Sporting Sideshows of World War One

Ahead of Remembrance Day, one of our many brilliant volunteers, Peter Bloor, reflects on the impact of the Sporting 'Sideshows' that took place during First World War, which served as a distraction to those on the front line as well as those living under war-time conditions at home.

For strategic, political and of course military reasons the First World War was also fought in theatres other than the Western Front, in campaigns such as those on Gallipoli and in Salonika and Mesopotamia. In these sideshows, as they were termed, and just as they did on the Western Front, sportsmen fought and men played sport as a distraction from the grim business in hand, and judging by the conditions in which British officers played an inter-camp match in Mesopotamia in 1917 extremes of weather only added to the need for something else to think about.

The best known of these sideshow campaigns is Gallipoli, during which the Australian contingent displayed a nerveless attitude to their sport, the Australian Army Medical Corps distracting themselves by playing football under evening shellfire and the Australian Light Horse the enemy by playing cricket, also under shellfire, to draw their attention from the preparations for the successful evacuation of the peninsula in January 1916. With such resolve and conviction that “She’ll be apples” (as Aussies are supposed to say) it’s no wonder that Steve Waugh saw the value of taking his side to visit the Gallipoli battlefields on their way to the UK for the 2001 Ashes tour.

Undeterred by the ongoing disaster on Gallipoli, in 1915 the Allies landed another combined force in the Mediterranean, in Macedonia via the Greek port of Salonika, now Thessaloniki, and the value men attached to their sports time is shown by a story my grandfather would tell from his three years there. Having been transferred to Salonika from the Western Front his Battalion, the 3rd Royal Fusiliers, was in the line when they heard music coming from the Bulgarian trenches opposite and requested that a couple of shells be lobbed in its general direction. Sometime later the Battalion was having a kickabout when a number of reciprocal shells fell, which was felt to be an act of dirty fighting worthy of protest. A signal to this effect was duly flashed across No Man’s Land - to which the perfectly reasonable response was “You shell our band, we shell your football.”

At some point of course the football and cricket had to finish and the fighting had to begin. At 2 a.m. on April 5th 1916 Private John Redpath Gill from Newstead, Melrose, and a former captain of the town’s rugby club, moved into position with his Battalion, the 9th Worcestershires, in readiness for 13th Western Division’s assault on the Turkish trenches at Hannah in Mesopotamia, present day Iraq. He and his comrades waited until noon for their order to attack, upon which they advanced “with absolutely no cover” and were “swept both by…machine-gun and rifle fire” before reaching a trench which did afford some, but not complete, cover. There they waited until 6.45, when “orders were received for the immediate assault of the enemy’s position”; by 10 p.m. that position was taken but the day had cost the Battalion 12 Other Ranks killed and 132 wounded, of whom John was one, dying of his wounds the following day. He is now remembered on the Basra Memorial.

Another who ‘played his last innings in the greatest of all contests’ in 1916 was Lieutenant Leonard James Moon of the 10th Devonshire Regiment, who died of wounds in Salonika on November 23rd. The Manchester Guardian report of his death described him as “the well-known Cambridge and Corinthian footballer and Middlesex cricketer” but omitted to mention that in 1906 he had played four Test Matches for MCC in South Africa as “a vigorous batsman who could cut well, and a useful wicket-keeper.” This may be ungenerous, since he was remembered at the Middlesex AGM of 1916 as “one of their most brilliant batsmen” and in Kent, after he had retired to become a schoolmaster there, as someone who gave the local clubs a big day when his teaching duties allowed him to play, although “On days when he was in form it was no great pleasure to bowl against him – but it was an education.” Leonard is buried in the Karasouli Military Cemetery, Greece.

In 1916 the 3rd Royal Fusiliers organised a boxing tournament at Lembet Camp, Salonika, during which Privates Hurren and Goss fought a six round contest. It does seem incongruous that men at war should find relaxation and recreation in hitting each other, but these were different times, of hard men doing an unspeakable job in appalling conditions – John Gill, Leonard Moon, Hurren and Goss can stand for them all.

References for the article

The quotes and information in this article are taken from:

The War Diary of the 9th Worcestershires, The National Archives reference WO-95-5159-3; The Times, the Manchester Guardian and the Thanet Advertiser of the time; The Cricinfo site at; The commemoration and burial details for John Redpath Gill and Leonard Moon are taken from the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

All images from the Imperial War Museum: "Rugby Union footballers" poster © IWM Art.IWM PST 7806, "Sportsmans 1000" Australian recruiting poster © IWM Art.IWM PST 12226, The Salonika Campaign: The Doiran Front seen from Sal Grec de Popovo (1918, by William T Wood) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2244), Salonika boxing © IWM Q 31850 and © IWM Q 31851


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