Football remembers its Great War heroes

Courtesy of PA Images Gareth Ainsworth left and Phil Stant right

11th November is Remembrance Day and in honour of the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces, and civilians, in times of war we’ve reproduced the below article which is due to appear in Free Lions 111. Back in October the Football League unveiled a memorial in the French village of Longueval to the footballers who fought in the First World War and died on the killing fields of the Somme. Almost a century later a permanent memorial to the Footballers' Battalions has been unveiled.

(Picture courtesy of PA Images - Gareth Ainsworth left and Phil Stant right)

Wind back almost 100 years and young, terrified soldiers, were surrounded on three sides by German Artillery. Up against it from the off the order came to ‘dig in’at Delville Wood (aka Devil’s Wood), on the Somme, on July 27th, 1916. By the end of a three-day ordeal, 36 of their comrades lay dead and almost 200 were wounded.

This was the Footballers’ Battalion which lost an estimated 1000 young men between 1914-18. Formed in 1914 the Battalion was a response to wide-spread public criticism that football was shirking from its duties and had lost touch with society.

Cricket and rugby competition stopped almost immediately after the outbreak of the Great War but football had carried on with the 1914-15 season. Players were signed on one-year deals and could only join the armed forces if their clubs agreed to their release. Contractual ties therefore gave players an easy get-out but this convenient serfdom wasn’t to last and public opinion eventually deemed it unacceptable during war time. (Although not all players stayed with their clubs, see the heroic tale of Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell.)

Bobby Parker’s 35 goals fired Everton to their second league title although the Scottish centre-forward’s career was sadly cut short. The war not only robbed him of his best years but a bullet in the back meant he returned a shadow of his former self. However, by the end of that season it was clear the game had to pull its weight. Football was halted and wouldn’t return until 1919.

At its height, the 17th Middlesex boasted 300 professional players from a total fighting force of 4,500 combatants with the remainder coming from the amateur ranks, club officials, referees and – astonishingly – fans eager to fight alongside their heroes.  A second battalion, the 23rd Middlesex, was created a year later. By the time of its decommission in February 1918, more than 1000 men of the 17th Middlesex had lost their lives and 2000 had been injured. Their story is superbly documented in the book When the Whistle Blows by Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp.

The Football League’s campaign to install a permanent reminder of their sacrifices has been led by the well-travelled 224-goal former striker, Phil Stant. Before turning pro, Stant served as a soldier in the Falklands war. To fund the memorial he worked with clubs across the country to stage bucket collections at Football League fixtures. “The memorial and the members of the Footballers' Battalion can now be properly remembered and that’s down to the supporters of Football League clubs who contributed,” said Stant. The Football League also acknowledged the vital role fans played in raising the £10,000 required for the memorial.

On October 21st 2010 that memorial was unveiled with representatives from the Football League, Professional Football Association and more than 20 clubs. The Football Supporters’ Federation was proud to be represented too by both Deputy Chair Jon Keen and President Monica Hartland.

“I felt privileged to be there and had pride in the efforts of supporters throughout the Football League whose fund-raising had helped to ensure the provision of the memorial,” said Monica Hartland. “The ceremony commenced with a welcome from the mayor of Longueval and continued an address by Andrew Riddoch, co-author of When the Whistle Blows. We heard of the carnage and of the bravery and lifelong devastation of those who managed to survive the hell only a few hundred metres from where we were standing, in Delville Wood, or Devil’s Wood, as it came to be known.”

After the final strains of the Last Post had died away Wycombe Wanders’ Gareth Ainsworth blew the whistle to mark the beginning of two minutes’ silence and a hush descended on those in attendance. Despite a career spanning three decades, almost 500 games, 100 goals and 11 clubs Ainsworth later admitted to feeling nervous in advance of this very humbling assignment.

“It’s really important we never forget,” said Ainsworth, speaking to The Telegraph’s Henry Winter. “Every footballer would be humbled by this place. There's no Premier League, no League Two out here, all these lads fought side by side. That’s humbling. To be the person asked to blow the whistle for the two-minute silence was a massive honour. That was the signal to go over the top and on the first day of battle thousands were wiped out.”

The Footballers’ Battalions included players from so many clubs it’s impossible to cover them all in so few words but many of the great stars of the day fought alongside those who would find fame in years to come. Vivian Woodward of Chelsea and Spurs was at one time England’s record scorer, Fred Keenor captained Cardiff to FA Cup glory in 1927 and Walter Tull was the first black outfield player to appear in the Football League.

“Walking around those graves, seeing people aged 17, 18, 19 who ran into a wood with people running at them screaming, holding bayonets at them, shells raining down on their heads. They kept going, they never gave up, and that's truly humbling,” said Football League Chairman Greg Clarke.

Let’s hope society never again gets itself into such a state that young men, be they footballers, plumbers, or builders have to give their lives in such numbers to save it.

This is an abridged version of an article which will appear in Free Lions edition 111.


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