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Autumn 1918: Arsenal winning, the war grinds to an end, crowds return

By Tony Attwood

1918 is primarily remembered as the year the first world war ended.  But it was also a time when a rising awareness of socialism and communism spread through parts of Europe following the collapse of Russia in 1917 and the rise of the power of the Communist Party in that country and ultimately the creation of the USSR.

A sign of the times can be seen by the fact that on 30 August 1918 there was a  strike of 20,000 London policemen with demands of increased pay and union recognition.  With the country still at war, and the government feverishly aware that the return of the conscripted soldiers to a civilian life could prove the catalyst for uprising, there was a considerable amount of angst among political leaders.

As for football, as we saw in the last article the decision had been taken in the summer to continue with another season of wartime leagues, not least because even when the men who had been professional footballers returned to their clubs it would take a while for the clubs to get their grounds ready and some sort of team in shape.  The new season of 1918/19 – the last of the London Combination wartime leagues – would be the same as the last in terms of participating clubs and for Arsenal Punch McEwan was still in charge of team matters at Highbury.

The season began with an Arsenal victory – 2-3 away at Queens Park Rangers with a reasonable crowd of 7000 in attendance.  And there was a sign in the air that things were moving back to normal, because probably for the first time since the outbreak of war, the following Saturday on 14 September William Hall and Henry Norris went to Highbury together to see Arsenal beat Millwall Athletic 4-0.

The crowd for this second match was only 5,000 – the Arsenal supporters had seemingly not retained an interest in the old rivalry between the clubs as the Millwall fans had, but most importantly it meant that Arsenal had started the league with two wins in a row.   They had, it will be recalled, won the first four matches of the 1917/18 season, and then fallen apart, so one imagines spirits were not raised too high (and besides there was still a war on), but even so, it showed a recovery compared with the end of last season wherein Arsenal had only won one of the last six games.

We have seen in the last series of articles how a major issue for the London County Council was that of the new pay arrangements for teachers and the implementation of the total reform of secondary education – in effect creating the start of secondary schooling for all.

Many more teachers were going to be needed, with many more school places too, and the burden of paying the teachers at this time fell on the local councils, rather than the county council.  As a result Fulham had to put its rates up – a tax that was paid by the owners of property based on the value of their property.  The rates went up by an astonishing 17% – astonishing because the prices of many goods in the shops had been fixed.

Although the war continued this was a growing time of considerable upheaval.  There were now so many refugees from the war in London there were debates over whether they should vote or not in the forthcoming general election: the feeling was no, not even if they were naturalised British citizens.

Then there were debates about the huge profits arms manufacturers had made out of the war, and the lack of suitable payrises for working families.

Meanwhile on 15 September there were real signs of an end to the war as the Austrian Government sent a note to President Wilson suggesting an “unofficial” peace conference and the German  Government make a definite peace offer to Belgium.

On 16 September the Americans rejected the Austrian offer as details began to emerge of new states being formed in Europe and quickly being recognised such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

And thus the mood changed.  There was victory in the offing, demands on the street for justice for the working men, and of course in the midst of it all the football continued as on 21 September Arsenal played Fulham away, and continued their winning streak with a 2-1 victory in front of 6000.  That was three wins in a row.

On 26th the Allies began what proved to be their final advances across German territory to ultimate victory and three days later the news came through that the last German forces had left Africa and returned to Germany.  By the end of the month the German Imperial Chancellor had resigned.

On 28th September Arsenal played their last game of the month – a 1-1 draw at home with Brentford.  After three wins it was a bit of a letdown, but they were still unbeaten.  And the crowd was 8000 – double the number that turned up for the first home match with Brentford the season before.  The next day Bulgaria – an ally of Germany – surrendered to the Allies.

On 1 October the Mayors of London hired the Palladium for the afternoon to put on a charity event for soldiers blinded during the war.  Among the entertainers taking part was the comedian, singer and actor George Robey, an acquaintance of Henry Norris on the charity football matches circuit.  Robey was particularly known for the song “If you were the only girl in the world,” and had already performed in the Royal Command performance of 1912.  He was also a keen amateur footballer and had appeared in many charity matches against professional London teams and also played as a semi-pro for Millwall Athletic in the pre-war years.  Robey was at the time one of the biggest stars of the day, and his being in the cast would have ensured a big turn out for the event.

On 5 October Arsenal returned to winning ways with a victory away to West Ham by four goals to one.  6500 were in the crowd – a small increase on last season’s attendance for the same game.

On 10 October Sir Henry organised a meeting concerning the issues that had arisen for property owners as a result of the Rent and Mortgage Restrictions Act 1915.  It is the sort of action one might expect of an MP, and looks to me very much like the first action Sir Henry took which might directly have arisen from his position had he been an MP.

A telegram sent at noon on 12 October 1918, by US President Woodrow Wilson, began his efforts to broker a ceasefire in World War 1.  It was sent in circumstances of a German retreat.

And then the crowds came back, for on 12 October 1918 Arsenal beat Tottenham 3-0 at Highbury in front of a crowd of 30,000. This wasn’t the highest ever Highbury crowd so far – that was 35,000 for the match against Clapton Orient on 18 April 1914, and there had been three other games that attracted 30,000 to Arsenal, but this was the first wartime match that had gained this much attention.   It marked the start of the rebirth of football interest.

Two days later the Borough of Fulham held its second Gun Day, which like the first was set up by Fulham’s War Savings Committee to encourage people to save money through the scheme.  Sally Davis reports that “Edith Norris, as the mayoress, met the gun at the boundary of the borough, and walked with it to Walham Green, where Henry Norris as the mayor met the procession and made a speech of welcome.”

And while all this was going on the news spread that Germany was seeking a cease fire.  Also in the following days stories abounded to the effect that there was considerable civil unrest in the Rhineland and in Westfalia.  The concerns of the authorities were real – as I have noted before, Russia had fallen to the communists.  Who knew what could happen in Germany.  The Allies has a significant interest in getting the issue of the cease fire organised quickly. 

Then, back with the football, after a run of five wins and one draw, which had taken Arsenal to the top of the London Combination, on 19 October Arsenal’s bubble finally burst with a 1-4 away defeat to Chelsea in front of 25,000.  Mind you they were still second, which was quite a change from most of the war years.

But in the next match, on 26 October Arsenal suggested that they might be following last year’s form for after such a promising start they now lost their second match in a row: 1-2 against Crystal Palace in front of 5000 fans.

And then, just as celebrations of the imminent end of the war were reaching a peak, so disaster swept the country with the Spanish Flu epidemic.  (The name is a misnomer, and its origins uncertain, but the strain appears to have originated in Argentina).  The epidemic peaked near the end of October and then began to fade away although very slowly.  Between 27 October to 2 November 2,200 deaths were recorded from flu in London alone. 

On 27 October Austria-Hungary formally sued for peace, and the break up of the Empire began.

Interestingly on 29 October 1918 Sir Henry did not attend a meeting of the London County Council – its first full meeting after the summer recess.  Of course he may have been engaged in plotting his move into Parliament, but I also wonder if he wasn’t back at the War Office.  Conscription had obviously stopped, but the people responsible for getting the men together and sending them out to Europe, now had to get them back, and ensure that they did so without any breakdown in law and order.  And if there was one man who was the master of this sort of administrative exercise it was Lt Col Sir Henry Norris.

The armistice with Turkey was declared on 31 October as the Allies also met at Versailles to discuss the conditions that would be imposed on Germany and Austria-Hungary.  The war had come to an end.

Here are the football results for the first two months of this, the final wartime season.

Date Opposition Venue Res Score Crowd
7/9/18 Queens Park Rangers A W 3-2 7,000
14/9/18 Millwall Athletic H W 4-0 5,000
21/9/18 Fulham A W 2-1 6,000
28/9/18 Brentford H D 1-1 8,000
5/10/18 West Ham United A W 4-1 6,500
12/10/18 Tottenham Hotspur H W 3-0 30,000
19/10/18 Chelsea A L 1-4 25,000
26/10/18 Crystal Palace A L 1-2 5,000

The Henry Norris Files Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

Section 6 – 1915

Section 7: – 1916

Section 8: 1917

Section 9: 1918 and the end of the war

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