Since 1914 hundreds of thousands of young British men had returned from the trenches maimed, distressed, gassed or dead. Official national Football League and FA Cup campaigns were suspended at the end of 1914/15 season, and the sport was localised for the new, lower-key season beginning September 1915.
It was not the time for sporting heroism. Perhaps this had been brought home starkly to everyone at home by stories of the famous Christmas truce of December 1914, when German and British troops shared drinks and a game of football in No-Man’s-Land (perhaps with some of the 50 footballs Chelsea had sent to the front). More likely, it was the realisation that soon after the match, the soldiers were ordered to resume the slaughter.
The football authorities assembled regional leagues in the Midlands and Lancashire for 1915-16. A driving force behind arrangements in the capital was Chelsea's influential chairman William Claude Kirby (above, right). He helped establish a London Combination tournament of 12 teams (including, it must be said, Croydon Common) that Chelsea would win by seven clear points in early 1916.
A second, short competition taking in Luton and Reading was also scooped by the Pensioners. These informal championships lasted until the resumption of the League proper in 1919, with attendances ranging from 2-20,000.
Nearly half of the current Chelsea playing staff signed up to serve their country in some way. The most significant casualty of the campaign was Captain Vivian Woodward, wounded in January 1916. Others, inevitably, lost their lives, including several former Blues.
Danish giant Nils Middelboe, however, from neutral Denmark, cemented his popularity with the diminished crowds that turned up at Stamford Bridge and regularly strode the midfield of Stamford Bridge player.
Other big names, helping the war effort locally, guested in the mid-blue shirts of Chelsea. The tall, elegant England international Charlie Buchan, an inside forward who stills holds Sunderland’s all-time League scoring record, returned to his London home and scored 40 goals for Chelsea in 1915-16. He is best known as the later writer and publisher of Football Monthly, a famous magazine that was briefly owned by Chelsea in the 1990s.
Bob Thomson, too, was unstoppable. His fire-power helped earn a league and cup double in 1918, and a further Victory Cup final win over Fulham in 1919.
“So enjoyable has been the local rivalry brought about by the London Combination that many fans have been moved to suggest that it be retained as a competition” Football writer, 1919Typical Chelsea – the first triumphs were achieved in unrecognised and unofficial tournaments. However, at least there would be good news when normal football service was resumed: an inquiry had ascertained that a vital First Division match back in season 1914-1915 involving Manchester United – who finished 18th to our drop-slot 19th – and Liverpool had been fixed by players involved in a betting scam.
Furthermore, it was any case decided to expand the top flight with the addition of two “relegated” southern clubs: Chelsea (conveniently) and Arsenal - much to the protest of Tottenham, who had finished above their new north London rivals in 1915.
So Chelsea retained top flight status honourably, while the Gunners received a lucky reprieve through the connivance of chairman Henry Norris. Don’t forget to remind your Gooner mates of that the next time you see them…
Facts & figures: One-eyed Bob Thomson scored 100 goals during the wartime years
Cup run: Winners of War Fund Cup, 1918 (v West Ham), and London Victory Cup, 1919 (v Fulham)
All the rage: Birth control pioneer Dr Marie Stopes’ illuminating 1918 book, 'Married Love'