half back line, and there were high hopes, too, of a young striker called Brailsford, from Basford.
Apparently the weather was ‘of the most vile character with heavy rain falling nearly all day’, causing the respective captains to toss the coin in the dressing rooms – but that was to prove the only disappointment for Loughborough supporters.
Although facing the elements, it was 2-0 to Loughborough within seven minutes, courtesy of Hamilton and Jones and, a er holding out against Arsenal pressure, a superb individual effort from Ward and another by Jones gave the home side a 4-0 interval lead.
Loughborough changed their shirts at half time but there was no difference in the direction of the game.
Ward, Jones (2), making four overall, and Brailsford doubled the scoring – and that’s not considering the two ‘goals’ Loughborough had disallowed and number of efforts that either hit the woodwork or were saved by the busy Arsenal goalkeeper.
The reporter generously concluded that ‘Loughborough did not have so much more than the Arsenal as the score would indicate’ and that ‘Arsenal going in for short passing in front of goal, which was not of the least use on such a heavy ground’ which would strike a chord of great irony with supporters of Arsenal today.
Sadly the town’s football club folded in 1900 shortly after leaving the Football League and were replaced by Loughborough Corinthians who were founded three years later. They became original members of the Leicestershire League and won the title twice before the First World War. After some good FA Cup runs, Corinthians made the step up to the Midland League where they remained until their demise in 1933.
As for the battlefield itself, the benefits of having played sport to a high level were clear. Each soldier goes through different types of military and naval training to prepare for battle. Many sporting values and characteristics common to the life of being a solider – such as team work, physical and mental fittness and the ability to second guess the opposition – were used to their advantage.
Most of the local young sportsmen who enlisted played for their factory or works teams or for local football, cricket or rugby clubs.
Soldiers often used sports in the trenches both to pass time and give them some enjoyment. The one specific event that has been highlighted again in recent years was the famous ‘football game’ played during the Christmas truce of 1914 when both sides met in ‘no man’s land’, a safe zone where both sides came together and treated each other with mutual respect.
Casual games of football continued throughout the war on an inter-battalion basis and some regiments held an annual sports day with athletics and such bizarre sports as wheelbarrow racing. Cross country races served a dual purpose. The winner was feted but could soon find his stamina deployed as a foot messenger over vast distances and under enemy fire.
There are also many examples in the First World War where an officer kicked a football and urged his men to charge after it as they went over the top to almost certain death.
Among the many famous sportsmen who died during the conflict was Wyndham Halswelle, the 1908 Olympic 400m champion. In all, 26 England rugby internationals died along with 30 from Scotland, 23 French and 12 New Zealand All Blacks. A total of 210 county cricketers were also killed.
Local sporting casualties included Lancelot John Austin Dewar, a fine enough cricketer to merit a brief obituary in the legendary Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
Known to his family and friends as ‘Jack’. He was born on October 8, 1896, the son of the Reverend David Dewar M.A., a Church of England clergyman, and his wife Annie Maria Irene Dewar. Jack had one brother David, known as ‘Sonnie’, who was also casualty of the war, and one sister Margaret.
In 1911 the Rev Dewar was appointed to Holy Trinity Church in Loughborough and the family moved to Holy Trinity Vicarage. He set up and became president of the Loughborough Temperance Council. Jack a ended Oakham School, Rutland, between 1911 and 1915. He was in the school rugby team from 1913-1914 and in the cricket team from 1913-1915, being cricket captain for one year. He was also a school prefect and Head of School.
Prior to Oakham he a ended Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester. On January 15, 1916, he received a commission as Temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Marines, Royal Naval Division. He was drafted to the British Expeditionary Force on July 8, 1916, and joined the 2nd Royal Marine Battalion in the field at Frontcourt-le-Dolmen in the Pas de Calais on July 12.
He was one of 12 officers from England who joined the battalion on that day. Jack was killed in ac on, aged 20, on November 13, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Ancre. His body was buried in 57d.Q.17.d Gordon Trench and No- Mans-Land, but was later recovered and reburied in Ancre British Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel, France, Grave II.C.38. His grave is visited annually by members of Oakham School as part of their history studies.
Similarly, talented Harold Wright, who was born in Barrow- on-Soar, played 11 first class cricket matches before going to war. He was a left -handed batsman and slow left arm bowler who had the distinction of representing Leicestershire, making a top score of 44 at county level.
A Captain in the 6th Battalion North Lancashire Regiment, he died of wounds sustained in September 1915 at the tragically early age of 31.
W.E. Bourne and Frank Cresswell had been the captains of all the major sporting teams at Lougborough Grammar School and both were to die in the conflict.
Arthur Donald Chapman enjoyed sporting success as a member of Longcliffe Golf Club and Eric Jacques had played football for local clubs such as the Loughburians and the Corinthians.
Sergeant ‘Fred’ Palmer was educated at the Loughborough Grammar School and was well known and liked in the town. He was a member of local sports clubs and enjoyed taking part, especially in football where he was a member of the Loughborough Corinthians Football Club. He was also a good oarsman and a member of the Loughborough Boat Club. Fred acted as goalkeeper for the Loughborough Hockey Club and was regarded as a ‘sound and useful player’.
Those who survived and were able would have returned to play sport at home. For the severely wounded this was not possible, although the role of sport as rehabilitation was an important factor in the later development of sport for the disabled which is so important in the Paralympic movement today.
It was not lost on the progagandists of the war effort that recruiting sportsmen and celebrating their leadership qualities could be useful – including the involvement of a writer well known to many in the form of Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle made a direct appeal for football players to volunteer for service; he also came up with the idea of recruiting men and women at sporting events and pursuing them to join in the war at halftimes of certain soccer games. Conan Doyle was not only involved with recruiting at games but also with making and supporting propaganda surrounding the war. In September of 1914, shortly a er the war had begun Conan Doyle took part in a secret meeting with the head of the War Propaganda Bureau, Charles Masterman. In this meeting Conan Doyle and the other writers discussed different ways to promote Britain’s interest in the war. He eventually listed as a private soldier himself.
As war started sports fixtures continued. Over fifty players from Leicester Fosse Football Club fought in the War. They served in a variety of regiments, including the famous Footballers’ Battalion. Four Fosse players were decorated during the conflict, and 11 were killed in action.
Despite the fact that War had broken out the previous month, the 1914/15 Football League season kicked off as normal. In the first game of the season, on September 2 1914, Leicester Fosse drew 2-2 at Filbert Street in a Second Division game against Lincoln City. Between their first and second games of the season over 2 million men had engaged in battle. The Football League was finally suspended for the duration of the War at the end of the 1914-1915 season.
Away from the front and on the streets of Loughborough children continued to play. Speaking to ‘Loughborough As I Remember It’ one local resident said, “Our main diversions were street cricket or football, the later with a tin can if a ball was not available.” Another reports, “In the winter after a hard frost, we would go down to the meadows to watch our elders skating on the ice and having a try ourselves at sliding. Some of the gang were quite adept at it but I always seemed to be facing the wrong way by the time I was halfway down finishing either flat on my face or the other way round.”
As was suggested earlier many sports teams were related to workplace developments but for players who had a ended public schools, then their experience would have been very different.
Since the publication of the famous novel, Tom’s Brown Schooldays, set in Rugby School, the values ins lled by sports and games were seen as vital in developing character in the boys. The link with military values is clearly seen in Sir Henry Newbold’s epic poem “Vitaï Lampada”, written in 1892:
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfsh hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
That sense of war as a game and one’s duty to play it to your best in a spirit of close collaboration with your brothers in arms led hundreds of thousands to be led to their deaths in the deadliest of games.