1914-15 Southern League : First Division
Manager: Syd King
Before the season kicked off in September World War One had already broken out, but the Southern League, along with the Football League, decided to continue with their fixtures. New players were goalkeeper Joe Webster, full-backs Bill Cope and George Speak, and Alf Fenwick, a forward. In the first two home games Syd Puddefoot scored twice in victories against Gillingham and Luton Town but away from home it was the same story with three successive defeats. There were home draws against Swindon and Queens Park Rangers and the away form improved with victories at Southend, Croydon Common and Watford. Inside-forward Alf Leafe scored in five successive games to bring his total to seven. Due to the war there were many restrictions, and attendances were poor. On Boxing Day Brighton were beaten 2-1 at home, with Puddefoot scoring twice. He went one better a few days later when scoring a hat-trick against Exeter City in a 4-1 victory at the Boleyn.
The FA Cup brought an exciting clash with Newcastle United which saw Alf Leafe score twice in a 2-2 home draw. Alf scored again in the replay but the Geordies progressed by winning 3-2 before 28,130 fans. Portsmouth and Southend were beaten at home and following the 1-1 draw with Millwall the team were undefeated in nine games and up to second in the league. However, despite home wins against Cardiff City and Watford, there were three away defeats which left the team in fourth place as the season ended.
GILLINGHAM: Southern League First Division
2 - 1 (Puddefoot 2)
1 September 1914 Webster
The opening fixture of the season was a home game against Gillingham, and it was easy to see what effect the war would have on attendances when a crowd of just 5,000 came through the gates. Five of the new men were included - Joe Webster in goal, Cope and Speak in the full-back positions, Fenwick at right half and Wright at outside left. The team took quite some while to settle down, and the light ball did not tend to produce quality football, and it was the visitors who scored first. The two new backs were shaky for a while, but Fenwick showed that he could be a capable addition to the club. Puddefoot equalised before half time, and from a cross from Percy Wright scored a real beauty to give a first day win of 2-1.
EXETER CITY : Southern League First Division
St James' Park
1 - 3 (Puddefoot)
5 September 1914 Webster, Cope, Speak, Fenwick, Askew, Randall, Ashton, Bailey, Puddefoot, Leafe, Wright
At Exeter the Hammers were holding their own quite well, and Ashton went off on one of his lightning runs and with just Pym, in goal, to beat he tapped the ball to Puddefoot who opened the scoring, and both wings troubled the home defence consistently. Amazingly, Exeter started a run of scoring that left West Ham reeling. With just a few minutes remaining of the first half, F. Goodwin, who had been swapped for Goddard during the previous season, after performing well in the reserves, provided a cross for Exeter's Lovett to score easily. He then came through the centre and got round Speak, before beating Webster with an angled shot from close in. Without time to take breath, the home side scored a third to make the score 3-1 at half time. Ashton in particular, never stopped trying after the interval causing problems to the home defence, but Exeter were really robbed of another goal before the end, when Holt, on the wing, got clean away with only Webster to beat when he was recalled by the referee because a lost ball had been retrieved and thrown on to the field!
THE ESSEX TIMES Saturday 5 September 1914 WEST HAM UNITED AND THE WAR - CLUB AND PLAYERS SUBSCRIBE
Supporters of West Ham United F.C. and of football generally will learn with satisfaction that the players have decided to subscribe each week towards the Prince of Wales Fund while the War lasts. Besides this the players are taking rifle practice on the Boleyn Social Club Grounds so that they might become efficient riflemen.
On 6th September 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle, appealed for footballers to join the armed forces: "There was a time for all things in the world. There was a time for games, there was a time for business, and there was a time for domestic life. There was a time for everything, but there is only time for one thing now, and that thing is war. If the cricketer had a straight eye let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle." Some newspapers suggested that those who did not join up were "contributing to a German victory."
Frederick Charrington, the son of the wealthy brewer who had established the Tower Hamlets Mission, attacked the West Ham United players for being effeminate and cowardly for getting paid for playing football while others were fighting on the Western Front. The famous amateur footballer and cricketer, Charles B. Fry, called for the abolition of football, demanding that all professional contracts be annulled and that no one below forty years of age be allowed to attend matches.
West Ham had high hopes that they could win the Southern League for the first time and refused to cancel the contracts of their professional players. In Syd Puddefoot they had the country's most promising young goalscorer. The only significant new signing that year was Joe Webster from Watford.
GILLINGHAM : Southern League First Division
0 - 4
9 September 1914
In the return game with Gillingham, Randall's place was taken by Burton. Tommy's leg injury was giving him constant problems and he needed to rest up. The home team gained revenge for their opening day defeat, being the faster side especially after half time. With the West Ham defence having a torrid time, the Kent side won by four clear goals.
LUTON TOWN : Southern League First Division
3 - 0 (Puddefoot 2, Hilsdon
12 September 1914
PORTSMOUTH : Southern League First Division
1 - 3 (Hilsdon)
19th September 1914
SWINDON TOWN : Southern League First Division
SOUTHEND UNITED : Southern League First Division
QUEENS PARK RANGERS : Southern League First Division
MILLWALL : Southern League First Division
BRISTOL ROVERS : Southern League First Division
CROYDON COMMON : Southern League First Division
2 - 1 (Bailey, Leafe)
31st October 1914
Black and white photographs of crowd scenes at football matches which were later turned into postcards were prevalent before the outbreak of the First World War. This match has been identified as being taken at The Nest which was the home ground of Croydon Common on the 31st October 1914 with the Hammers winning 2-1.
West Ham won six of their first 12 games. Syd Puddefoot got nine goals during this period. George Hilsdon and Richard Leafe were also in good form and got 7 between them. Once again West Ham were challenging for the Southern League title.
In October 1914, the Secretary of State, Lord Kitchener, issued a call for volunteers to both replace those killed in the early battles of the First World War. At the beginning of the war the army had strict specifications about who could become soldiers. Men joining the army had to be at least 5ft 6in tall and a chest measurement of 35 inches. However, these specifications were changed in order to get more men to join the armed forces.
READING : Southern League First Division
3 - 2 (Bailey, Leafe, Puddefoot)
7th November 1914
PLYMOUTH ARGYLE : Southern League First Division
2 - 0 (Butcher, Carr)
5th December 1914
The Bishop of Chelmsford paid a visit in Bethnal Green where he gave a sermon on the need for professional footballers to join the armed services. The Stratford Express reported on 2nd December 1914: " The Bishop, in an address on Duty, spoke of the magnificent response that had been made to the call to duty from the King. All must play their part. They must not let their brothers go to the front and themselves remain indifferent. He felt that the cry against professional football at the present time was right. He could not understand men who had any feeling, any respect for their country, men in the prime of life, taking large salaries at a time like this for kicking a ball about. It seemed to him something incongruous and unworthy".
William Joynson Hicks established the 17th Service (Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment on 12th December, 1914. This group became known as the Football Battalion. According to Frederick Wall, the secretary of the Football Association, the England international centre-half, Frank Buckley, was the first person to join the Football Battalion. At first, because of the problems with contracts, only amateur players like Vivian Woodward, and Evelyn Lintott were able to sign-up.
As Frank Buckley had previous experience in the British Army he was given the rank of Lieutenant. He eventually was promoted to the rank of Major. Within a few weeks the 17th Battalion had its full complement of 600 men. However, few of these men were footballers. Most of the recruits were local men who wanted to be in the same battalion as their football heroes. For example, a large number who joined were supporters of Chelsea and Queen's Park Rangers who wanted to serve with Vivian Woodward and Evelyn Lintott.
Under considerable pressure from the Football Association eventually backed down and called for football clubs to release professional footballers who were not married, to join the armed forces. The FA also agreed to work closely with the War Office to encourage football clubs to organize recruiting drives at matches.
The Athletic News responded angrily: "The whole agitation is nothing less than an attempt by the ruling classes to stop the recreation on one day in the week of the masses... What do they care for the poor man's sport? The poor are giving their lives for this country in thousands. In many cases they have nothing else... These should, according to a small clique of virulent snobs, be deprived of the one distraction that they have had for over thirty years."
Three members of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee visited Upton Park during half-time to call for volunteers. Joe Webster, the West Ham United goalkeeper, was one of those who joined the Football Battalion as a result of this appeal. Jack Tresadern joined the Royal Garrison Artillery. An intelligent man, he quickly reached the rank of lieutenant.
West Ham United supporters also formed their own Pals Battalion. The 13th (Service) Battalion (West Ham Pals) were part of the Essex Regiment. On 5th March 1915 the East Ham Echo reported that Henry Dyer, the Mayor of West Ham, held a concert on behalf of the West Ham Battalion: "During the evening the Mayor briefly addressed the men. He remarked that it was the first time he had the opportunity of speaking to the Battalion as a whole. He was proud of them and when they had gone away a close watch upon their movements would be kept."
In his book War Hammers: The Story of West Ham United During the First World War, Brian Belton argues that the battle cry of the West Ham Pals was "Up the Irons." They saw action at the Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Cambrai. The war took a terrible toll on these men. Over the next three years the battalion suffered casualties of 37,404 killed, wounded and missing.
West Ham was once again drawn against Newcastle United in the FA Cup. Despite two goals from Richard Leafe, Newcastle earned a 2-2 draw. As a result of the war effort, FA Cup replays were prohibited in midweek so that the tie had its second performance at St James Park the following Saturday. Newcastle won the game 3-2.
Syd Puddefoot remained in great form and scored 18 goals in 35 games in the 1914-15 season. Richard Leafe (13 in 30) and Arthur Stallard (7 in 11) also made impressive contributions. However, the club was only able to manage only one point in their last four games and could only finish in 4th place in the league.
Attendances at league games fell dramatically during the second-half of the season because of the impact of the First World War. It was decided that the Southern League would not operate in the 1915-16 season. As football players only had contracts to play for one season at a time, they were now out of work. It has been estimated that around 2,000 of Britain's 5,000 professional footballers now joined the armed forces. This included most of the West Ham team.
Not all the West Ham players joined the armed forces. According to Brian Belton, the author of War Hammers, The Story of West Ham United During the First World War (2007): "Syd Puddefoot, worked long, exhausting and often dangerous shifts in munitions factories."
Five former West Ham United players were killed in action during the war: Fred Griffiths, Arthur Stallard, William Jones, Frank Cannon and William Kennedy. West Ham's star forward, George Hilsdon, had to endure a mustard gas attack at Arras in 1917. This badly damaged his lungs and although he played briefly for Chatham Town after the war it brought an end to his professional football career. Fred Harrison was also badly gassed on the Western Front and never played football again.
Major Frank Buckley kept a record of what happened to the men under his command in the Football Battalion. He later wrote that by the mid-1930s over 500 of the battalion's original 600 men were dead, having either been killed in action or dying from wounds suffered during the fighting.