Men Who Played the Game
The Great War marked a profound change in attitudes to war and the conduct of it. Six million men from the British Isles served in it, 720,000 (12%) were killed. Junior offices had a 20% survival rate; up to 80% of a battalion could be lost. Battle had changed from engagement by professionals to wholesale, mechanized slaughter. The effect on servicemen and those at home was profound, perhaps never more so than in the case of sportsmen, who fought ‘battles’ on the pitch or in the ring according to rules devised for fair play.
Men Who Played the Game explores the development and importance of sport in Britain and the Empire leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and the part played by sportsmen in the conflict. The book opens with revealing chapters of how various sports – the fans, the governing bodies and the sportsmen themselves – reacted to the outbreak of war.
The bulk of the book tells the stories of individuals and groups of sportsmen, combining accounts of their pre-war sporting success and their military experience. It covers several sports – rugby, football, cricket, athletics, tennis, boxing; social hierarchy – ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’; several nationalities – English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Australian, New Zealanders; and several theatres of war – Western Front, Gallipoli, Africa, the Middle East. Here are stories about the famous Hearts football team, soccer stars Leigh Roose, Jimmy Speirs and the first mixed race footballer Walter Tull. Rugby Union is represented by All Black captain Dave Gallaher, British Lion David Bedell-Sivright and a swathe of England captains; cricket by the fate of the Kent County side and Booth, Jeeves and Burns: three all-rounders killed on the Somme.
Historian Mike Rees has written an invaluable guide to the relationship of sport and war, to the state of sporting Britain, and a moving testimony to the fate of so many sportsmen.