Sport in France during the First World War

Before 1914 in France, the sport is rarely practiced and affects only a minority of the population. Sport activity is highly concentrated in the Paris metropolitan area and major cities. The shift to rural areas is striking.

At the end of the 19th century, football arrives on the French coast. It came by boat from the other side of the Channel. Football is implanted in towns around the harbors that welcome the English. In 1898, the “Union Sportive Boulonnaise” is the first football club in the Pas-de-Calais and in 1895 the “RC Roubaix” is the first club in North of France.

The North League Football Association became the first outside Paris. Also, thanks to the democratization of the bicycle, cycling is the most popular sport in the country before the war.

Between 1914 and 1918, there is a strong growth of French football nearby British military camps.

In 1914, military leaders want to make of France a country where gymnastics has become a popular, known and recognized by all. Furthermore, the sport is already highly prevalent across the Channel, where it is a more popular and the British sporting culture has become a global benchmark figure.

With the war of position, sport is developed and is encouraged by the officers because it is considered as a good way of distraction after days at the front.

Progressively the numbers of British football teams is increasing.

For example, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, over 30 British regimental teams participate regularly between September 1915 and winter 1918, in official competitions. Several dozen of French civilian teams are formed. In total, adding regimental and civilian teams, the town of Boulogne-sur-Mer has 60 Football Association teams. This figure was unbelievable before the war!

The population of the coast area also benefits of the surrounding sports context to create their own teams, including young people, refugees, students or workers.

In 1917, it is specified that the rest periods will be for the benefit of sport to keep the soldiers more healthy. Sport is recognized as an activity to develop the strength and bring energy to the soldiers.

However, sport does not remain the principal preoccupation of the soldiers, and the losses of the French army are considerable. After three years of bloody war in awful conditions, anger and weariness appear among the soldiers, and faith is now at the lowest.

After the riots of 1917, sport is officially institutionalized by the French General Staff with measures for the structuring and improving conditions for sport. Playgrounds and training are then set up for the soldiers.

The sport development is also helped by civilian organizations.

In 1918, the sport is widespread and involves the USFSA (Union of French Societies of Athletic Sports) to support the leadership of the military sport. The USFSA organizes events throughout the country by local events as military competitions. The national finals took place on July 4th, 1918 at the Colombes’ Stadium, and for the first time the Army led an important international competition with the help of the Americans. The world of sport totally supported this event. Many sports were organized: running, jumping, marathon, horse riding, jumping, etc …

Real unifying social fact, the practice of sport during the Great War has certainly allowed a lot of soldiers to overcome the nightmare of conflict. At the end of the war, the sport will be more popular including the creation of several sports federations, including the French Football Federation on April 7th, 1919.