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First World War Centenary: When the Whistle Blows - part three

29 July 2016

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 from 27th to 29th July.

Here’s part three…

Part two: Click here to read part one of When the Whistle Blows

Throughout the day German artillery continued to pound Delville Wood. The shallow trenches and bombing posts offered scant protection from the incessant artillery fire. Many men were completely buried in the ensuing explosions. Lt Arthur Elliott, who was commanding ‘C’ Company, was buried for 15 minutes before being dug out in a state of concussion. In the words of a fellow officer: ‘He was absolutely a mad lunatic when he came back.’ Second Lieutenant Roy Beaumont was unconscious by the time his men had managed to extricate him from the loose earth. He would not regain consciousness for another six hours.

Col Henry Fenwick was hit. Maj Frank Buckley, of Bradford City and future manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, was badly wounded in the shoulder and the lung. Buckley was clearly in a bad way. Pte George Pyke, of Newcastle Utd, recalled that it did not look like Buckley would make it to the casualty clearing station. The former Portsmouth and Southampton player, Capt Edward Bell, took over command of the Footballers’ Battalion and ensured that the battalion held their positions in the face of severe pressure. Capt Bell would later be awarded a Military Cross for his ‘conspicuous gallantry during operations’ at Delville Wood.

The strain of the constant bombardment was almost too much to bear. One soldier wrote resignedly that, ‘their big guns are awful, but still we stand them and wait for our turn to stop one’.  Several soldiers ‘ stopped one’ that afternoon. From a hospital a few months later, Pte Jack Borthwick, the Millwall player, would write to his manager, the former England outside-left, Bert Lipsham:

    We were being very heavily shelled, dead and wounded all over the place, Germans as well as our own … our Captain came and gave orders for four men to take a wounded Captain [probably Acting Capt John Engleburtt] 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.
We were kept busy all the time bandaging the wounded, and if they were not able to walk to the dressing station, they had to be left until someone could take them out. We got two stout branches of a tree, put two waterproof sheets across them, placed the Captain on it, and then started off. The trenches were very badly knocked about and full of troops so we had to go over the top and what a journey.
We had to go three-quarters of a mile to the dressing station, and God knows how we got there with shells flying all around us, scrambling up and down shell holes and over broken tree trunks. I expected that we should all go up in the air any minute. However, we arrived all safe and I was thankful as I was well beat.

    We had an hour’ s rest before starting off back again. Everything was going well until I stopped my packet. I never heard the shell coming 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.

    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 [his Millwall team mate] came with me and you ought to have seen us dashing across the wood. Donaldson couldn’t have run faster [Jack Donaldson, legendary Australian sprinter of the early 20th century]. I remember getting to the dressing station but I must have lost consciousness as I don’t remember seeing our Doctor [Lt Richard Felton] on the trip down the line. I was operated on 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. What a ward I was in, not one able to get up. We had six deaths in 24 hours and one fellow off his head.

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)

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