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Cricket on the Home Front 1914-18

Second of two exclusive articles for ECB on cricket and the Great War by David Frith

As in the Second World War, opinion was sharply divided over the morality of staging cricket matches during the 1914-18 Great War.  Was it “acceptable” or was it unpatriotic?

The world's greatest batsman, Jack Hobbs, midway through his prolific career, found himself at the heart of the controversy when, at the age of 32, he signed to play for Idle in the Bradford League in 1915. His weekday work was clerical, in a munitions factory near his home close to The Oval, and the Saturday afternoon cricket around Bradford was felt to be justified because it offered a welcome distraction and entertainment for local people who, for most of the week, were doing their best to support the war effort on the home front.

But not everybody viewed it that way – including the towering figure of Yorkshire cricket, Lord Hawke, whose criticism of Hobbs was caustic.  Charity cricket was one matter; playing for money at a time like this was frowned upon by many. The controversy escalated when the mighty S.F.Barnes was signed up by Saltaire, and took 8 for 8 on debut.  The large attendance that Saturday (6400) suggested that people were keen to divert their minds by watching the game they adored.

Jack Hobbs even encouraged the magnificent Kent and England allrounder Frank Woolley to play in the Bradford League. Finally reverting to coaching duties at The Oval and Westminster School (whose senior boys would soon be dying on the Western Front), Hobbs went on record with a rare critical remark. Lord Hawke, he wrote in a letter, was “a silly old fool”.  Nonetheless, such was the tension surrounding the war effort that several of Hobbs's brothers who served at the Front (two were wounded) never forgave Jack for not joining up until 1916, when he became a fitter with the Royal Flying Corps.

The 1914 cricket season had come to a chaotic conclusion. County clubs were anxious to complete their obligations to members and to their professional players (there were no sponsors in cricket in those far-off times), but Kent were forced to switch the Dover match, just as Hampshire had to forget about the remaining Portsmouth fixture. Both venues were needed for military purposes.

Surrey, with The Oval also coming under military control, played their Kent and Yorkshire matches at Lord's. Topping the Championship table, with their last two matches cancelled, the “Brown Caps” were declared county champions by MCC, who then governed the English game.

There was something close to a stampede by county (and Test) cricketers into the recruiting centres. Some players already on the reserve lists were unceremoniously plucked out of matches as their regiments sought urgently to strengthen their ranks at this time of tense uncertainty.  In mid-innings at The Oval, Notts skipper Arthur Carr received orders to join his regiment.  He announced that he'd have one more over, then hit a catch before taking up his duty for his country. Hobbs had scored 226 in this match, one of 10 centuries from his cultured bat that fateful summer.

At Northampton, Leicestershire were a man short as they chased a mere 84 for victory, A.T.Sharp having been summoned by his regiment. They were all out for 79.

One example might speak for the spirit of many who rushed to fight for their country.  The Lancashire and England batting stylist Reggie Spooner, one of essayist Neville Cardus's supreme favourites, strolled into the War Office and said he trusted that they had heard of him as a cricketer (and Rugby international too): he had served in the Boer War, could handle a Maxim gun and ride a horse.  He was signed up immediately, was wounded in the right shoulder, and then again at Ypres, in the head and left foot, but was still able to resume his cricket career after the war.

Wisden's editor, Sydney Pardon, penned a “gloomy view” for cricket's immediate prospects, and justifiably so. Already the death notices were piling up. The 1915 edition was printed late enough for 39 pages of obituaries to be included, many of them war casualties. Among them was the Reverend Archibald Hugh Conway Fargus, a Cambridge and Gloucestershire cricketer, who was said to have gone down with HMS Monmouth. Two years later it was announced that he was alive, having missed the ship's departure. He lived on until 1963.

With the mighty hitter Gilbert Jessop about to don uniform and embark on a round of rousing recruiting speeches, the great Lancashire and England batsman Archie MacLaren, also in khaki with similar intent, fired off in the short-lived magazine World of Cricket in August 1914: “They are right who cancel their matches because of the War; they are right who propose to play their matches as long as may be... why should not the man who works during the week get his half-day's cricket at its end?”

After a vivid summary of the situation in Europe, MacLaren went on to make a sombre prediction: “It may be that our own country will be spared the crash of opposing armies in her fair fields. But the manhood of our country will give its toll of dead elsewhere.” Few people then could have forecast the stupendous cost in human lives let alone bricks and mortar.

With the final weeks of the 1914 season having been hopelessly disrupted as cricketers joined the armed forces, that winter it became clear that county cricket could not be resumed in 1915, a prospect which caused several counties deep anxiety as to their survival. The Worcestershire secretary wrote to all the other county clubs asking for support, and was helped by the offer by the club's professionals to play two matches next season without pay – an offer rendered immaterial when it became clear that there would be no Championship cricket in 1915. Many appeals for donations went out, and somehow the 16 first-class clubs avoided bankruptcy. Legacies from cricketers who had died in the war helped in some cases, and Gloucestershire guaranteed its future by selling its ground to chocolate manufacturers Frys.

A high percentage of county cricketers at that time were amateurs (albeit some drawing somewhat excessive “expenses”), but the county clubs were left to decide to what extent they would and could support their professionals. The wealthier clubs, of course, could afford to be more generous than the others. A poignant case was Hampshire's attitude towards their prolific left-hander Phil Mead. His pay was stopped because, having been rejected for war service, he was not engaged in any war work. Some of those who did enlist were placed in sheltered jobs, probably because of the fear that the deaths of too many popular cricketers in battle would have a demoralising effect on the population at large.

The pavilions at Old Trafford, Derby and Trent Bridge (100 wounded soldiers in residence) were turned into military hospitals, but Old Trafford (500 casualties nursed there to date) was closed for cricket for the duration.

Elsewhere all manner of cricket matches were staged, almost all for charitable causes. Canterbury in particular saw plenty of cricket, sensitive public emotions to the fore (though kept well under control if judged against today's incontinent standards).

As the war dragged on, with its chilling casualty lists, it became clear that cricket had a vital role to play as a relaxing diversion. After all, other sports and entertainment were to be enjoyed around the country. In 1916 Yorkshire played against a Bradford League XI, along with other matches “whenever fixtures could be arranged without interfering with munitions work, etc”; there was military cricket at The Oval; it was made known that Kent were making up the shortfall in pay for their professionals who were now in uniform; and Sussex reported that their secretary, Mr F.Oddie, had been killed in the war.

Essex CCC “did everything in their power to keep cricket alive” in 1916.  The Artists Rifles were among the teams which played 30 or so matches at Leyton, where the club gave free use to schools and the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association. Meanwhile, Northamptonshire proudly reported that almost every cricketer on the staff had enlisted, and the ground had been utilised by the military, though their financial situation was causing great concern.

All kinds of charity matches were staged around the country, and public school matches continued, although this was one of the more tragic areas, with so many of the young fellows playing cricket one month, being commissioned the next, and falling in combat in France or Belgium shortly afterwards. The memoriam boards at the schools tell a sombre tale to this day.

The summer of 1917 saw some welcome good cricket staged at Lord's for wartime charity, two matches arranged by Captain P.F.Warner, who now held a position in the War Office. An England Army XI played its Australian counterpart in a one-day match on a sunny July day, with several Test players on show. Warrant Officer Charlie Macartney, whose batting was the main attraction, was lbw to Lieutenant-Colonel J.W.H.T.Douglas, the England captain, for a duck, but Lieutenant Charlie Kelleway made 53. The England side then cruised past that total and batted on for a while, Corporal Ernest Tyldesley stroking 38 and a rather out-of-breath Captain “Plum” Warner 34. It brought back comforting memories.

The second match, a month later, was Navy & Army v Australian & South African Forces. Showers kept the attendance down to 5000, but Admiral Jellicoe was among the onlookers, and there was talent aplenty on show. The giant Australian Jack Massie, who suffered a career-ending arm injury in combat, dismissed Colin Blythe for a duck in the Kent spinner's final innings (Blythe's own last ball went for an ominous six), and Macartney failed again with the bat after taking four wickets with his left-arm spin.

These events, like the baseball match at Lord's between Canada and the USA that same year, were reminders of the better things in life, and symbols of hope.

Then, as 1918 progressed, there were finally signs that the war might be over quite soon. The blessed day came on November 11. The weary warriors returned to their homes – and to their cricket clubs. Many were physically and mentally reduced by the war effort, but the return to the cricket field was a blissful experience.

County Championship matches in 1919 were played experimentally over two extended days, a short-lived failure. Eventually Test cricket resumed with an England tour of Australia in 1920-21 that ended in an Aussie 5-0 whitewash, a unique Ashes outcome until the two repeats early in the 21st Century. Many ex-Servicemen played in both those sides in '20-21.

If any lines of poetry might be summoned to typify the mind-set of some of those wartime cricketers, it might be this oft-repeated touch from Siegfried Sassoon's The Dreamers (1917):  “I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats; And in the ruined trenches, lashed by rain; Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats.”

Some further reading:

Jack Hobbs: England's Greatest Cricketer by Leo McKinstry (Yellow Jersey, 2011)

World of Cricket (1915) edited by A.C.MacLaren

Imperial War Museum Review No.12 (County Cricket and the First World War) by Neil Young (IWM, 1999)

Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1915-1919

DAVID FRITH is a former editor of The Cricketer and of Wisden Cricket Monthly, and is the author of more than 30 cricket books.  His grandfather served with the East Surrey Regiment in the 1914-18 War, which also claimed the lives of two great-uncles.

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