One hundred years ago, the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the British Army, was raging in northern France.On 27th July 1916, footballers, club staff and fans comprising the Footballers’ Battalion entered the fray and would spend the next three days fighting fiercely in Delville Wood.
In support of the official First World War Centenary and in commemoration of the sacrifice made by the Footballers’ Battalion, over the next three days the EFL will be serialising Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp’s abridged account of the battle as described in When the Whistle Blows.
Find the four-part serialisation on efl.com from 27th to 29th July.
Here’s part four…
Part three: Click here to read part one of When the Whistle Blows
The interrogation of a German prisoner captured in the wood revealed that a counterattack was planned for the evening. At 9 p.m. the German bombardment intensified on the positions of the Footballers’ Battalion and the 2nd South Staffords. Entire sections of British trenches were obliterated. A series of attacks were launched against the Footballers’ Battalion and 2nd South Staffords, consisting primarily of bombing parties supported by snipers.
The Footballers’ Battalion were ready for them. Pte George Whitworth recalled that, ‘… the Germans attacked us, and what a reception they got. They didn’t get twenty yards before they turned and ran away’. Pte Allen Foster, of Reading, wrote to his wife: ‘We made old Fritz hop about a bit. They were running about like lost sheep, but we were popping away at him like blazes. I don’t think he expected us to be quite so near him, but we were, of course. We had to pay for getting so near but as luck would have it I managed to get back without a scratch.’
The confused nature of the fighting in the descending darkness meant that several small parties of Germans were able to slip between the Footballers’ Battalion’s posts. Having taken over command of ‘D’ Company after Capt John Engleburtt had been shot in the head and seriously wounded, Capt Ivan Horniman recalled that, ‘The enemy obtained a momentary footing on the left of my Coy front (D) but were dislodged after hand-to-hand fighting: the field of fire was very poor owing to trees and branches felled by artillery fire. The enemy made numerous counterattacks’.
Sgt Ted Hanney, of Manchester City, was hit in the face and neck by shrapnel later that evening, but he remained with the battalion rather than leave the trenches: ‘I was hit on the night of the 28th of July about 10.30pm, but did not leave the trenches until the next morning about 8.30. The Germans counterattacked that night three times, and as I felt quite all right I stopped and gave them a few extra rounds of ammunition… . By gum, I saw some sights there! I shall never forget them.’
By midnight the Footballers’ Battalion had lost 38 men killed and in excess of 150 wounded. Sgt Percy Barnfather, of Croydon Common, reckoned that the majority of these casualties were caused by shellfire. One of the footballers killed was Sgt Norman Wood, the Stockport County inside-left. Born in Streatham, the 26-year-old Norman Wood, with his ‘brushed dark hair and deft touches of the ball with the side of the foot’, had been associated with a number of football clubs during his career, including Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, Plymouth Argyle, Croydon Common, Chelsea, and Stalybridge Celtic: ‘His type of play was unselfish, for with a crafty left foot he made openings and opportunities for colleagues. Unquestionably he was a fine initiator, but did not make the mark that he should have done.’
Norman Wood had taken some time to settle down at Stockport County. On 4 October 1913, in only his sixth game for the club, he had scored an own goal, conceded a penalty and missed a penalty at the other end. Wood had recovered to make 37 appearances for Stockport County that season, scoring 10 goals. During the 1914/15 season, he had scored 2 goals in 21 appearances for the club. Also among the dead was Cpl Thomas Heller from Birkenhead. He had been the goalkeeper of the Preston Marathon rink hockey team, which had won the World Championship at Putney. Another soldier killed was Pte Henry Woolger, a barber from Fulham, who was shot dead by a sniper.
On 29 July the Footballers’ Battalion witnessed another day of ‘terrific artillery fire’, but no infantry attacks materialised. At 9 p.m. the battalion was relieved by the 13th Essex and the exhausted men stumbled back to the support line. The Battalion War Diary recorded that, ‘All ranks behaved with great gallantry. The devotion to duty was magnificent.’
Since entering Delville Wood on the evening of 27 July, over 50 members of the Footballers’ Battalion had lost their lives and a further 200 or so had been wounded. Such was the intensity of the fighting in and around Delville Wood throughout the summer of 1916 that relatively few men of the Footballers’ Battalion who died between 27-29 July have a known grave. Twelve graves can be found in Delville Wood Cemetery, which was created after the Armistice. Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the cemetery contains 5,523 graves, including those of 19-year-old Pte Abraham Marks, the eldest son of Mark and Rachel Marks of Somers Town, London, L/Sgt William Blakey, a referee, who had been the first member of the Durham Football Association to join the battalion and L/Cpl Thomas Collett, a coal porter from Gillingham with three young children. Others no doubt lie in the same cemetery as unidentified burials beneath headstones bearing inscriptions such as ‘An Unknown Soldier of the Middlesex Regiment’ or as ‘A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God’. The remainder still lie beneath the trees of Delville Wood.
For more information about the Footballers' Battalion, see When the Whistle Blows.
Amazon: When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers' Battalion in the Great War (Centennial Edition)