Captain Wilfred “Billie” Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment began his company’s attack on the German lines on July 1st 1916 by kicking a football as he led his men out of the trenches and “over the top”. The ball was marked “The Great European Cup - The Final - East Surrey’s v Bavarians”. Nevill was killed minutes into the attack. Almost 20,000 soldiers of the British Army were killed on the FIRST day of the battle of the SOMME.
Two brave men, Company Sergeant Major Richard McFadden and Private William Jonas, lay trapped in a trench at Delville Wood on July 27, 1916. This was the Great War at its muddiest and bloodiest, the close-quarter fighting relentless. Not for nothing did the soldiers call it Devil’s Wood. McFadden and Jonas were team-mates at Clapton (now Leyton) Orient, professional footballers who played before huge crowds until enlisting. McFadden was a skilful, prolific inside-forward coveted by other clubs like Middlesborough, who offered £2,000.
McFadden was also famous for saving the lives of a drowning boy and a man in a burning house. Jonas was another goal scoring attacker, a charismatic individual who attracted so many female admirers that Orient printed a note in the programme to point out he was happily married to a lady called Mary Jane. These were public idols, strong men and long-term friends now engaged in a conflict on the Somme, enduring gassing, constant shelling, machine-gun fire, and the interminable lice that bred on their bodies.
Enlisted in the 17th Middlesex, the Footballers’ Battalion, they were under orders to clear Delville Wood of Germans. The fighting inched back and forth and three weeks after General Haig launched the offensive, McFadden and Jonas found themselves pinned down, far from safety. They had to break out. “Goodbye Mac,” Jonas said.
“Best of luck and special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.” What ensued next was related by McFadden in a mournful letter to Orient: “Before I could reply to him, he was up and over,” McFadden wrote, “No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly 20 years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings at this time.” By the time the letter was circulated among the Orient faithful back home, McFadden himself was dead.
McFadden and Jonas were two of the first professional footballers to volunteer for duty. This year’s centenary of the start of the Great War will be marked by the footballing authorities, but back in 1914, football was slow to become involved with the war effort. Games continued.
According to those already at the Front, the soldiers were happy for games to go on back home. Many wrote to clubs and newspapers requesting news of matches. Football increasingly acknowledged its responsibilities to the nation. Arsenal players were working hard in the armaments factory in Woolwich. Recruiting officers were invited to games, putting up posters at Millwall saying “Let the enemy hear the Lion’s roar”.
Finally, at a meeting at Fulham Town Hall on Dec 15, 1914, the ultimate club versus country dispute was ended and the Footballers’ Battalion was formed.
McFadden and Jonas followed their captain, Fred “Spider” Parker, on to the platform, signing up for the 17th Middlesex. Archie Needham of Brighton & Hove Albion stepped forward, willing to play “the greater game” in Flanders. So did Bradford City’s Frank Buckley, the England centre-half who played for both Manchester clubs and was to gain most fame as manager of Billy Wright at Wolverhampton Wanderers and of John Charles at Leeds United. Arsenal’s assistant trainer, Tom Ratcliff, followed, so did nine more players from Clapton Orient, six from Croydon Common, three more from Brighton, three each from Chelsea and Watford, two each from Crystal Palace, Luton Town and Spurs, and one from Southend United. Other professionals joined other regiments.
Many never returned. The 17th Middlesex lost 900 men. They were gassed, bayoneted and mown down by machine guns. They felt the earth shudder as German miners exploded cavities crammed with explosives beneath them. Corporal Ben Butler of Queen’s Park Rangers lay in a makeshift hospital just behind the Front, telling the chaplain “no more football for me” before fading and dying.
At times, as the generals paused to study their maps, the exhausted footballing soldiers were drawn back from the Front, able to play matches on rutted fields, including one against the Royal Flying Corps.
Many felt honoured to share a field with Vivian Woodward, the great Spurs, Chelsea and England forward, who was eventually hit by grenade splinters at the Somme but thankfully he survived.
Major Frank Buckley was also injured by a grenade at the Somme, meaning that increasing responsibility fell to Captain Edward Bell, formerly of Portsmouth and Southampton. Bell responded heroically, earning the Military Cross for having “repelled a counter-attack with great determination on another occasion he rescued several men from a blown-in dugout”. Bell was to die at the Somme two years later, killed by a shell.
On it went, the cruelest of concentrated conflicts, a few miles captured here, a few yards there, trench to trench. The footballers were next most seriously engaged at Guillemont, an innocuous-sounding name that involved walking into flying lead from German machine-gun posts. Shells landed around them, amongst them. The legs of the Aston Villa forward, William Gerrish, were riddled with shrapnel. He died. .
On it went, peacetime icons making the ultimate sacrifice.
Reading’s Allen Foster fell under machine-gun fire. The England player, Evelyn Lintott, an FA Cup-winner with Bradford City and title-winner with QPR, lost his life serving the 1st Yorkshire on the first morning of the Somme offensive, July 1 1916. Walter Tull, a distinguished inside-forward at Spurs and Northampton, suffered from shell-shock, and then died while with the 23rd Middlesex, his body never found.
So many players were involved. Fred Osborn, Preston’s leading goal scorer in the two seasons before the War, got a bullet hole so big in his thigh “you could nearly get your hand in”. Plymouth Argyle’s James McCormick had his forehead blown off, a large flap of skin almost obscuring his vision.
Fred Keenor, the Cardiff City defender, was injured at the Somme but recovered and went on to accept the FA Cup from King George V at Wembley in 1927, as well as representing Wales 32 times. Joe Bailey, who earned a DSO and Military Cross, went on to become a popular post-war figure at Reading.
Many performed heroic acts. Donald Bell of Bradford Park Avenue won the Victoria Cross for loading up with grenades, climbing out of his trench and neutralising a German machine-gun nest on the Somme in 1916. He died five days later, trying to silence another post, a location renamed Bell’s Redoubt. Bernard Vann, an amateur centre-forward with Derby County, was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1918 for sustained bravery guiding his battalion across the Canal du Nord to attack the enemy. Shortly before the ceasefire, Vann was killed by a German sniper.
Orient suffered greatly. When the versatile George Scott, as adept in midfield as at centre-half, died at the Somme, Arsenal wrote to Orient, referring back to some of the great games they played against Scott, McFadden and Jonas.
Arsenal even published a tribute that serves well for all footballers who served their country in the Great War: “In civil life they were heroes and they proved themselves heroes on the battlefield.”
Men from every club in the land fought and died alongside each other and their memory should not be tarnished by the arrogant and puerile antics both on and off the football field that we see today.
A story from the Daily Express in 2009 reveals the diary of Captain Robert Hamilton and the entry in his small, leather-bound journal for December 25th 1914 was as follows, “a day unique in the world’s history. I met this officer and we arranged a local armistice for 48 hours. The soldiers on both sides met in their hundreds and exchanged greetings and gifts.” The book “Meet at Dawn, Unharmed” draws on more than 100 photographs, cartoons, maps and sketches and Andrew Hamilton (grandson of Robert) and historian Alan Reed combined in its publication.
The magic, inspiring words of Rupert Brooke say everything
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven
A man of great physical beauty by reputation, Rupert Brooke was born in Rugby, Warwickshire where he attended the local school. He then gained entry into King's College, Cambridge (1905-11) where he became a Fellow in 1912. He travelled extensively and wrote many travel letters for the 'Westminster Gazette', London (1912-13). At the start of the First World War in 1914, he was assigned to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He saw action at Antwerp which inspired the writing of five passionately patriotic sonnets, the last of them being The Soldier. He was at the height of his fame when he died during the war aged twenty-seven. He had been on his way to serve in the Dardanelles when he died of blood poisoning at Scyros and was buried there.