Pay to play: sport during WW1

Reading the book Sporting Soldiers by Floris van der Merwe (2012), I was struck by a number of references to money. I assume, like me, you might not have spent much time thinking about the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of the war – although I must admit I am becoming more and more fascinated by these aspects – but they provide a fascinating insight into how people survived the 52 gruelling months of war.

Floris’ book is quite obviously about sport, and although its main focus is on South Africa, it does cover the war in Europe. The idea of gambling and betting on sporting events is nothing new and so references to such activity was not surprising – although what was, was the extent to which it took place despite being banned. But the comments that made me stop and think were complaints by French farmers that their fields were being used for parades and sports without the farmer’s permission or the farmer being paid for the use of his land. Another comment refers to the German government in South West Africa purchasing farms to set up prisoner of war camps.  And, if that wasn’t enough, prisoners of war had to pay their prison guards for the privilege of playing. They had to rent the sports fields and entertainment venues.

Equipment such as footballs, cricket bats and balls, even playing cards had to be purchased or sent to the men by family and friends. The YMCA played its part in helping the men access materials at a better price than the prison-camp or ‘corner’ shop. And in Africa where hunting took place either with the camera or gun, there are references hidden away in some diaries of men having to account for the number of bullets they went out with compared to what was returned. Where unsatisfactorily accounted for, the men had to pay for the missing ammunition.

What surprised me, was that I assumed these facilities would have been made available free of charge. Why demand payment from people who are giving up their lives to protect your livelihood and beliefs? Allowing the soldiers free use of the land seems a small price to pay when others had completely lost their livelihoods when their property was turned into trenches and no-man’s land.

But then, thinking about it, people still had to keep the country going, food prices soared as food became more scarce due to farm land falling to other uses, blockades and submarine attacks on merchant ships. It was a matter of economics.

Documents in the South African National Archives in Cape Town show how concerned local and national government was about the increasing costs and some unscrupulous business people taking advantage of the situation to increase their profits. After taking stock of prices on the outbreak of war, the South African government introduced price-caps on many goods. Other documents in the SANDF Archive and in the Colonial Office series in The National Archive  (@UkNatArchives) in London discuss the payment of soldiers and prisoners of war – both of their own men being prisoners and those of German and Austrian prisoners in Allied camps.

I was also reminded of the outcry a few years’ back (roughly 2004/5) when archive documents were released in London about the ‘little ships‘ which participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 needing to be paid before their owners risked their lives and livelihood. But can I find the press release or articles today? Unfortunately not, but they are there…

In the study of war-time, we tend to focus on the noisy aspects, taking the rest for granted or not even giving it a passing glance. Yet, life went on in both World Wars on both sides and we can get an insight into it from the little, almost throwaway, comments that diarists and others made at the time. We just need to look out for them.


One thought on “Pay to play: sport during WW1

  1. Pingback: Boxers | Anne Samson - Historian

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