When war broke out in 1914, hundreds of thousands of men from all walks of life left their jobs and families behind to join the effort. Some of them were professional footballers, no different from the players at Wycombe Wanderers or any other club, who were about to face a battle like no game they’d ever played before.
The footballers formed two battalions – the 17th and 23rd Middlesex Regiments, made up of players from many different teams who may have been enemies on the pitch but soon became team-mates in the brutality of life in the trenches.
That was the reality that Wycombe Wanderers’ squad experienced during an emotional trip to the battlefields in northern France in October this year. Manager Gareth Ainsworth had visited the Somme in 2010 for the unveiling of a special memorial to the Footballers’ Battalions in Longueval, and the stories that he heard inspired him to return with his ‘boys’ – the players that he worked with and mentored each day at the club.
Many admitted ignorance before the trip to World War I history – why it started, how it unfolded and the sheer scale of the loss of life during the four years of battle. But they quickly learned during a tour of the battlefields and cemeteries, guided by Phil Stant – a former professional player who served in the Falklands War – and Andrew Riddoch, a historian and author of the excellent book ‘When The Whistle Blows’ which recounts the story of the two battalions.
They paid their respects at memorials to Walter Tull, the first black army officer and the second black professional footballer, to Evelyn Lintott, the PFA chairman who was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and to Donald Bell, the first professional footballer to win the Victoria Cross for his heroism at war.
Wanderers’ players were also able to pay tribute to one of their own – Lance Corporal James McDermott, a Wycombe Wanderers player who lost his life in April 1916 but whose body was never recovered. His name – along with those of more than 73,000 fellow soldiers – is displayed on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, where the club placed a cross in his memory.
The two-day trip culminated in a special remembrance ceremony at the same memorial that Ainsworth had visited four years earlier, where captain Paul Hayes laid a wreath on behalf of the club while various players gave readings, including Matt Bloomfield, who retold the famous Kohima Epitaph – ‘when you go home, tell them of us and say – for their tomorrow, we gave our today.’
On returning to British soil, Ainsworth said: “I’ve always wanted to take a team out to the battlefields since I first went to the Somme four years ago and I’m so pleased that I was able to make it happen, with the help of the club.
“It helped give the players a sense of perspective and a real insight into the heroism of footballers just like themselves who fought and died for their country. It was part of our development for the team and it was great to go over there at a time when they have been performing so well.
“The players really bought into the whole experience and I was a proud man to see the respect, interest and enthusiasm they showed throughout the whole trip.”
Paul Hayes added: “It was a fascinating trip for the whole group and it was a real privilege to hear about the Footballers’ Battalions and the sacrifices they made.
“It’s important that everyone continues to respect and appreciate what the soldiers had to go through, and we as players have certainly taken a lot from the trip.”
The club have since published a photo booklet with quotes from each of the players, which is available in return for a £2 donation to the Poppy Appeal.