Sport in Wartime

From football to tank races, humans have always had a way of keeping their sporting spirits alive during the darkest days of war…

Games on the Battlefield


World War One ushered in a grisly new era of mechanised conflict, with innovative armaments transforming Europe into a vast meatgrinder. One of the most significant technological advances came in the form of tanks. Not only did the war introduce tanks to the battlefield, but it also saw soldiers indulge in a bizarre new sport: tank racing. There are reports of British troops putting their hulking machines into competition, with the tanks racing over ravaged, bomb-blasted fields.

According to one account, "marks were allotted for style as well as for speed", with an "excited crowd gathered in front of the tanks". Some tanks "fouled" others by crashing right into them, and the whole spectacle was so entertaining that an onlooker wrote: "I strongly advise some enterprising gentleman to buy a few tanks cheap, and stage a cross-country race over give-and-take country. There is nothing quite like it."

Picture taken from Games on the Battlefield.

Picture taken from Games on the Battlefield.


During World War Two, getting captured by the enemy was no barrier to the beautiful game. Football was hugely popular among POWs, and was considered a vital way of keeping spirits up in the most dire circumstances. The Red Cross would even pack football kit in some of the parcels sent to British soldiers being held by the Germans. Leagues were set up, with teams named after actual professional clubs. A photo taken at the Stalag XXID camp in Poland confirms that there was a team named "Aston Villa".

Believe it or not, football was even played at Auschwitz. It's a little known fact that British POWs were held in the complex, just a short walk from where the atrocities of the Holocaust were being carried out. Here, the Brits were put to forced labour in chemical workplants, while on Sundays they were permitted to play football while their German captors would cheer them on. The atmosphere of fear was ever-present, though, with one veteran later recalling: "We did not know what would happen to us. We thought at one time they would stick us in the gas chamber."


The Second Boer War, which unfolded between 1899 and 1902, was one of the iconic conflicts to take place during the time of the British Empire. It was a time of stiff upper lips and bizarre gallantry among enemies, with opposing officers sharing an enthusiasm for sport. One celebrated incident saw a Boer general actually dispatching a letter to the leader of a besieged British garrison, offering a truce so their men could play a rugby match. The letter began, "I wish to inform you that I have agreed to a [rugby] match taking place between you and us. I, from my side, will agree to a cease-fire tomorrow afternoon from 12 o'clock until sunset".

Picture taken from Games on the Battlefield.

Picture taken from Games on the Battlefield.

Sadly, the game never actually took place, but a similar exchange took place during the notorious Siege of Mafeking, when Colonel Robert Baden-Powell - who was leading the besieged Brits - received a letter from the enemy. The letter proposed a ceasefire so their respective troops could enjoy a nice game of cricket. Baden-Powell wrote a wry reply: "I beg to thank you for your letter of yesterday, in which you propose that your men should come and play cricket with us. I should like nothing better - after the match in which we are at present engaged is over."


Most sports fans don't realise that, in Britain, women's football was once bigger than the men's game. This was due to World War One, when women who'd been enlisted to work in the nation's factories started playing football. What began as a hobby to boost morale and keep healthy, turned into a major national obsession. Crowds in their tens of thousands would turn up to watch the female teams clash.

The era also gave rise to the first superstar female footballer, a 6ft-tall athlete called Lily Parr who was renowned for scoring goals, and for the power of her play (it's said one of her shots broke the arm of a male goalkeeper). Even after the war ended, women's football was hugely popular until it was literally banned from official grounds by the FA. One of the ridiculous reasons given for the ban was that the game was "unsuitable" for a "woman's physical frame".