Part 2 of Samiran Mishra’s brilliant account of footballers who sacrificed their lives for the nation in World War 1; legends of the Football Battalion. Part one can be found here.
The year is 1916 and most of Western Europe is convulsed in warfare. The Germans acknowledged the fact that Russia, being so tremendously huge, would require time to mobilise its military before launching an attack on the Central Powers. Therefore, the Germans opted to attack France instead, take control of the country, before ordering the troops to march east to confront the Russians.
But France had a number of fortified defences positioned along its border to engage the oncoming German army. But the Germans had a contingency plan for an event such as this. They instead chose to march 750,000 troops through Belgium to bypass the French defences altogether and hoped that the Belgians who had been neutral so far would just let them pass. They did not.
The Belgians tried their best to stop Germany from overrunning their country. This is when Britain declared war on Germany.
The Germans pushed through their way across Belgium and made it into France. The Allies and the Central Powers were now locked in fierce battle along a 750 km front.
The British and French armies agreed upon a joint offensive in the summer of 1916. The Germans attacked first, starting with the city of Verdun. A considerable portion of the French forces were forced to tackle German troops leaving it to the British to launch their biggest attack of the war so far.
The British army, under the command of General Douglas Haig, assembled near the River Somme in July, 1916 and together with the French army, launched the planned joint offensive. The Football Battalion was primed and ready.
Here comes the cavalry
The Football Battalion had arrived on the shores of France in January. Four members of the battalion were killed and more than 30 injured during a two-week long standoff. Among the injured were Vivian Woodward, who took a serious wound to his right thigh from a grenade blast and had to return to England to recover. He would not return to battle until August.
The Battle of Somme in July was the bloodiest battle on the Western Front during the war and this is where most of our footballers perished. Seven members of the Heart of Midlothian side died during the battle. Three of them, Ernie Ellis, Harry Wattie and Duncan Currie were killed on the first day. But 22-year-old defender Paddy Crossan lived to tell the tale even after nearly losing his leg.
Crossan was gravely injured from shrapnel wounds and was labelled for amputation. A German prisoner of war was supposed to perform the operation but the Addiewell born defender pleaded with the surgeon to spare his legs as he was a professional footballer. Thankfully, his legs were spared and he was sent back to Britain to recover. He returned to the thick of action in the Sinai and Palestine campaign, before playing six more seasons for Hearts after the end of the war.
Major Frank Buckley got hit by metal shrapnel on his chest and was seriously injured during the Somme offensive. The shrapnel had pierced his skin and punctured his lungs.
“A stretcher party was passing the trench at the time. They asked if we had a passenger to go back. They took Major Buckley but he seemed so badly hit, you would not think he would last out as far as the Casualty Clearing Station,” wrote the former Newcastle United and Blythe Spartans forward George Pyke. Buckley was sent back to Britain to the military hospital in Kent. Although he survived the injury, his lungs were severely damaged which effectively ended his playing career. He did return to football for just one game on September, 1919 for Norwich City where he was the club secretary as well as the manager.
Buckley’s influence on English football as a manager has been grossly misprized. Wolverhampton Wanderers legend Stan Cullis, one of the best managers Britain has ever produced, wrote this of him: “I soon realised that Major Buckley was one out of the top drawer. He did not suffer fools gladly. His style of management in football was very similar to his attitude in the army. Major Buckley implanted into my mind the direct method of playing which did away with close interpassing and square-ball play. If you didn’t like his style you’d very soon be on your bicycle to another club. He didn’t like defenders over-elaborating in their defensive positions. Major Buckley also knew how to deal with the press.“
Major Buckley went on to manage Blackpool, Wolves and Leeds United among other clubs in a career that spanned for almost 35 years.
Carluke born William Angus was once under the books of Celtic before moving to Wilshaw Thistle in 1914, the club he was captaining when war broke out. He was a part of the 8th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry which was incorporated into the Royal Scots for an expedition into France in June 1915.
On 12th June, fellow Carluke man Lieutenant James Martin led a covert operation on an embankment not far from the German trenches at Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in northern France. Martin’s crew was spotted by the Germans who detonated a landmine. But as the smoke cleared, Martin’s body could be seen moving. In an attempt to rescue him, Angus decided to march into No Man’s Land. His senior officers deemed it as a suicidal mission but acquiesced in Angus’s resolve eventually.
A rope approximately 50 metres long was tied to Angus’ body to drag him back if necessary and he made it to Martin undetected by crawling and slithering on the ground. He was detected by the German forces when he stood upright in order to carry Martin back to the Allied trenches. Guarding Martin’s body with his own, Angus received 40 wounds from gunfire, lost his left eye, yet still managed to fulfil his inconceivable objective.
“No braver deed was ever done in the history of the British Army,” wrote Angus’ commanding officer after witnessing his heroism. The former Celtic man received the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 30 August, 1915. He was also greeted with standing ovations at both Celtic Park and the Ibrox following the resumption of league football.
Donald Bell, whom we introduced earlier as the first professional footballer to have joined the army following the outbreak of the war, was sent to France just two days after getting married and was part of the Somme offensive. Now a Second Lieutenant, Bell attacked an enemy machine gun post that was causing absolute mayhem for the Allies. His brave act saved many lives and ensured an Allied victory on that particular day. Five days later, however, a similar act of courage cost him his life. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. His medal was purchased by the Professional Footballers’ Association for a hefty sum to display it at the National Football Museum in Manchester.
Welsh international Leigh Roose played as a goalkeeper for a number of clubs including Woolwich Arsenal, Everton and Sunderland and earned 24 caps for the Welsh national team. Roose joined the Royal Medical Corps and worked at a hospital in France before being transferred to Gallipoli in the Eastern Front. He returned to London, however, and joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers as a Private.
Now, Roose was a ‘sensation of a goalkeeper’ according to many footballing men of his generation. Former secretary of the Football Association Sir Frederick Wall described the former Arsenal goalkeeper as “a clever man [who] had what is sometimes described as the eccentricity of genius. His daring was seen in the goal, where he was often taking risks and emerging triumphant.”
Roose’s indomitable disposition was as evident on the battlefield as it was on a football pitch. According to the eyewitness account of Gordon Hoare, a former England Amateurs international, Roose was seen running from enemy fire, his clothes burning after being subjected to a German flamethrower. He managed to return to his trench but refused to go to the medics and instead, threw grenades at the enemy forces ‘until his arms gave out’. Roose was killed towards the end of the Battle of Somme but his body was never recovered. His name graces the war memorial at Thiepval.
Other war heroes who played for Arsenal included Spencer Bassett who died on the Western Front in 1917 and James Maxwell of the Royal Scots who lost his life in 1915.
One of the most famous footballers to have perished in France was Bradford City legend Jimmy Speirs. A prolific forward for Rangers, Speirs joined Bradford in 1909. In 1911, the Bantams reached the final of the FA Cup under Speirs’ captaincy and had only Newcastle United to win to lift the trophy. Played at Crystal Palace, the match ended in a boring 0-0. A replay was scheduled at Old Trafford which was won by Bradford courtesy of a goal from their captain.
Spiers enlisted in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and won a Military Medal for his bravery in the Second Battle of Arras but unfortunately lost his life at Passchendaele in 1917.
Walter Tull, the former Tottenham Hotspur player and Northampton Town legend, was one of Britain’s first black footballers and the first black combat officer in the British army. Part of the Football Battalion, his leadership and organisational skills propelled him to the rank of Sergeant – an unprecedented achievement considering the fact that Military Law of that time prohibited persons of colour from becoming commissioned officers in the army.
“According to The Manual of Military Law, Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. During the First World War, military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that White soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should Black soldiers serve on the front line,” writes Phil Vasili in his book on the social history of players of colour in British football, Colouring Over The White Line.
Tull’s exemplary headship was evident in Italy where he led a night party of 26 men, braving the rapids of the River Plave, and returning unscathed. He returned to France in 1918 to lead an attack on the German trenches still putting up a fight in Favreuil. Tull was hit with bullets in No Man’s Land and soon died of his injuries. His body was never recovered. At least 11 former Tottenham Hotspur players lost their lives in the First World War.
Newcastle United had seven of their former players perish in the war including Thomas Rowlandson (not the English caricaturist, but the England Amateurs international).
Blackburn Rovers have won the English First Division on three occasions, twice between 1911 and 1914 and once in 1995. One of the most pivotal reasons for their success in the early parts of the 20th century was a man called Eddie Latheron. An attacker by nature, Latheron made over 250 appearances for Rovers and guided them to two First Division titles during his eight-year stay at the club.
He joined the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner during the war and was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
Preston North End witnessed the deaths of two footballers who were once under their books, Billy Gerrish and John Barbour, both of whom died on the Western Front.
Dicky Bond, who made over 150 appearances for the Lilywhites before moving to Bradford City for whom he played in over 300 games, was taken as a prisoner of war. He was returned and continued with his footballing career after the war. Bond had also earned eight caps for the England national team.
The most famous Preston player in the war was Freddie Osborn, top scorer with 26 goals in 1913-14, a season where they got relegated to Division Two, and again with 17 goals in 1914-15 in a season where they won back promotion. Osborn was also adept with a bat although his batting average in the two First Class matches that he played for Leicestershire does not reflect that.
He served on the Western Front with the 160th Brigade Royal Field Artillery and took a bullet to the thigh in 1918. This proved to be the end of his career as a footballer as he only managed to make seven more appearances for Preston.
West Ham United superstar George Hilsdon was attacked with mustard gas in Arras in 1917 which damaged his lungs. Hilsdon also enjoyed an extremely prolific spell with Chelsea where he became the first player to score 100 goals for the club. His tenure at Stamford Bridge was sandwiched between two spells with the Hammers. The second of which coincided with the war. Hilsdon’s lungs were so severely damaged that he had to give up his playing career. His record for the national team was sensational as well as he scored 14 goals in just eight games for the Three Lions. At least five former West Ham players were killed during the war.
Sandy Turnbull was one of the most popular players of the time and played for both the Manchester clubs. An outside right with a penchant for popping in goals at crucial times, Turnbull was part of the United contingency that decided to form a Players’ Union, a precursor of the PFA, at the Imperial Hotel in Manchester in 1907.
He won an FA Cup with City and two league titles with United. He reached the final of the FA Cup with United in 1909 and scored the winning goal in the 1-0 victory over Bristol City at Crystal Palace – handing United their first ever FA Cup success.
Turnbull died in Arras in 1917 at the age of 32. Two other United players killed in action were the right back Oscar Linkson who played for the Red Devils for five seasons and the reserve player Paddy McGuire who although did not make a first team appearance for United, did play for City and Grimsby Town.
Echoes of the Past
In October, 2010, nearly a century since the beginning of the First World War, a memorial was unveiled in Longueval, France to commemorate the footballers who sacrificed more than just their lives for their country.
In 2014, FA chairman Greg Dyke, accompanied by other representatives from the Football League and the Premier League, laid a wreath on the memorial to mark the centenary of the war.
“This trip has been organised by the Football League, a combined football trip to commemorate something important. You do find when you are here that it brings it all to life – the letters home, the sheer numbers who were killed,” said Dyke.
“On that first day of the Somme either killed or injured was everybody at Old Trafford in one day. That’s unbelievable – the scale of it.”
These days, footballers face incredible scrutiny both on and off the pitch. Pundits cannot start their day before tactically analysing Paul Pogba’s hairstyle of the month, the tabloids want to keep tab of every last pound that Raheem Sterling spent on a brand new automobile. The psychological rigour the modern day footballer faces is perhaps unprecedented. Clubs work closely with sports psychologists and neuroscience is fast becoming a practical commodity in sports in general.
But what is it compared to the heroes who have faced the horrors of war? What is the despair of a league defeat compared to the smell of a thousand burning corpses?
War is as close to the literal manifestation of the idea of hell as it can possibly get. Some daring footballers in the early parts of the 20th century faced everything in the face of it. Some perished, some lived to tell the tale. Some even went about with their lives as if the Great War was just a minor blip in their footballing careers. The onus is on us, the fans, to remember their sacrifices and celebrate the fact that footballers once stood for something so incredibly virtuous.