Wartime Football and the Liverpool AFC Ambulance of 1916

After holding competitive games during the first year of the Great War, the Football Associations of England and Scotland decided to discontinue professional football at the conclusion of the 1914-15 season. This decision – made against a backdrop of significant disapproval of the game and strident criticism of the clubs – brought an end to league fixtures and cup ties for the duration of the conflict. [1] Competitive football in Great Britain thus ceased and would not resume until August 1919. In the vacuum the organisational bodies of British football, for the most part, left the clubs to fend for themselves. Most did what they could to survive and help with the war effort. In the case of Liverpool Football Club, the directors opted to continue with wartime regional exhibition matches and, through the funds generated by the games, to contribute to various civilian and war fund initiatives. These contributions were expressed in a variety of ways, but an especially noteworthy example was the 1916 Liverpool AFC Ambulance.

By Jeff Gaydish
(Note: This article was originally posted by Jeff on the Facebook-pages for the Unofficial Liverpool Football Club Museum)

Association Football had been the only major sport to begin and continue a full season of normal fixtures after the start of World War One. Perhaps predictably, the upper classes and bourgeois press disapproved, in the process even questioning the patriotism of football players and football supporters. Figures prominent in the game, such as the officials of organised football and the directors of the individual clubs, were placed under special pressure to demonstrate that players and supporters were as devoted to ‘the survival of the nation’ as anyone else in Britain. Accordingly, the FA urged the directors of each club to encourage their supporters to join the uniformed services. The clubs were happy to comply, and, as a result, thousands more football fans volunteered. Additionally, many players stepped forward and joined the colours. Those supporters and players who did not sign up to fight often sought to contribute to the war effort by working in war related occupations.

Competitive football ended after the conclusion of the 1914-15 season, and the various clubs, smarting under the sometimes poisonous criticism they had endured, felt obliged to do more for the war effort. This they did in numerous ways according to their resources and perception of duty. Many financially weak clubs simply had no choice but to cease operations for the duration of the war. The larger organisations, however, because they enjoyed greater financial resources and larger support bases were able to carry on with a programme of non-competitive matches, their boards convinced that the exhibition of football could also serve Britain. Indeed, the majority of the top English professional football clubs chose to participate in one of four wartime regional leagues set up by the Football League: the South-West Combination, the London Combination, the Midland Section and the Lancashire Section. Fielding volunteer players who were either resident near or stationed in the immediate geographical area of Merseyside, Liverpool Football Club became a member of the Lancashire Section and played matches against teams in their region.

Liverpool’s continuation of football supported the war effort directly by contributing funds to the government, and indirectly by sustaining morale at home. By competing in the Lancashire Section, which was divided into principle and subsidiary competitions, and by playing sundry friendlies, the Club generated gate revenues, which contributed money to the Treasury through a wartime entertainment tax levied on each ticket, while the exhibition of football at the same time sustained morale on the home front by providing supporters with a semblance of the matchday experience they had enjoyed before the outbreak of the fighting in Europe. Thus Liverpool FC aided the war effort simply by playing the game. Furthermore, like other football clubs, LFC offered free match admission to servicemen – the fit and the wounded – and donated funds to local institutions, such as the hospitals that cared for the sick and injured from among the civilian and military populations. The LFC directors also targeted funds for the aid and comfort of the troops and their families, and Liverpool was one of many clubs to send footballs to the front. However, the Club directors felt the need to make a high profile and very public contribution, one directly supportive of the fighting men. Within this context, probably the single greatest and most visible initiative directed at the war effort was the Liverpool AFC Ambulance.

The presentation of motor ambulances to the British Red Cross Society (BRCS) for use at the front was a popular and effective method by which organisations, patriotic groups and individuals of means could contribute to the war effort. Indeed, by 1916 civic-minded groups and individuals had accounted for upwards of one thousand vehicles nationwide, either purchased directly for the BRCS or through monies provided to them. The Liverpool AFC Ambulance was one of many similar initiatives to have originated on Merseyside.

Liverpool Football Club’s ambulance was formally proposed on 1 February 1916 at a shareholders meeting held in the Liverpool Law Association Rooms. Club director John Asbury presided at this meeting and a number of shareholders were present, among them John McKenna, who by this time was both a Club director and a League officer. During the course of deliberations the attendees committed themselves to sponsor some venture in support of the war. Asbury recommended the purchase of a motor ambulance and the provision of funds for its maintenance. The suggestion was favourably received and it was further agreed that the gift would be called the Liverpool Association Football Club Ambulance. As the Liverpool Echo expressed it: ‘Liverpool F. C. wisely set out quickly on their mission to do something to perpetuate the name of the club in connection with war work.’

This use of language by the Echo’s correspondent likely reveals something of the attitude of the Liverpool board. In fact, the words might have been uttered by McKenna himself, who in his dual role as League official and Club director was acutely aware that the image of the game, if not also that of Liverpool Football Club, had been tarnished by the decision to carry on with football during the first year of the war. The Irishman probably knew as well as anyone that the football authorities needed to take action in order to restore the public’s good will. [2]

Asbury and McKenna believed that a sum of £570 would be required to purchase and maintain the vehicle. Of this amount, it was estimated that £250 would be supplied through club revenues returned by the Football League, the balance to be drawn from Club funds and individual subscriptions. Once the money was raised and the vehicle purchased, Liverpool Football Club would publicly present the ambulance to the BRCS. John McKenna, who may first have proposed the scheme, pledged his support and the shareholders in attendance at that first meeting ‘promised upwards of £60 towards the fund.’

Further meetings were held to discuss the ambulance plan and encourage donations. On 5 February, a day Liverpool defeated Blackpool at Anfield in a Lancashire Section Principle Competition match, the directors met to discuss the matter. Another meeting was held on 19 February in the Anfield billiard room where it was decided that the ‘gift should be made swiftly.’ At this meeting the players were commended for their selflessness and the shareholders were invited to subscribe donations. On 1 March a public appeal for shareholder contributions appeared in the Liverpool Echo. Ultimately, a little more than a month after the formal proposal, the Echo of 9 March was able to announce that an order had been placed for the ambulance.

Liverpool FC’s ambulance was ready for delivery on 5 May 1916. The next day, Saturday, 6 May 1916, before as many as 16,000 spectators preparing to watch a charity match held in support of the Lord Mayor’s Roll of Honour Fund, [3] Liverpool and Everton met at Anfield. [4] To the accompaniment of a police band, the Right Honourable Arthur S. Mather, Lord Mayor of Liverpool, publicly received ‘Liverpool’s fine motor ambulance’ as a part of the day’s proceedings. [5]

The presentation of the Liverpool ambulance was one of a number of charitable activities that had been undertaken by LFC during the 1915-16 season. According to the Annual General Meeting of 14 June 1916, also presided over by John Asbury, the Club had provided free ground admission to 27,735 soldiers and accommodation for 5,896 wounded watching from the stands. They had also made contributions to local hospitals and donations to the forces. But at the end of the 1915-16 season, the ambulance represented the single largest charitable initiative undertaken by the Club up to that time, and perhaps for the entire war:

‘Receipts for the Club Motor Ambulance Fund amounted to £650, of which the chief items were £194 6s 1d given by shareholders and directors, £291 14s 10d [as a] percentage returned from the League for appropriation to charitable purposes, and £161 16s 11d [as] the donation of the Club. The total had been sent to the Red Cross Society, £450 being in payment for the ambulance and £200 for its upkeep.’

By way of indicating what a large proportion of club resources the ambulance represented, Liverpool Football Club, as noted by the Liverpool Echo of 6 June 1916, had generated profits of £1,229 5s 1d during the preceding season. Thus the outlay for the ambulance accounted for over fifty percent of the season’s profits.

The Liverpool AFC Ambulance was both a material expression of support for the fighting men at the front and a symbol of Liverpool’s commitment to the war effort, the product of an idea created by the directors ‘to perpetuate the name of the Club.’ By its creation, it undoubtedly expressed the genuine patriotism of club directors, shareholders and team supporters. But it also served organisational interests by enhancing the credentials of Liverpool Football Club as a patriotic entity doing its part for the war effort. The donation of the ambulance, moreover, deflected criticism from football generally and the Club specifically. In this way the LFC board helped to prepare the way for the public acceptance of competitive football upon its resumption after the war.

The actual ambulance (from Liverpool Evening Express, May 6 – 1916). Unfortunately a poor copy, but if you look at the image below you will see a similar ambulance. This picture was found here.

Red Cross ambulance, Liverpool Football Club.
Red Cross ambulance, Liverpool Football Club.
Red Cross ambulance
Red Cross ambulance

[1] No British Home Championship matches and no inter-league games took place during the 1914-15 season.
[2] Professional Association Football had suffered public disapprobation as a result of the decision to carry on with competitive games during the first year of the war. As a result of criticism that characterised the continuation of football in wartime as ‘a national shame and disgrace to our country’, the sport’s image had been damaged and was in need of repair. McKenna probably felt that the gift of an ambulance represented good public relations and would help restore public acceptance of the game, both for the present and in the future.
[3] ‘The Lord Mayor’s Roll of Honour Fund for the dependents of those Liverpool men who have made the supreme sacrifice was the first local fund of its kind, and the example was speedily emulated by other cities.’
[4] LFC: Taylor; Longworth, Middlehurst; Bamber, Goddard, Wadsworth; Pinkney, Watson, Pagnam, Banks, Cunliffe.
EFC: Fern; Thompson, MaConnachie; Brown, Fleetwood, Grenyer; Chedgzoy, Kirsopp, Clennell, Jefferis, Harrison.
[5] Interestingly, according to a 25 January 1916 entry into the Everton Football Club minute book, one week before the 1 February LFC shareholders’ meeting in which the ambulance was first proposed, the Everton Secretary announced that he had received a communication from John McKenna ‘on behalf of Liverpool F. C. [suggesting] that the two Clubs should make a joint presentation of a Motor Ambulance to the Red Cross Fund. That the proposed cost thereof would be about £600 and that such cost could be defrayed out of the monies already received and to be received by each Club from the League.’ The Everton minute book entry went on to record that the LFC plan was approved and seconded. However, someone at the Everton meeting proposed to amend or augment the Liverpool proposal, namely by suggesting ‘that a Bed be founded at the Stanley Hospital at a cost of £1000.’ It seems that in the end the Everton directors preferred their own initiative:

‘After discussion on the merits of the respective suggestions the matter was put to the vote when the amendment was carried and on being put as a substantive resolution it was unanimously resolved that a Bed be endowed at the Stanley Hospital to be known as ”The Everton Football Club Bed”.’

Although the decision of the Everton directors to withhold support for the ambulance represented a failure of inter-club cooperation on this occasion, later in the war both EFC and LFC would join hands to contribute to the British Sportsmen’s Ambulance Fund, an initiative under the sponsorship of Sporting Life newspaper and meant eventually to raise £40,000 towards the purchase of one hundred vehicles.

“1915-1921: Liverpool Lay Foundations for Their Greatest Era.” LFCHistory.net. Accessed 2 March 2013. <http://www.shankly.com/Article/2864-1&gt;.

The Everton Collection Charitable Trust. “The Everton Football Club Co. Ld. Minute Book, Volume 10 (26 April 1914-2 June 1916).” The Everton Collection. Accessed 16 November 2012. <http://www.evertoncollection.org.uk/object?id=796+EFC%2F1%2F1%2F12&p=335&gt;.

Hanssen, Kjell. “The Liverpool AFC Ambulance.” A History of Liverpool Football Club through Newspaper Articles. Accessed 28 November 2012. <http://kjellhanssen.com/1916/02/01/the-liverpool-a-f-c-ambulance/&gt;.

Hanssen, Kjell. “Liverpool F. C.: The Anual Meeting of 1916.” A History of Liverpool Football Club through Newspaper Articles. Accessed 28 November 2012. <http://kjellhanssen.com/1916/06/14/the-annual-meeting-of-1916/&gt;.

Hanssen, Kjell. “Liverpool Make a Profit of £1,229.” A History of Liverpool Football Club through Newspaper Articles. Accessed 28 November 2012. <http://kjellhanssen.com/1916/06/06/liverpool-make-a-profit-of-1229/&gt;.

Liverpool Courier. “Liverpool’s Part in the War: A Record of the Naval, Military, Social, Commercial, and Industrial activities of the citizens of Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bootle and Wallasey.” The Merseyside Roll of Honour. Accessed 7 January 1913. http://www.merseysiderollofhonour.co.uk/partinthewar/pitw.htm

Riddock, Andrew and John Kemp. When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War. Newbury Park: Haynes Publishing North America, 2011.

Williams, John. Red Men: Liverpool Football Club, the Biography. Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing, 2010.

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