They didn’t play in the Football League or win an FA Cup but they were the finest team that ever played. The Football Battalion never played at Flanders Field where the poppy grew long before becoming a symbol of remembrance.
But the professionals and supporters who joined the 17th Service (Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, to use its full name, lost a lot more than a game at the Somme. They lost many of their 600-strong team, including Evelyn Lintott, the England international and Queens Park Rangers stalwart. “First Football”, as the battalion became known, was formed on December 12th 1914, by William Joynson-Hicks, later a post-war Home Secretary. England centre half Frank Buckley, better known as “Major Frank Buckley”, who played for a host of clubs, including both Manchester teams and Birmingham City, was the first to join.
Three weeks earlier in Scotland, the Hearts team, then the best in the country, joined the British Army en masse. Seven players never returned home.
There had been an initial slowness among the professionals to enlist. Contracts were said to be the problem with clubs keen to keep playing to offer a release for the general public from the daily horrific tales from the front line. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stepped in with an appeal. “If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle”, he declared. And they did. By March 1915, 122 professional footballers had joined the regiment, including the entire Clapton (now Leyton) Orient team. Walter Tull, of Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, enlisted and went on to become the first black combat officer in the British Army before being killed in France in March 1918.
Major Buckley later wrote that by the mid-1930s more than 500 of the original 600 men in the Football Battalion were dead, either killed in action or dying from wounds suffered during the fighting.
Back Row (L-R)
Sergeant Percy Barnfather: Croydon, Barnsley. Joined Merthyr Town. Died in 1951, aged 72.
Private William Henry (Billy) Jones: Brighton, “The Tipton Smasher” centre forward, returned to Albion and died in 1948, aged 66.
Private William (Billy) Booth: Brighton. Died in 1963.
Private George Beech: Brighton. Played for Sheffield Wednesday between 1897 and 1904.
Private Tommy Lonsdale: Grimsby Town. Former West Ham goalkeeper who played for Port Vale after the war.
Died in 1973, aged 80.
Sergeant Joseph Smith: Chesterfield. The former Birmingham City half back was killed at Serre on November 13th, 1916.
Sergeant Yeoval: details unknown.
Private Francis (Frank) Martin: Grimsby. Survived and played again for Town in 1920.
Private John “Jackie” Sheldon: Liverpool and Manchester United. Jackie returned to Anfield after the war.
Front Row (L-R)
Private Pat Gallacher: Tottenham. Was still playing for the First Battalion side in 1917.
Captain Edward Bell: Southampton and Portsmouth. The former winger was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 but was killed in France in March 1918, aged 32.
Lieutenant Vivian John Woodward: Tottenham and Chelsea. Represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games in 1908 and 1912. Went on to coach the British Army football team and served as an air raid warden in the Second World War. Died in 1954.
Major Frank Buckley: Bradford City. Wounded in the lungs and shoulder during the Battle of the Somme but went on to a career in football management, spending 12 years in charge at Wolves. Died in 1963, aged 82.
Private Sidney Wheelhouse: Grimsby. The full back died of gas inhalation at the Somme on September 19th, 1916.
Private Tommy Barber: Aston Villa. The wing half scored Villa’s winning goal in the 1913 FA Cup final but was wounded in the leg at Guillemont. He later defied doctors’ orders to play in a friendly game in June 1918.
Lance Corporal Frederick Bullock: Huddersfield. Survived and made his first England appearance, aged 34, in 1920. Fred died two years later.
WE SHALL REMEMBER THEM.