When heroes of the first world war made playing fields out of battlefields

The Imperial War Museum’s archives contain many moving accounts of soldiers playing their favourite sports at the front

It wasn’t much of a cricket pitch, just a few yards of grass in Havrincourt Woods, but it was still the best on that stretch of the western front because it hadn’t been bombed or shelled. George Harbottle opened the batting there. “The only trouble was there was saplings all about the blooming place like fielders,” Harbottle remembered, “and my first off drive hit a sapling, so I didn’t get any runs off that. I think I got a four off the next one.” Then a thunderstorm broke. Everyone bolted for cover, belly down under the wooden wagons. They never did finish. “That night, we were told to put all that stuff away: we were off at dawn up the line.”

The match was the first Harbottle had played since before the war. He felt the lack. He liked to say he’d been born “in sound of bat and ball” because his house backed on to South Northumberland’s ground. He’d been supposed to play in a game for them the very day before war was declared, but the opposition never turned up. Instead, he wrote in his memoir, “several of us sat there in the sunshine, and discussed what our personal action should be if, as already seemed certain, war would be declared next day.” He decided to enlist, and did. He served first with the Northumberland Fusiliers and then the Machine Gun Corps.

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