West Ham United’s war heritage explored in new book
- Credit: Brian Belton
For the thousands of supporters who flock to Upton Park every other Saturday, life without West Ham United would be unthinkable. But fans and players a century earlier nearly had to face just that when war broke out in Europe.
War Hammers I: The story of West Ham United during the First World War charts the relationship between football and war from the 1913/14 season through to 1918/19.
“In many ways it’s a war within a war,” explained author Brian Belton.“The government wanted to stop all entertainment and there was a dilemma about whether football should continue.”
As it was, football did, albeit with a number of changes. The leagues were suspended, but competitions were allowed as long as no medals or trophies were awarded.
This led to West Ham uniting with a number of other clubs from the capital to play in a London Combination tournament. “Instead of playing teams like Dartford in the Southern League, games against Arsenal and Tottenham were a lot nearer,” explained Brian. “On Christmas Day 1916, 20,000 fans turned out to watch a match against Chelsea.”
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While they were enjoying an exciting match, others were losing their lives on the other side of the English Channel.
The 13th Service Battalion – also known as the West Ham Pals – featured a number of the club’s players as well as its supporters.
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George Hilsdon played just one match for the club before being sent to the frontline in 1917, and striker Arthur Stallard lost his life in the same year. Despite their fighting spirit, and battle cry of “up the Irons”, the Pals suffered significant losses during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and the battallion was disbanded in February 1918.
“Most of the players helped out with the war effort, whether it was on the frontline or working at places like the munitions factory,” explained Brian. “There was a lot of criticism that they shouldn’t be playing football while men were out there dying. They had to be seen as role models.”
Players had to juggle what were often long, dangerous shifts at the factory with training and playing for their club.
One amateur, Pomeroy Burge, played in a 5-2 defeat in November 1916 after a night shift, and hurried straight off to another after the final whistle before turning up for training the next day.
The loss of players to the battlefields meant a temporary change in the rules.
“There was a guest player system where you could play for another team,” said Brian.
“Some players missed out on four years of their career, but other younger ones were given a chance they wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
The women’s game also started to attract larger crowd, with factories providing a good recruiting ground for teams.
In many ways, the club’s success in wartime competitions helped them to be accepted into the Football League in 1919 and pave the way for success during the 1920s.