A lot of people who visit the First World War battlefields talk about curious, even strange experiences. Sometimes they are drawn to a particular grave in a cemetery, or they feel a presence when they are in the fields. I have tended to put this down to a heightened sense of emotion brought about by knowing the events that have taken place and the numbers of dead who are still around you. Some people talk of being able to feel something physical while on the battlefields, and this has happened to me.
I was standing on top of a small ruined fort on the Verdun battlefield called the Ouvrage de Thiaumont just as a thunderstorm approached. I felt a strange sensation which I couldn’t explain; however, I subsequently found a logical explanation. What I had felt was charged ions rising from the ground; because I was at a high point and a thunderstorm was near, the ions used my body to move towards the opposite charge in the approaching thunderclouds. It is a sign that you might get struck by lightning.
My mate Charlie and I beat a retreat and returned to our hotel just as the first drops of rain began to fall. The thunderstorm was the heaviest I’ve ever witnessed; it washed away a road in the next village and our hotel room had a roof leak. We went to reception to report this and the proprietor gave a Gallic shrug and gave us a bucket. I don’t think I’ll stay there again.
So you could say I’m sceptical about most strange stories surrounding the battlefields. However, one coincidence makes me wonder sometimes. It is a story about two sportsmen and two letters with the backdrop of the terrible events of July 1916. It even has a link to a famous hostelry on Goodison Road. I think the coincidence is remarkable and can be interpreted as more than mere chance; but maybe I am too close to the events to make an objective judgement.
I’ll let you decide.
A Village in Picardy
The sleepy village of Longueval feels like it has been unchanged for centuries, and the trees of Delville Wood next to the village have a similar permanence. But none of the village buildings and only one of the trees in the wood is more than 100 years old. In the summer of 1916, Longueval was at the dark heart of the Battle of the Somme, and both village and wood were destroyed. The single surviving tree, a hornbeam almost miraculously regenerated from a shrapnel-riddled stump. Today it stands in the middle of the wood but the shrapnel is gone, removed by a century of visitors.
In the village, close to the wood, stands an elegant grey memorial dedicated to the 17th and 23rd Middlesex, better known as the Footballers’ Battalions. It was dedicated in 2010 by the Football League to commemorate the footballers and fans who fought with the two battalions, and is placed in Longueval because the 17th fought in Deville Wood at the end of July 1916.
On the memorial there is an enigmatic quote: “This is worse than a whole season of cup ties”. It comes from a letter written in a Liverpool hospital by a man who would have a long connection with Goodison Park. The letter is a remarkable account of the fighting in Delville Wood and contains another quote which I would eventually link to another letter written from another hospital bed around the same time. This also gives a moving description of the heat of battle. To tell the stories behind the two letters, we must first go back to the patriotic fervour of the first few months of the Great War and the controversy surrounding the continuation of football in the UK.
Footballers in Khaki
The first English footballers’ battalion was raised in December 1914 by the MP for Brentford, William Joynson-Hicks. It followed the enlistment of the complete Hearts team, including Tom Gracie, formerly of Everton, in Edinburgh a few days earlier. Both events were triggered at least in part by the wave of criticism of the football authorities for not cancelling the 1914-15 season.
The home depot of the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex) regiment was in Brentford so the footballer’s battalion became attached to them. The majority of the footballers who joined were from clubs in the southeast and included several men with past or future Everton connections. The battalion of 1,000 men and 32 officers was soon filled and, in June 1915, a second battalion was raised. The footballers in the battalions continued to play for their clubs until football was suspended in April 1915, when they became full-time soldiers as part of Lord Kitchener’s new volunteer army.
The presence of so many ex-professional players led the 17th Middlesex to undertake a series of friendly matches to aid recruitment and raise funds for wartime charities. One such match took place at Reading’s Elm Park on 4 September 1915. A photo of the team that day had been preserved by the family of Pat Gallacher of Spurs, and it is full of interesting stories and Merseyside connections.
The First Footballer’s Battalion Team at Reading, 4 September 1915 (courtesy of the Gallacher family – Pat Gallacher of Spurs is standing top left in uniform)
The officer sitting on the left is Captain Frank Buckley of Bradford City; after the war, he would manage Norwich and Wolves and was always referred to as Major Buckley. Legend has it that even Mrs Buckley called him Major, but his promotion from Captain was probably temporary. The man sitting next to Buckley is Jackie Sheldon who had been banned from football five months earlier for match-fixing while playing for Liverpool against Manchester United.
The tall centre-half in the back row is Joe Mercer of Nottingham Forest, whose one-year-old son, Joe junior, was back in Ellesmere Port. One of young Joe’s earliest memories was of his father returning on leave and bouncing a football into the house for him.
The man in the centre of the front row is centre forward Jack Cock of Huddersfield Town, the first Cornishman to play for England. He rose to be a regimental Sergeant Major and won the Military Medal during the war. Cock would later join Everton and score a respectable 29 goals in 69 matches, but he is overshadowed by the player who replaced him: a lad from the Wirral called Dean. Cock had a fine singing voice and was a very snappy dresser; he would make a career on the stage after finishing football, and appeared in films.
The man to his left is Jack Borthwick, a Scot from Leith who made 25 appearances for Everton between 1909 and 1911 before joining Millwall. His is the mysterious quotation on the Footballers' Battalions Memorial. To tell the story of how he came to write it, we must move forward 11 months to the battlefield of the Somme.
A contemporary recruitment poster for the Footballers’ Battalion
Worse Than a Whole Season of Cup Ties
Longueval and Delville Wood played little part in the Anglo-French plans for the “big push” on 1 July 1916; however, the disastrous failure along most of the British line brought Deville and six other woods in the southern part of the British sector into play. Where the front line bent eastwards to join up with the French at Maricourt, the British attacks had been more successful, particularly at Montauban where the Liverpool and Manchester Pals took the village and the German line just beyond it. In the days following, a chance to exploit this success was lost due to sharp German counter-attacks, lack of shells, and disagreements with the French. The Germans were given time to reinforce their defences and critically began to move heavy artillery from Verdun.
The woods formed an irregular horseshoe into which the new northward axis of the British attacks ran. This did not go down well with the French who continued to attack eastwards, but the British reasoned that, having taken the German first line of defences, they could concentrate their artillery along a shorter front and try to take the northern part of the line from the rear. For a fortnight after the 1 July disaster, the gunners and engineers put in a massive effort to move the guns and create the supply lines for the next push.
But it was not all quiet while the preparations went on; the Germans evacuated Fricourt early on 2nd July, La Boiselle was taken on the 4th and a series of attacks were made to take Contalmaison, which eventually fell on the evening of the 10th. As part of these attacks, 2nd Lieutenant Donald Bell, formerly of Bradford Park Avenue, became the only professional footballer to win the Victoria Cross, attacking a German machine-gun post and putting it out of action. Five days later, he was killed in a similarly brave action in defence of Contalmaison.
The horseshoe of woods today, much as they were 100 years ago (Google Earth)
Alongside these efforts, the flanking woodlands of Bernafay, Trones and Mametz Woods were attacked to prepare the way for the northward advance. Bernafay Wood was captured on 2nd July with only six killed but, just a few hundred yards to its east, Trones Wood proved to be a much more difficult proposition. Between 8th and 12th July, several attacks got into the wood but were driven back by fierce German shelling and counter-attacks. In the early morning of the 11th, the 4th Liverpool Pals and the 2nd Bedfords followed a fierce bombardment into the wood; the fighting went on all day until 10:30 pm when the 1st Liverpool Pals were able to hold the position on the far edge of the wood. The following day, the German counter-attacks were beaten off although they still clung on to the northern end of the wood.
To the west the 38th (Welsh) Division suffered 4,000 casualties between 8th and 12th July clearing the largest of the horseshoe of woodlands – Mametz Wood. Amongst the men taking part were the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, whose battalion was based in Litherland.
Having cleared the flanking woods on 14th July, the British mounted a daring and innovative attack which was in complete contrast to 1st July. Having moved much of the artillery round to the southern part of the battlefield, a five-minute hurricane bombardment in the first light of dawn fell on the German second line of defences running along the ridge from Bazentin-le-Petit to Longueval. The British troops had quietly moved forward across three quarters of a mile of no-man’s land in some places in the dark to wait just outside the German wire. At the western end of the line, two German trenches guarded the village of Bazentin-le-Petit; they were called Aston Trench and Villa Trench. Perhaps the intelligence officer who named them was a Birmingham City fan... whatever the reason, the trenches were deluged with shells and the attackers poured out of Mametz Wood to take the village and the wood adjoining it. The result was the same all along the 3-mile front all the way to the village of Longueval and Delville Wood. The Germans were taken completely by surprise.
Most of the village of Longueval at the eastern end of the ridge and part of Deville Wood were taken by the 9th (Scottish) Division which included the 8th Battalion of the Black Watch. The 8th probably included Donald Sloan, a goalkeeper who had spent time with both Everton and Liverpool before the war, and a former Newcastle player, William Fleming. Fleming was a cousin of Everton’s legendary forward Sandy Young, who had been convicted of the manslaughter of his brother in Australia the previous month. Fleming’s mother and aunt had contacted Everton over Young’s trial and the board had paid for his defence.
The 14th July attack was so successful that it nearly broke through the partly constructed third German defence line. Troops got into High Wood but were driven out and a cavalry attack between High Wood and Longueval was stopped by machine guns behind the ridge that the third line stood on. The opportunity was lost and a slogging match developed for the position that would last until mid-September.
Although the Somme was the main focus for the British Army in the summer of 1916, it was not all quiet on the rest of the Western Front as a series of diversionary attacks were mounted further north. On the afternoon of 30th June, three battalions of the Royal Sussex, raised from the villages on the South Downs by the local MP, attacked a salient at Richebourg known as the Boar's Head. The battalions were known as Lowther’s Lambs after their MP and, after a long bombardment which only served to alert the Germans, they were sent like lambs to the slaughter. Over 1,100 men were killed or wounded in a terrible precursor of events the following day.
The action at the Boar's Head is now sadly forgotten; however, a few miles north at Fromelles, an infamous diversionary attack was mounted in the early evening of 19th July in an attempt to prevent the Germans moving troops south to the Somme. Fromelles sits on top of a barely perceptible ridge named after Aubers, the next village south. The ground in front of the ridge is flat and wet, so the opposing lines were raised of breastworks made of sandbags and earth rather than trenches. Fromelles had been the site of two previous attacks, in December 1914 and as part of the battle of Aubers in early May 1915. Both had been failures, indeed the Aubers attack probably had the worst casualties suffered by the British Army given the number of troops used in the whole war. The German Army were remarkably self-critical and analysed each attack to see where their defences could be improved, so the position was very strong by mid-July 1916.
The attack was made by two divisions, the understrength British 61st (South Midland) and the Australian 5th which had only been in France for a matter of days. Unlike the other four Australian divisions, the 5th did not contain many veterans of the Gallipoli campaign; despite this, they would be the first Australian troops committed on the Western Front.
The attack was a smaller repeat of the 1st July on the Somme. It had been intended to take place on the 15th in the wake of the successful attack to the south but kept being postponed due to the weather. The effects of the five-day bombardment were at best mixed and no attempt was made to target the German artillery on the ridge. These German guns caused serious disruption and casualties as the planned attack time of 6pm on the 19th July drew near.
The attack was a disaster, like so many that month. Where no-man’s land was wide, the attackers were stopped in front of the German wire; indeed, on the 61st Division front and on the right of the 5th Australian front, many men failed to get beyond the gaps cut in their own breastworks. The Australian 60th Battalion, made up from men from rural Victoria, suffered 757 men killed or wounded attacking the northern face of a salient in the German lines called the Sugarloaf, with few if any of them reaching the German front line.
To their left, no-man’s land was narrower and the attacking Australians got into the German positions. For a time, it looked like they could hold the ground won but, once the Germans realised that the Aubers Ridge was not an objective, they began to counter-attack. The raw Australian troops tried to dig in but became cut off as the Germans attacked from the flanks in a repeat of what had happened to the 36th (Ulster) Division two-and-a-half weeks earlier at Thiepval on the Somme. As the Australian troops were surrounded, the Germans prevented reinforcement and resupply by machine-gun fire along no-man’s land and an artillery barrage from guns on either flank as well as in front. The Australian 5th Division lost 5,513 men killed, wounded and captured while the British 61st Division lost 1,547 men from an attacking force smaller than the Australian effort. The Germans lost around 2,000 men killed and wounded.
The attack was a complete and utter failure. The Germans knew it was a diversion even before they captured some British orders from a wounded officer, and it did not stop them moving troops to the Somme. Many of the wounded attackers were left in no-man’s land when a truce offered by the Germans was refused. Some of the bodies of the attackers from inside the German lines were taken back on a trench railway and buried in mass graves, although after the war, some of these remained undiscovered.
A young Australian sergeant of the 60th Battalion wrote home about the battle from a hospital bed in Bristol where he was recovering from the loss of a foot:
“…so our work went all for nothing – not an inch gained… The fact is, they didn’t expect the Germans to be so strong after the terrible bombardment. They fairly flattened the German trenches, but there were dozens of machine guns which did the damage.”
His words describe Fromelles, but they could apply to so many attacks in the terrible month of July 1916. They could have been written by a Sussex farm boy about the Boar’s Head, an Accrington mill lad about Serre, a Newfoundland fisherman about Beaumont-Hamel or a clerk from Liverpool’s Cotton Exchange about Guillemont.
The Devil’s Wood
The success of the attack on the 14th July left the 9th (Scottish) Division including Donald Sloan and William Fleming’s 8th Black Watch holding the southern part of Longueval village and Delville Wood. The position formed a deep salient into German territory as the line bent around the wood and turned south in front of Guillemont to Trones Wood. The Germans could fire on the village and wood from three sides and also target the approaches to the area. They also mounted a series of violent counter attacks against the defenders. Longueval and Delville Wood became a hell on earth.
The Devil’s Wood in September 1916 (Imperial War Museum Collection)
Units trying to hold the wood and push the Germans out had to be replaced regularly due to their losses. The South African Brigade, which was part of the 9th Division, went into Delville Wood early on Saturday 15th July with 3,153 men, and by nightfall they had taken most of it. After five days of often hand-to-hand fighting, 763 had been killed and 1,709 wounded. It is said that only 142 men were fit to walk out of the wood.
On the 18th July a big German counter-attack pushed the Scottish troops defending Longueval out of the wreckage of the village, and the South Africans back through the wood. The Scots rallied just outside the ruins and retook their positions, forcing the Germans out and back to the northern part of the village. When the 8th Black Watch were relieved on 21st July, there were only 171 unwounded men out of 739, the rest having been killed, wounded or captured. Donald Sloan and William Fleming appear to have been amongst the lucky ones.
The village of Longueval in 1916 (copyright Daily Mail)
On the evening of 27th July, it was the turn of the footballers of the 17th Middlesex to enter Delville Wood in support of a renewed attempt to clear the German defenders out. On the morning of the 27th, a massive bombardment fell on the northern part of the wood in which an estimated 125,000 shells were fired, allowing most of the wood to be recaptured. The 17th Middlesex took over the eastern side of the line in the wood, with the 2nd South Staffordshires on their left, relieving the exhausted attacking units who were evacuated on the morning of the 28th. Throughout the day, the 17th Middlesex were subjected to the furious German response and had simply to survive in the shell-torn debris of the wood. Private Jack Borthwick’s description is eloquent testimony to the ordeal:
“We were being very heavily shelled, dead and wounded all over the place, German as well as our own…… Our captain came and gave orders for four men to take a wounded captain to the dressing station, and I was one to be chosen. There wasn’t a whole stretcher in the place, and all the stretcher bearers were knocked out except one.”
Among the many wounded was Major Frank Buckley, he was hit in the shoulder and lung and it was feared he would not survive. The Commanding officer, Colonel Henry Fenwick, was also hit and Captain Edward Bell, formerly of Portsmouth and Southampton, took command, eventually being awarded the Military Cross for his calm leadership in the maelstrom.
Having rigged up a makeshift stretcher using splintered branches and a groundsheet, Jack Borthwick’s stretcher party clambered over fallen trees and in and out of shell holes under incessant bombardment. Even after leaving the wood, the shellfire on the routes in and out of the wood was heavy. Somehow they managed to get the wounded Captain across three quarters of a mile to the dressing station and after a rest began to make their way back to their comrades in the wood. Jack Borthwick described what happened next:
“Everything was going well until I stopped my packet but felt it as my neck was very near set in. The piece must have been rather large and I was afraid I should be under the turf with a little wooden cross on top. I managed to get back to our trench and the stretcher-bearer dressed the wound. I lay down in the side of the trench for nearly half-an-hour until the shelling quietened down.”
Borthwick would later find that a shell splinter had sliced open his head, narrowly missing his right eye and caused a depressed fracture of the skull. Despite this, Jack wasn’t ready to lie down.
“Our captain wanted to send four men to carry me out but I didn’t fancy it, so I told him I would rather walk across if he sent a man with me to see I didn’t collapse. Jack Nuttall came with me and you should have seen us dashing across the wood. Donaldson couldn’t have run faster."
Jack Nuttall was a teammate from Millwall, and Donaldson was a reference to Jack Donaldson, an Australian sprinter who held the 100-yards world record for 38 years. He was called the Blue Streak from the royal blue vest he wore and was probably the fastest man on earth in 1916.
The 17th Middlesex had to fight off a series of German counter-attacks as night fell on the 28th. The following day, they continued to be shelled but with no further German counter-attacks. When they were relieved at nightfall, the battalion stumbled out of the wood having lost 37 dead and 200 wounded; it is a tribute to their survival instincts that the numbers weren’t even worse. Only 13 of the 37 dead would subsequently be given identified graves; the rest are likely to be in unmarked graves in Delville Wood Military cemetery among 5,523 men buried there, or still in the wood. The mental scars the survivors carried with them can only be guessed at. Jack Borthwick’s war was over, although he didn’t know it at the time:
"I remember getting to the dressing station but I must have lost consciousness as I don’t remember seeing our doctor on the trip down the line. I was operated on the next day, but I remember nothing about it. I was placed on the danger list and the missus had word to come, but I took a turn for the better.”
Jack Borthwick was evacuated via Rouen back to the UK on 19th August; he wrote his letter from Belmont Hospital in Liverpool (which later became Newsham General). It was addressed to his manager at Millwall, Bert Lipsham, and 94 years later the enigmatic last line would be set in stone when the Memorial to the Footballer’s Battalions was unveiled. Jack recovered, being discharged from the army in April 1917. He was awarded the Silver War Badge, given to men who were honourably discharged to prevent them being accosted for not doing their bit, often by girls bearing white feathers. However, the scar on Jack Borthwick’s forehead would have been a clue to his ordeal in Delville Wood.
Jack Borthwick would return to Goodison, but Goodison Road rather than Goodison Park, although I am sure he would have been welcome at the club. He became the popular landlord of the Winslow, and remained there until his death in 1942.
The field where Jack Borthwick ran as fast as Donaldson. Bernafay Wood on the left with Montauban on the skyline
A Bit of a Coincidence
Whenever I visit Longueval, I look across the fields from the edge of Delville Wood and think of Jack Borthwick’s letter, and him running as fast as Jack Donaldson. In September 2013, I was taking some friends around the battlefields and we stopped at Delville Wood, where today the South African Memorial stands in the centre of the wood with a long oak-lined drive down to the Delville Wood cemetery. As we passed the Footballers’ Battalions memorial, I thought of Jack Borthwick’s enigmatic quote: “This is worse than a whole season of cup ties.”
The following day, we headed north towards Ypres and stopped off at the new Pheasant Wood cemetery in Fromelles, built for Australian and British soldiers killed on 19th July 1916 and discovered in mass graves nearby in 2008. There we met an Australian couple, Carolyn and Chips Prowse who had come to find Carolyn’s great uncle Frank, so we offered to help. I made an educated guess that he was not in the cemetery but might be on the VC Corner Memorial about a kilometre away; it has the names of 1,184 Australians killed in the area who have no known grave. We took the couple down there and found great uncle Frank’s name on the memorial; they were really pleased. It was the highlight of our trip.
I took their email address and offered to research great uncle Frank. It turned out to be surprisingly easy thanks to a wonderfully dedicated Australian researcher called Heather Ford. Heather had discovered a letter written in hospital in England by Frank’s elder brother Don who was with him when he died. They were both serving in the 60th Battalion who had attacked across the ground to the right of the memorial which now bears Frank’s name. The letter had been published in the local paper in Victoria, and like Jack Borthwick’s letter, it is another vivid description of the horror of war:
Well, they kept postponing the charge until we believed it was all off. Wish to God it had been, but on the 19th, at 6:45 pm, we had to go over the parapet 400 yards to the German line. We were in the second wave to 'hop over', and things were very hot, bullets flying all round us.
“We got within 100 yards of the German trench when poor little Frank went down, badly hit in the groin. I ran to help him into a shell-hole close by, when I got one through the finger of the left hand. I thought my hand was gone. Then, just as I got the poor kid to the hole, he got another through the same place, and one through the arm, and I got it in the foot – blew half my foot right open. I tried to bandage Frank, but our field dressings were not long enough, and I could not make a proper job of it. Then I tied a piece of string around my leg to stop the circulation of the blood, which stopped my foot from bleeding.
“Poor little Frank knew he was going, and asked me to say the Lord's Prayer with him, and said, 'Poor old Dad.' But he was as brave as could be, and when his time had come a few hours later, he died game and said good-bye to me quite calmly. In fact, he took it a good deal better than I did. I would gladly have changed places with him, for he made me feel a bit of a coward the calm way he was taking it. So you have something to be proud of, Dad, for he died the way you would have any of us die, and he has shown us the way. Anyhow, he has shown me.
“I never ventured out of the shell-hole that night, as shells were bursting quite close all night. My steel helmet stopped a couple of pieces from getting me in the head. I got back to our trenches next day, dead beat… I expect Jack down to see me next week. I tried to get to Manchester, but landed in Bristol. I'm coming along grand now.
“Remember me to all.”
Heather Ford sent me all of her research and I forwarded it on to Caz and Chips in Victoria. They were deeply touched by the information and particularly the letter. We have subsequently become good friends and I have also researched the relatives of Caz’s friend Di, and their friends Barb and Anne. I try to visit Frank and the other boys when I am in the area. They are all a long way from home.
But what about the coincidence? It was staring me in the face but I didn’t pick up on it for days after; the link was in Don’s letter and in the other material Heather had sent. Maybe I was just pleased to have been able to help, or I didn’t read beyond Don’s description of his brother’s death, the line about young Frank “dying game” always brings a lump to my throat. The clue was Frank and Don’s surname which I had found on the wall of the VC Corner Memorial: Donaldson. Frank and Don were the brothers of the legendary Jack Donaldson, the Blue Streak who Jack Borthwick had mentioned in his letter. Less than 24 hours after standing where Jack Borthwick had run out of Deville Wood as fast as Jack Donaldson, I met Jack’s grandniece and guided her to the memorial to his younger brother.
Just a bit of a coincidence? I’ll let you decide.
EFC Heritage Society 2016.
Heather Ford for her help with the Donaldson brothers, and so much else besides.
Lorna and Richard Conaghan for their help with William Fleming’s story and the links to Sandy Young
The EFC Heritage Society, particularly Billy Smith, Steve Johnson and Bren Connolly.
When The Whistle Blows: Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp (Haynes Publishing 2011). The story of the first Footballers’ Battalion.
Chris Baker‘s The Long Long Trail Website (http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk)
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