Recollection for Remembrance – the tale of ‘Chelsea Footballs for Tommies’

From the official Chelsea FC website:

Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, on which Chelsea FC will join the rest of the country in honouring all of those who have lost their lives because of war, we look back to the First World War to tell the story of how the club supported troops on the front, especially the tale of one initiative which might have provided a key component for one of the most famous moments in all conflict: the 1914 Christmas Truce matches.

This weekend’s commemoration of the day the guns fell silent on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the end of World War One, is as poignant as can be. We are currently seeing all too vividly the tragic toll of war, tempered by reports of the simple acts of kindness that provide relief and reassurance.

The desire to see glimmers of hope for better days in the worst of times was equally strong in 1914 to 1918 as horrors unfolded for the 2,675,149 British volunteers, and slightly higher number of conscripted folk, in the trenches of France and Belgium and other arenas of battle.

Professional football continued despite war escalating globally on 4 August 1914, two weeks before the league campaign began.

As casualties rose and the demands of recruitment rose, immense pressure was put on the game to be suspended. In World War Two the government recognised sport acted as a safety valve for people whose previously rich lives had been severely restricted.

World War One’s authorities were less enlightened. Truth is a casualty of war, as the saying goes, and one gung-ho journalist claimed he was ‘nearly killed at Fulham’ after promoting through his column the press mantra: ‘No more football until after the war.’

The fact that horse racing, the ‘Sport of Kings’ no less, was among the sports that continued unharassed – despite the huge demand for horses on all fronts of the war – suggested there was something the establishment particularly objected to in a sport not of royals, but played by and for a largely young crowd that lacked influence in politics or the media.

Chelsea’s immediate response was a defiant and forceful one, pointing out that the crowds attending Stamford Bridge already wore uniforms of various services – football was ‘doing its bit’ – and that people wanted the sport to continue.

As it turned out, the club had mixed fortunes that season, reaching the FA Cup final for the first time ever, but very nearly suffering relegation from Division One.

One photo reproduced in the programme was accompanied by a sarcastic caption pointing out the preponderance of khaki in the west-side banking, aimed squarely at the ‘mud-slingers’ in the British press.

The club also wholeheartedly backed enlistment drives, including for the 17th Middlesex or ‘Footballers’ Battalion. So great was the club’s involvement that club secretary Bert Palmer was one of the new unit’s chief recruiters.

Another course of action Chelsea embarked upon is less celebrated, though it was innovative and popular at the time. It was a scheme to support the troops in the most natural and practical way possible: sending footballs to the frontline.

Introduced as ‘Chelsea Footballs for Tommies’, the project raised money through bucket collections at the Bridge and invited Chelsea-supporting men on the Western Front to write in to request a Chelsea ball be sent to their regiment.

The club had already met similar requests on a one-off basis but this was a more serious scheme.

‘The whole of today’s bucket collection will be devoted to the purchase of footballs, and in one or two cases outfits [kits], for our gallant “Tommies”,’ the Chelsea Chronicle [the match programme] for Sheffield Wednesday’s visit announced. ‘Already we have nearly 50 applications from various regiments, so when the boxes come round do your bit for the boys who are doing their bit for you!’

By the way, Tommies refers to Private Tommy Atkins, which became the generic British working-class soldier’s name after it appeared as example text – Private Thomas Atkins, No. 6 Troop, 6th Dragoons – in the Soldier’s Pocket Book of 1815.

The universal good-hearted, no-nonsense typecasting was further popularised by a touring 1880s play by Arthur Shirley and Ben Landeck titled Private Tommy Atkins and Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem Tommy.

Despite times of shortage, by mid-December 1914 the club had secured enough cash to meet the demand and have the 50 match-quality footballs produced and sent off to the successful applicants.

So for their first festive season in the misery of the trenches, the combatants would at least have a proper ‘caser’ to kick about in their recreation time.

Regular matches were widely reported behind the lines and Chelsea’s footballs were among those used – possibly even in some of the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ games, when German and English troops would briefly lay down their arms and, as the poet Carol Ann Duffy later put it, ‘make of a battleground a football pitch.’

Letters from successful applicants were published in the programme, with a one west Londoner, Sergeant Charles Watts of F Company, 25th County of London Cyclists Regiment, writing, ‘I thank you for the football. Whenever we use it we will think of the “Boys in Blue” who so kindly provided it.’ The majority of his comrades, he added, ‘are from Chelsea and neighbourhood.’

In many cases, the balls were dispatched to regiments representing geographical areas that remain Chelsea catchment areas to this day: Berkshire, London, Surrey, and Sussex. Some units were reportedly packed with ‘Chelsea-ites’, though that is hardly surprising since Chelsea were the best-supported club in the land before and after the conflict.

‘Your generous gift of a football arrived safely, and is much appreciated,’ enthused Captain Cyril Paget of 25th County of London Cyclists, ‘It will give the men some healthy amusement and exercise when off duty.’

Clearly confident that its ‘Tommies’ scheme was a winner, the club was scathing of similar projects that skimped on quality. ’Hundreds of footballs have been sent to our brave lads at the front, but many appear to have been of poor quality, for the “casualties” amongst footballs have been exceedingly heavy,’ lamented the Chelsea Chronicle of 9 January 1915.

‘In more than one instance we read of a couple of balls being burst in a single game behind the firing line.

‘It may safely be assumed that none of these were sent out by Chelsea, for each one of the fifty balls dispatched by us were of the best quality only, equal to those used in League competitions at home. Has someone been palming off old stock on the well-meaning but inexperienced buyers?’

As war progressed the programme itself became a lifeline back to civilisation for servicemen suffering privations on every theatre of war. London newspapers had suspended their Saturday night football editions meaning those passionate about the game clung to alternatives.

‘If they only knew the joy it gives our chaps out at sea, watching and waiting to protect them,’ wrote one Chelsea supporter from his bunk on HMS Wolf, ‘I am sure they would have published their “Football Stars” and “News” as usual.’

In place of the missing ‘Pinks’, he and his crew mates had avidly read, many times over, Chelsea programmes dispatched to their B-class destroyer in the North Sea. Grateful for evidence of its role in holding up morale, the club printed plenty of similar correspondence.

What became of the men who were sent Chelsea footballs? Sadly, they do not appear to have been especially lucky charms.

The grim overall mortality rate for men such as our group who were involved in the war from its outset has been estimated at 29 per cent. And of the 26 supporters identifiable as receiving a Chelsea ball, five died answering their country’s call.

Two – 20-year-old Irish Guard Cecil Dean and Fulham postman Alf Dorsett, 34 – are buried in the same cemetery at Le Touret, France, in 1915.

Driver Bert Ponman, from Lambeth, succumbed to field hospital treatment for illness on 4 September 1918 aged 23, while Fred Russell, who grew up a stone’s throw from Stamford Bridge, was killed near Festubert on 30 June 1916.

Woking-born Royal Marine Sergeant Henry Trusler died of wounds on 30 September 1918, aged 22, a matter of weeks before the armistice was signed and shortly after earning a Military Medal, awarded for ‘acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire.’

The fate of six more is unknown.

Happily, at least 15 recipients lived to watch their heroes from the Stamford Bridge terraces again in peacetime. Among them, Thomas Scasbrook, entered the cloth trade in Cheapside and died in Dagenham in 1958, his Lyon-based business having been wrecked by the Nazi invasion of France in 1940.

Badly injured Charles Dewar survived the sinking of his hospital ship by a German U-boat in 1917 only to be killed by Luftwaffe bombs in September 1940 aged 50.

Kentish Town-born Henry Hood Barrs, thrived in the post-war period as a company director, though dogged by financial woes and died at 82 in 1972.

Having suffered a shot to the face and parked his war bicycle, Cyril Paget resumed his law career and served as a senior civil servant in India and Burma in the late 1940s, dying aged 89 at Worthing in 1980.

Intriguingly, two of the football applicants from the Royal Sussex Regiment would become a son-in-law to Chelsea’s influential founding director, Frederick Parker, though both relationships were short-lived.

Ernest Wenden took the hand of Julia Parker but mysteriously disappeared from a hotel room in 1915, never to be seen again. He was divorced in absentia.

Clifford Whitley tied the knot with Julia’s sister Maie in early 1915 and transferred from the army to the Royal Flying Corps, earning a Military Cross. Peace brought a glamorous career in theatre, PR management and journalism with the Sunday Pictorial.

However, his marriage to Maie, which produced one daughter, ended in 1921 and he remarried to actress and client Elsa MacFarlane. Whitley died at Worthing in 1972.

– By Rick Glanvill, Chelsea club historian

  • Remembrance will be marked at our Premier League and Women’s Super League matches on Sunday, with details here





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