On this day Henry Norris, chairman of Arsenal FC, went to a joint meeting of the FA and the Football League.
This meeting was called because the Colonel of the recently established Footballers’ Battalion had complained that some football clubs were actively working to stop their players joining the army.
At the time there was no conscription, and the British Empire prided itself on having a volunteer army of paid recruits, while other nations conscripted young men to fight, often against their will.
Charlie Buchan, not yet an Arsenal player, had himself reported the action of clubs in not letting their players sign up, with his club saying that they would sue for breach of contract if he did indeed leave to serve in the army.
Henry Norris had a particular interest in, and knowledge of, what was happening, because it was he who had proposed the Footballers’ Battalion in the first place.
His idea was simple. If some players did volunteer, then supporters of the team that the footballers played for could join the same battalion and work alongside the men they had been watching on the pitch week by week.
It was a remarkably simple but very effective plan and resulted in a significant number of volunteers being signed up. The only problem was that there were no weapons for the men to be trained to use, nor were there funds set aside to run the battalion.
As a result Henry Norris funded the training arrangements of three footballers’ battalions himself, and in response to the complaint about clubs not being co-operative, Norris was naturally able to assure the meeting that the two clubs of which he was a director (Arsenal and Fulham) were going out of their way to encourage players. What’s more (and this is, I think an important revelation) both clubs were still paying the wages of the players who had signed up.
Given the debts Norris had incurred in moving Arsenal to Highbury, with the complete building of the ground from scratch, and with a huge decline in crowds since the outbreak of war in 1914, Norris’ support for the battalion was particularly generous.
However, there was a huge amount of antagonism against the clubs in the press at the time, the media almost unanimously claiming that continuing to have football being played at a time of war, was a grave distraction. The media were in favour of horse racing continuing (a sport favoured by a number of newspaper owners) but very much against football.
Indeed, the Times even went so far as to send one of its junior reporters to watch an Arsenal match, and his report was included in the paper. Unfortunately, the cub didn’t realise he had gone to Highbury on a day when Arsenal were away, and what he actually witnessed was a reserve game.
On a more positive side it appears that Henry Norris and George Allison, (who later became club manager but pre-war acted as Arsenal’s press officer and programme editor), stayed in touch at this time. Within a year both were employed in the War Office – Norris eventually being in charge of conscription, with Allison working in the propaganda division.
Allison received no formal recognition of his work, but Norris was first knighted for his work in raising the football battalions, and then promoted through the officer classes from having no rank in 1914, rising to become a Lieutenant Colonel by 1917, in recognition of his total reorganisation of recruitment and overseeing conscription and later demobilisation.
Lt Col Sir Henry Norris, to give him his full title by the end of the war, later warned the government strongly against introducing conscription in Ireland, and he was right in this regard. The moment it was introduced, the Catholic church’s bishops denounced the move, told their flock to stand firm against the notion, and thus effectively started the Irish war of Independence which lasted until 1921.