Chelsea in the First World War

A review of how the 1914-1918 conflict affected Chelsea Football Club and the sport in general...

The ultimatum to withdraw from Belgium ignored, Britain declared a state of war with Germany at 11pm on 4 August 1914. No aspect of life in England would ever be the same and football neither enjoyed nor offered sanctuary from the horrors that followed.

Four days later the Defence of the Realm Act made it illegal, amongst other things, to buy binoculars, light fireworks, use invisible ink when writing abroad or buy strong alcohol in a railway refreshment room.

In August 1914 many British ex-footballers had training jobs based in the heart of the conflict, in Germany, Austria and Belgium. A former coach at the Bridge, Harry Ransom, was in Budapest, ‘but managed to reach London safely after being twice stopped on suspicion of being a foreign spy.’

At first football attempted to carry on regardless, but a ferocious attack by the media and parliament on so-called shirkers among the playing staff and supporters knocked the game back on its heels.

In many walks of life hordes of workmates were going off to fight in ‘pals regiments’. But recruitment drives at London grounds were unsuccessful. Notoriously, not a single volunteer joined up at Stamford Bridge, where a Colonel Burn had lectured a crowd of 16,000. (Perhaps announcing that his own son had already been killed in France was not the cleverest enticement.)


James Ridley

photo of World War I People World War I People

Jack Cock

photo of World War I People World War I People

Henry Frank Mears

photo of World War I People World War I People

Bob ‘Pom-Pom’ Whiting

photo of World War I People World War I People

George Lake

photo of World War I People World War I People

Chelsea had responded regularly in the matchday programme with contempt for the ‘mud-slingers’, publishing a photograph of a crowd comprising almost entirely of men in uniform and therefore ‘doing their bit’ for King and country (pictured top). They also printed dozens of letters from fighting men craving to hear how their beloved Pensioners were faring, particularly as they progressed to the FA Cup final for the first time ever in 1914/15.

Exiled Belgians were handed tickets to games, including a 2-2 draw with Oldham. They were ‘Chelsea partisans to a man – and woman,’ cheered the Chelsea goals and ‘seemed almost to forget their own terrible sufferings.’

The club was also quick to collect money in a ‘Footballs for Tommies’ scheme to dispatch 50 top-quality footballs off to servicemen on the frontline who applied for one at Stamford Bridge (see programme extract right). They were sent in November 1914. One of them may even have been used in the legendary Christmas truce match a month later.

‘The Southdown Battalion of the Sussex Regiment are proud in the possession of the ball used in our match v Liverpool,’ it was announced. Two representatives from that battalion, Lieutenants Clifford Whitley and Ernest Wenden helped establish a ‘Chelsea Supporters’ Company’ with a recruitment drive at the Bridge. (Perhaps as a result, both went on to marry Maie and Julia, daughters of Chelsea director Fred Parker.)

The Chelsea hierarchy also supported the grand initiative of a Footballer’s Battalion, the 17th Middlesex, created on 14 December 1914. Not only did several current and former players sign up, but club secretary Bert Palmer became ‘Honorary Recruiting Officer’ for the 17th, prompting the attestations of 60-70 soldiers. One of the first was Chelsea’s star winger Teddy Foord.

An odd memento of the club’s closeness to this fabled battalion lies in a unique engraved silver plate on display in the Chelsea FC Museum. The inscription reads: ‘In Honour of the Khaki Recruits – Our Chelsea Diehards. Presented to the Earl of Lonsdale by the men of the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regt. and Chelsea Football and Athletic Company Limited, Feb 12 1916.’

By then the Football League had been suspended and regionalised. The Pensioners had lost the FA Cup final at Old Trafford 0-3 to Sheffield United and, disastrously, finished in a relegation slot. However it later emerged that players from Liverpool and Manchester United had colluded to fix a match, saving the latter from the drop and condemning Chelsea. The football community was scandalised, and when the war was over the League made sure the Pensioners were reinstated in the top flight.



It took 10 seasons to reach Chelsea’s first FA Cup Final, but it was a far from joyous occasion. The 1914/15 season had continued despite the outbreak of World War One. READ MORE>>


From summer 1915 and for the duration of the war, professional football was broken down into regions. Clubs in the capital and south-east, no longer under Football League jurisdiction. READ MORE>>

In the meantime the small-scale football served up 1915 to 1918 offered little succour from the bad news hitting nearly every family.

Among the Chelsea-related, past and present, Max Seeberg was interned simply because of his German surname; Vivian ‘Jack’ Woodward was wounded in action but recovered; George Hilsdon was gassed; coach Harry Brown and board members Parker, Palmer and Mears all lost immediate family; while Bob ‘Pom-Pom’ Whiting, Arthur Wileman, Bob Atherton, George Kennedy, Philip Smith and George Lake all died of wounds suffered in the conflict.

Kennedy, a half-back during the 1908/09 season who emigrated in 1914 and was a company sergeant-major in the 42nd Canadian Highlanders, died during the capture of Passchendaele on 16 November 1917. He was Chelsea’s most decorated former player, receiving the Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal earlier that year (his attestation paper is shown on the right).

Most poignantly, Lake died just a four days before the armistice of 11 November 1918. He was the only serving first team Chelsea player claimed by this most brutal of conflicts.

1914 Matchday Programme Cover

Roll of Honour
Serving and former Chelsea footballers who were killed during World War One.

Robert 'Bob' Atherton
Died 19 October 1917

George Kennedy
Died 16 November 1917

George Lake
Died 6 November 1918

Francis ‘Frank’ O’Hara
Died 12 July 1915

Philip Smith
Died 29 September 1918

Robert 'Pom-Pom' Whiting
Died 28 April 1917

Arthur Wileman
Died 28 April 1918

Norman Wood
Died 28 July 1916


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