Gridiron Near the Trenches: Football During WWI


November 11, 2016 marked the 98th anniversary of the armistice between the allied nations and Germany bringing about a close to the Great War (later known as World War I). On this day, citizens and governments of those WWI nations will mark the end of the war and honor those who were lost during the four years that it raged (predominantly) in Western Europe. The national holidays for most of these nations are very similar in their traditions and in how they honor those killed in action. In the United States, we have long since departed from recognizing this war and the significance of November 11th is all but lost among our citizens. Instead of paying respects (in similar fashion to our WWI allies), we departed entirely from the meaning of this day, choosing instead to honor living veterans who served in the U.S. armed forces.

Coinciding with Veterans Day was the midway point of the National Football season. For two weeks, the NFL spent time honoring veterans with on-field pre-game and halftime ceremonies and festivities. Special sideline merchandise that incorporated military colors and camouflage patters was worn by players and coaching staff (in order to promote and sell special fan merchandise). The league also set aside time to bestow special awards to players and personnel who take their own time to honor and support U.S. service members, veterans and their families. For the casual observers, these activities appear to reflect the NFL’s commitment to veterans but the league is paid rather handsomely for these activities. Nevertheless, veterans and servicemen (and women) do have a passion for the game both as fans and for some who left the service to play and still others left the game to serve (here are a few notables).

The connection between sports (baseball and football, in particular) and the armed forces is lengthy (150 years for baseball and more than a century for football) which makes the NFL’s dedication to honoring those who served not surprising. Being present to see the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks render honors to a World War II hero (who was prominently portrayed in HBO’s award winning series, Band of Brothers) will be an indelible memory.

A fellow collector’s AEF football memorabilia - a program – 36th Division (1st Army) vs 7th Division (2nd Army) March 21, 1919; a football from a game between the 77th Division vs 81st Division teams; Football Championship Coin | First Prize – 86th Division.(source: Mark McCaffrey – Falls Creek Military Collectibles)

A fellow collector’s AEF football memorabilia – a program – 36th Division (1st Army) vs 7th Division (2nd Army) March 21, 1919; a football from a game between the 77th Division vs 81st Division teams; Football Championship Coin | First Prize – 86th Division.(source: Mark McCaffrey – Falls Creek Military Collectibles)

Well before I took a serious interest in militaria, I collected sports memorabilia. My primary interest, since I was a teenager, was just about anything baseball or football related – specifically, Los Angeles Dodgers or Los Angeles Rams. Growing up in the Northwestern United States during a time in which the region lacked both Major League Baseball and National Football League professional sports franchises, I  began following the (then) dominant teams that dominated national television networks’ programming, creating lasting allegiances and collecting focus. As a young adult on active duty in the Navy, I still maintained my loyalty to these two teams regardless of my ship being underway in local waters or on deployment.

Fostering my passion for history, I was led to delve into baseball’s past and the golden years of the game in the 1930s and 40s. I was very familiar with the sacrifices of the game’s stars as many would serve in front-line combat units and ships during the war. I was fascinated by these men who could have played baseball solely on service teams, avoiding combat altogether by serving as morale boosts for troops coming off the line or prior to heading into the fray. Until recent years, I was largely unfamiliar with professional football during its beginnings.

The NFL didn’t truly come into its own until recent decades, arguably taking over and holding onto the position as the national pastime from MLB. Prior to 1920, the game of football was predominantly a college sport. Little did I realize until recently that American football was played on French soil among the troops of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). I inherited several military pieces that belonged to my uncle (who served in WWI, WWII and the Korean War), including a few photo albums. One of the photo books was of his military service spanning his WWI service along with a few years following his discharge. The first several times scanning through the book,I didn’t pay much attention to the series of photographs that were beyond the subject of military activities. I focused my attention on the images showing my uncle in uniform prior to deploying and on through his return home from the war. I overlooked the others until years later.

From my uncle’s WWI photo album, this photo shows the gridiron surrounded by soldiers in full uniform. The action on the field is quite compelling as the ball carrier runs to the left for the goal line. Note the makeshift goal post in the background.

From my uncle’s WWI photo album, this photo shows the gridiron surrounded by soldiers in full uniform. The action on the field is quite compelling as the ball carrier runs to the left for the goal line. Note the makeshift goal post in the background.

A few years ago, I decided to scan some of the photos for use in a family tree project when I discovered a photo that I couldn’t take my attention away from. It showed a football game on a makeshift gridiron surrounded by doughboys in uniform. My curiosity was piqued. What was the story behind this game? Who were the participants? Was the war still raging at the time of the game?

I acquired a unit history book (F, 63*) that was published in 1919 detailing the exploits of my uncle’s artillery regiment during The Great War. Gracing the pages were several photos that were provided by my uncle (with photo credit), including a photo of the football game. The narrative failed to detail specifics about the game but a photo caption noted that the it was being played at St. Selve and that it pitted Battery B (of the 63rd CAC) and the 67th Infantry Regiment (Ninth Infantry Division) against each other. Based upon the linear arrangement of the photos (in context with the entire book), I surmised that the game was played following the signing of the Armistice.

Sadly, scant few details have been written about American football during the war and even fewer artifacts exist for interested collectors.

When I was a teenager, my father (a Vietnam veteran) always thought highly of Rocky Blier, who after his 1968 rookie season with the Steelers, was drafted into the Army and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. During his combat service and while on a patrol, Specialist Blier’s unit was ambushed. Taking heavy enemy fire, Rocky sustained a bullet wound in his leg, disabling him. Down on the ground, Blier sustained additional wounds when an enemy grenade exploded nearby sending shrapnel into his leg. While recovering (from his wounds) in Japan, he was told by doctors that his playing career was over. He went on to play ten seasons, including four championship seasons, all with the Steelers.

References:

For my blog about Baseball in the military, see Chevrons and Diamonds.

*Ashton, John L., Sanford Martin, Fred J. English, Richard K. Beymer, and H. Victor Morgan. 1919. F, 63; being an account of the events and wanderings of that unit during the great war, 1917-1919.

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About VetCollector

I have been blogging about Militaria since 2010 when I was hired to write for the A&E/History Channel-funded Collectors Quest (CQ) site. It was strange for me to have been asked as I was not, by any means, an expert on militaria nor had I ever written on a recurring basis beyond my scholastic newspaper experience (many MANY decades ago). After nearly two years, CQ was shut down and I discovered that I was enjoying the work and I had learned a lot about my subject matter over that period of time. I served for a decade in the U.S. Navy and descend from a long line of veterans who helped to forge this nation from its infancy all the way through all of the major conflicts to present day and have done so in every branch of the armed forces (except the USMC). I began to take an interest in militaria when I inherited uniforms, uniform items, decorations from my relatives. I also inherited some militaria of the vanquished of WWII that my relatives brought home, furthering my interest. Before my love of militaria, I was interested in baseball history. Beyond vintage baseball cards (early 1970s and back) and some assorted game-used items and autographs, I had a nominal collecting focus until I connected my militaria collecting with baseball. Since then, I have been selectively growing in each area and these two blogs are the result, Chevrons and Diamonds (https://chevronsanddiamonds.wordpress.com/) The Veterans Collection (https://veteranscollection.org/)

Posted on December 12, 2016, in Military Football, Sports Militaria, World War I and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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