The bravest Hammers of all and the sacrifice they made

Danny Rust on how the First World War puts everything in perspective

It’s now 100 years since the First World War began and West Ham United had an impact in the war that shaped the world as we know it. After Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, cricket and rugby competitions were immediately stopped but the Football League continued into the 1914-15 season.

Professional footballers could only join the armed forces if their clubs agreed to cancel their contracts, as professionals were tied down to one-year renewable contracts. Three days after declaring war, Lord Kitchener began a recruiting campaign by calling for men aged 19 to 30 to join the British Army. Three weeks later, Kitchener raised the recruiting age to 35 and by mid-September over half a million men had volunteered their services

But West Ham United players and staff were accused of being cowardly for getting paid for playing football while others were fighting on the Western Front. It was Frederick Charrington, the son of the wealthy brewer who had established the Tower Hamlets Mission, who attacked the Irons. As a result, Charles B. Fry, the notorious amateur footballer and cricketer, called for football to be abolished.

Fry believed that all professional contracts should have been annulled and that no one below 40 years of age should be allowed to attend matches. The Hammers had high hopes to be crowned champions of the Southern League for the first time in the club’s history and so refused to cancel the contracts of their professionals. West Ham went on to win six of their opening 12 games.

Then in October 1914, Lord Kitchener issued a call for volunteers to replace those who had been killed in the opening months of the war. As a result, the Football Battalion was set up by William Joynson Hicks and three members of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee visited the Boleyn Ground during half time of matches to call for more volunteers.

West Ham goalkeeper Joe Webster joined the Football Battalion while Jack Tresadern joined the Royal Garrison Artillery and quickly reached the rank of lieutenant. The club’s fans also got involved, forming the Pals Battalion. The 13th (Service) Battalion (West Ham Pals) were part of the Essex Regiment.

Brian Belton, in War Hammers: The Story of West Ham United During the First World War, writes that the battle cry of the West Ham Pals was ‘Up the Irons’. Due to numerous Hammers players joining the military, West Ham could only finish in fourth place. The Southern League was not contested the following season.

By the time of the 1915/16 season, it was estimated that 2,000 of the 5,000 professional footballers in Britain had joined the armed forces. Most of the Hammers team was included in this total. There were five Hammers who went to fight for their country but did not return. Fred Griffiths, Arthur Stallard, William Jones, Frank Cannon and William Kennedy all left for the army as Hammers but their football careers and lives were ended on the battlefield.

Going into the war, George Hilsdon was West Ham’s star striker, but he would not feature for the East Londoners again when he headed to the European battlefields. Hilsdon was caught up in a mustard gas attack in Arras in 1917, which badly damaged his lungs. He failed to play professional football again because of the incident, but he did feature briefly in non-league football for Chatham Town.

Going into the war, George Hilsdon was West Ham’s star striker, but he would not feature for the East Londoners again when he headed to the European battlefields. Hilsdon was caught up in a mustard gas attack in Arras in 1917, which badly damaged his lungs. He failed to play professional football again because of the incident, but he did feature briefly in non-league football for Chatham Town.

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