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

28 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 two…

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

The incoming soldiers of the Footballers’ Battalion and 2nd South Staffords were shocked both by the ferocity of the shellfire and the scenes of utter devastation which greeted them. After nearly two weeks of constant fighting, Delville Wood was now little more than a cratered tangle of blackened tree stumps, splintered branches and rusty barbed wire, interwoven with the debris of battle. A regimental historian wrote that:

    The horrors of that ghastly place were now everywhere evident. The fearful havoc created by our barrage of the early morning, when no less than 369 guns of all calibres had poured a continuous storm of shells upon the unfortunate enemy, had piled destruction upon destruction. Branches of trees had been flung about in all directions; the thick undergrowth of the wood was pitted with shell-holes into which the enemy had crept for shelter – the whole place was in a state of indescribable confusion – to the attackers it was almost like creeping through a jungle, not knowing where the enemy was lurking or at what minute he might be encountered. The dead were everywhere – equipment littered the ground; and above all, in the momentary pauses between shell-burst and another, the moans or agonised cries of the wounded, calling for water or assistance, lent a final touch to an altogether ghastly scene.

By midnight two officers, 2/Lt John Guest and 2/Lt William Hendry, and 14 other ranks had been killed. Second Lieutenant Guest had been hit approaching an apparently unoccupied trench, which was found to be full of German soldiers. A bank clerk in civilian life, 2/Lt Guest had enlisted in the 16th Middlesex before being commissioned from the ranks. Before becoming an officer in the Footballers’ Battalion, 2/Lt William Hendry, a stockbroker’ s clerk, had been a pre-war territorial, proceeding to France in September 1914.

Among the 14 other ranks killed was one of the battalion’ s first recruits, the bustling Clapton Orient forward Pte William Jonas, who had scored 23 goals in 74 appearances for the club. Originally a miner at Cambois Colliery, Jonas had started his career with local sides, Havannah Rovers, Washington Utd and Jarrow Croft FC, scoring two goals for the latter club in the Gateshead Charity Cup Final. Clapton Orient had signed him in 1912 on the recommendation of fellow Orient player, CSM Richard McFadden, a friend from childhood.

McFadden was devastated by his friend’ s death: ‘Both Willie and I were trapped in a trench … Willie turned to me and said, “Goodbye Mac. Best of luck, special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.” Before I could reply to him he was up and over. No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly twenty years was killed before my eyes.’  When the Orient goalkeeper Jimmy Hugall heard the news of his team-mate’ s death, he wrote to the club that, ‘I was also very grieved to hear of poor Billy Jonas’ death. He was just the same old Billy out here as he was in the football field, and was liked by everybody. I think he had the heart of a lion and was the life and soul of the Footballers’ Battalion. He was one of my best pals, and no one could have wished for a better chum.’

William Jonas was also a popular figure with the Orient supporters. At one stage he was reported as being the recipient of over 50 letters a week from female admirers. Although no doubt flattering, such attention could hardly have been welcome given that he had married his sweetheart Mary Jane some four years earlier. A 1914–15 club programme had taken pains to conclude an article about William Jonas with the following words: ‘For the interest of the young ladies of Clapton Park, we have to state that Jonas is married to a very charming young lady.’

Early on the morning of 28 July all other British troops apart from the Footballers’ Battalion and the 2nd South Staffords were withdrawn from Delville Wood in order to minimise casualties from shellfire.  Shortly after 9 a.m. Col Fenwick reported that German troops were assembling to the east of the wood. British artillery was quickly brought to bear, but no attack materialised.

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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