One hundred years ago today, on 1st July 1916, fighting began in the Battle of the Somme.It would go onto rage for 141 days, marking one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the British Army.
On the first day of the Somme offensive nearly 60,000 British men were killed, wounded or listed as missing. By the Battle’s end in November it is estimated over 1 million people had lost their lives.
Ten decades on, commemorations marking the Battle of the Somme centenary are being coordinated across the country and many EFL clubs and the communities in which they are embedded will be paying tribute to those who lost their lives over the next 141 days until 18 November.
In Accrington a series of events are being held to honour the East Lancashire Regiment Accrington, or the Accrington Pals as they are more commonly known went ‘over the top’, walking into No Man’s Land under the cover of artillery and mortar fire.
On the first day of battle, the Pals suffered severe losses and over 600 casualties, leaving the Accrington community back home shattered.
Other Pals regiments from the North West – so-called because the men came from the same communities – suffered similarly tragic losses. Some 300 men of the Barnsley Pals brigades also died on the first day of the battle while the Sheffield City Brigade fought alongside both of these battalions valiantly also losing 500 men on that fateful day.
And while many casualties were mourned by communities in the North, no part of the country was immune to the horror and today Exeter City will be remembering four former players who died during the Battle of the Somme at a special ceremony to be held at their St James Park war memorial.
Two Exeter City players - Fred Bailey and Evelyn Lintott (a former PFA Chairman and England international) - died on this first day and two others Arthur Evans and Percy Worner during the rest of the Battle.
Paul Farley for the Club and Trust said, "We are determined never to forget the sacrifice made by our former players. The Somme was a particularly painful episode in World War One and the centenary of the first day of the battle provides a poignant time to remember those that gave their lives".
In the South East, Leyton Orient are taking a prominent role in the First World War Centenary once again and will be flying the flag for the EFL across the channel with over 200 O’s supporters travelling to Northern France to pay their respects to the three Clapton Orient footballers that lost their lives during the Somme – William Jonas, Richard McFadden and George Scott.
With a total of 41 players and staff serving their country during the war, Clapton Orient’s story is well known having been detailed in the book They Took the Lead and subsequently adapted as a stage play entitled The Greater Game which will run later this summer.
Indeed, the Clapton Orient story is part of the wider story of football’s sacrifice in the First World War and at the Somme with the O’s forming part of the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment (1st Football) which we now know more commonly as one of the Footballers’ Battalions.
Formed in 1914 in response to wide-spread public criticism that football was shirking its wartime responsibilities by playing on at a time of national crisis, the Footballers' Battalions included many of the great stars of the day and some of those who would go on to achieve great footballing feats in the post-war era. But they fought alongside ordinary men; supporters, staff and enthusiasts who enlisted for a chance to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their heroes.
More than 8,000 officers and men of the 17th and 23rd Middlesex were engaged in some of the darkest days of the First World War, including players from across the EFL. Players such as Northampton Town’s Walter Tull, the army’s first black infantry officer; Bradford City defender Donald Bell who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery at the Somme and Major Frank Buckley, the Bradford City player who became Wolves manager and posthumous winner of the Contribution to League Football Award in 2015.
In total, over 1,000 men were killed fighting with the Footballers Battallion and in 2010, the EFL travelled to Longueval in France to unveil a dedicated memorial to commemorate football’s fallen.
The EFL’s campaign to install a permanent reminder of their sacrifices was 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 worked with clubs across the country to stage bucket collections at EFL fixtures. "The memorial and the members of the Footballers' Battalion can now be properly remembered", he said. "That's down to the supporters of Football League clubs who contributed.”
Between 1st July and 18th, November the EFL and its clubs will be supporting the Somme centenary as #FootballRemembers.