Duty calls

The cover of Cricket magazine days after the season was prematurely ended Martin Williamson

It is often assumed that when war broke out in Europe in August 1914, cricket stopped immediately.

In fact, although men were joining up by the day in their tens of thousands, cricket rumbled on in England for several more weeks in the face of increasing criticism. It was only the intervention of the elderly WG Grace, allied to growing reports of heavy casualties in the Battle of Mons, that brought a premature curtain down on the season.

There had been a growing feeling of inevitability about a European war since the middle of July, and by the beginning of August it was clear that Britain would be sucked in. As ultimatums were delivered - and ignored - and newspapers snapped up as soon as they went on sale, so people could digest the latest developments, life went on in an almost surreal way.

On August 3, a gloriously hot Bank Holiday Monday, 14,555 people flocked to The Oval to watch Jack Hobbs make a then career-best 226.

At Old Trafford, Monkey Hornby was called from the field where he was captaining Lancashire against Yorkshire and summoned to the War Office, and within hours Sir Archibald White, Yorkshire's skipper, was heading south to join his regiment. The following evening war was declared against Germany, and within 48 hours a number of other players, including Pelham Warner, Middlesex's captain, and Arthur Carr, Nottinghamshire's skipper, abandoned their cricket commitments and headed off to war.

At the request of the government, cricket continued. But within days it was clear that the rush to enlist was leaving gaps in the county teams, and it was also affecting attendances, as watching sport was no longer a priority. The Canterbury week began but the marquees were empty and the dances, so much a feature of the festival, were cancelled.

On August 6, MCC issued a statement saying that "no good purpose can be saved at the moment by cancelling matches", but heavy rain washed out most games for the remainder of the week. On the same day at Trent Bridge, Hampshire's opening bowler Basil Melle was handed a telegram after six overs with the new ball and walked off the ground. He had been called up by the Oxford University detachment of the King's Colonial Corp. As in many similar instances, a full substitute was allowed.

Hobbs was due to have a benefit match at The Oval starting on August 10, but the ground was requisitioned by the army, so he was given the choice of cancellation or switching to Lord's. He chose the latter, and so Surrey had the odd experience of playing a home match in St John's Wood. Financially it was a failure as the crowds stayed away, so much so that the Surrey committee took the unprecedented step of agreeing not to regard it as a benefit, awarding Hobbs another match "as soon as circumstances permit".

The newspapers started carrying letters attacking sportsmen, especially cricketers, for carrying on. A letter from "A British Woman" to the Daily Mirror asked: "Cannot something be done to persuade the cricketers to turn their time and thoughts to more serious matters than playing matches? Isn't cricket merely a game to keep the eye in training and to keep men fit, so that when their country calls for them they are ready to answer that call?"

On August 13, the same day Britain declared war on the Austro-Hungarian empire, the MCC issued a second statement advising that "owing to the war" all matches at Lord's in September had been cancelled.

On August 17, Kent had to move their match against Lancashire from Dover to Canterbury on account of the military build-up and resulting congestion in the area. Poor weather continued to blight the late season, but the euphoria that followed the outbreak of war was quickly giving way to concern at the bad news coming from Belgium, where the British Expeditionary Force was in retreat.

On August 26 the headlines of the newspapers were dominated by the BEF suffering 2000 casualties. The ludicrousness of carrying on with cricket was becoming increasingly obvious, not only because of the growing number of players who had joined up but also the difficulty in travelling by train on anything other than urgent business.

"It is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing cricket by day and pleasure-seekers look on" WG Grace in a letter to the Sportsman

The following day, Grace's letter appeared in the Sportsman. "I think the time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed, for it is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing cricket by day and pleasure-seekers look on. I should like to see all first-class cricketers of suitable age set a good example and come to the help of their country without delay in its hour of need."

The reaction was instantaneous, and not everyone was prepared to hold back. One correspondent wrote: "Are rugger men going to follow the perfidious example of their chicken-hearted brethren among cricket's amateurs?"

Although it is often written that Grace's letter brought an immediate end to cricket, it did not, and matches rumbled on for almost another week. The national newspapers stopped carrying anything but the briefest of scores.

At The Oval, back in Surrey 's hands, Gloucestershire could only field ten men. In St John's Wood, where Middlesex were hosting Kent, spectators were lambasted in the Daily Mirror as "the ignoble band of patriots pouring into Lord's to cheer on the great contest they are better there, as a young man who can spend his time at a cricket match just now would surely run at the sight of a German". The same edition carried pictures of the first wounded soldiers coming home.

Attitudes hardened by the day. On August 31, Lord Roberts, speaking to a newly formed regiment in London, took time out to praise its volunteers. "How different is your action to that of the men who can still go on with their cricket and football as if the very existence of this country was not at stake." Editorials in newspapers swung from grumbling disapproval of those continuing to play and watch to out-and-out hostility.

Eventually, the authorities, under fire from every side, stepped in to scrap the remaining matches in the Championship "in deference to public opinion". The MCC, in an almost sulking statement, announced the early finish to the Scarborough Festival because "the continuation of first-class cricket is hurtful to the feelings of a section of the public".

The final action of the first-class season took place at Hove on September 2 where Sussex were playing Yorkshire . "The men's hearts were barely in the game," Cricket reported, "and the match was given up as a draw at tea." Twenty-five years and one day later, the last game before the outbreak of World War Two was between the same sides on the same ground.

Surrey, who led the Championship at the time of its curtailment, were awarded the title but by then few cared as the daily reports of losses in Belgium continued to grow longer.

In December 1914 several counties were still talking about playing a reduced programme the following summer, and there were discussions about a knockout competition with the bulk of the first-class counties bolstered by combined Minor County sides. In the event, the war dragged on for another four years and there was to be no resumption of first-class cricket until 1919.

  • In all, 210 first-class cricketers are believed to have joined up, of whom 34 were killed. However, the obituary sections of Wisden between 1915 and 1919 contained the names of hundreds of players and officials of all standards who had died

  • Curtailed seasons took place in Australia, New Zealand and India in 1914-15; in 1915-16 and 1916-17 the only first-class cricket took place in India; it resumed in New Zealand in 1917-18, in Australia in 1918-19, and in South Africa in 1919-20.