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Football League honours war dead

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The Football League has unveiled a memorial to the soldiers of the Footballers’ Battalions’ that fought in the First World War. Almost a century after their advance into ‘Devil’s Wood’ began, The Football League has erected a permanent memorial to the men of the 17th and 23rd Middlesex Regiments – the Footballers’ Battalions.

Representatives from the Football League were joined by FSF National Council members Jon Keen and Monica Hartland in paying tribute to the estimated 1000 young soldiers who lost their lives. Surrounded on three sides by German Artillery, they were up against it from the off as the order came to ‘dig in’ at Delville Wood, on the Somme, on July 27, 1916. By the end of their three-day ordeal, 36 members of the Battalion lay dead with almost 200 wounded.

“This is most rewarding day I’ve had in the job since I took it eight months ago,” admitted Football League Chairman, Greg Clarke who unveiled the 1.75m high stone monument in the French village of Longueval. (Image courtesy of the PA.)

“It is about going back 90 years, about footballers who joined up together and gave their lives for their country.  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, the shells raining down on their heads. They kept going, they never gave up, and that’s truly humbling.”

Formed in 1914 in response to wide-spread public criticism that football was shirking its war-time responsibilities by playing on at a time of national crisis, the Footballers’ Battalion allowed professional and amateur players, referees, administrators and football supporters to enlist and fight together in the trenches.

At its height, the 17th Middlesex boasted 300 professional players amongst a total fighting force of 4,500 combatants.  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 former Hereford United, Notts County, Mansfield Town and Lincoln City striker, Phil Stant. Before turning pro, Stant served as a soldier in the Falklands war and was involved in the air attack on the troop carriers Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram at Bluff Cove.

To fund the memorial, Stant, who is now The Football League Trust’s Youth Development Regional Manager for the Midlands, 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”, he said at the service.  “That’s down to the supporters of Football League clubs who contributed.

“You bond in the trenches, the one thing you don’t want to do is let your mates down in the services.  I came across that in the Falklands. When I went to war, for me it was an adventure.  It was something I was looking forward to.  But when I saw the sights it wasn’t an adventure anymore.”

The Football League’s current crop of players were represented by Wycombe Wanderers winger, Gareth Ainsworth who signalled the beginning of two minutes’ silence with a sharp blast on a trench whistle.

“It is really important we never forget,” said the 37-year old. “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.”

The Footballers’ Battalions included many of the great stars of the day and some of those that would go on to achieve great footballing feats in the post-war era. 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.

This is the second time in recent months footballers have been honoured for sacrifices made during the First World War. In September the FSF reported on the story of Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell – a footballer and soldier posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for an act of unbelievable courage.

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