Somme ceremony puts football in perspective
Take a walk down the main road towards Guillemont and Delville Wood soon appears on your left. A child's swing rests in the back garden of one of the houses, a symbol of happy and secure times. It is peaceful and serene now, but when the Somme offensive was launched on 1 July, 1916 Longueval quickly became ravaged by war.
The village was the scene of vicious bombardments and bloody fighting between the Allies and the German army. Delville Wood was destroyed to the extent that only one tree remained when the war ended in November 1918. Photographs show a scarred landscape, the shelled turf scattered in huge clumps. It quickly acquired the nickname Devil's Wood.
"I can assure you the name is very appropriate," said Captain Ernest Parfitt in a letter to his wife written on 31 July, 1916.
Gareth Ainsworth (left) and Phil Stant beside the memorial in Longueval. Photo: PA
Parfitt was a member of the 17th Middlesex, better known at the Footballers' Battalion. He died of wounds sustained in battle after being captured in woods at Oppy in 1917.
In remembrance of Parfitt and the other soldiers of the 17th and 23rd Footballers' Battalions, more than 100 people gathered in Longueval on Thursday morning to attend the unveiling of a memorial.
Football League chairman Greg Clarke was there, as was the Mayor of Longueval and numerous other dignitaries, club representatives and supporters. Father Owen Beament, chaplain to Millwall FC from whom many soldiers enlisted, conducted the service.
Gareth Ainsworth, currently at Wycombe but a veteran of numerous clubs, blew the whistle that sounded a two-minute silence, while Andrew Riddoch, co-author of When the Whistle Blows, spoke eloquently about the courage, suffering and hardship the men had suffered as they fought in the trenches.
The armed forces were represented at the ceremoney as were, perhaps more pertinently, the relatives of several soldiers from the Footballers' Battalions.
It was a touching and moving ceremony, with more than a few people wiping a tear from their eye. A bugler played the Last Stand, wreaths were laid, a poem read, with John Matthews, Parfitt's grandson, ending an exhortation with the line: "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them."
"This has been the most rewarding day since I took this job," said Clarke afterwards.
Ainsworth admitted he had been more nervous prior to his whistle blowing duties than before any of the 500 professional games he has played. He added that his visit to the Somme had been one of the most humbling experiences of his life. It was easy to understand why both Clarke and Ainsworth felt the way they did.
The Footballers' Battalions were formed partly in response to criticism that the 1914-15 league season had not been cancelled despite the outbreak of war, with many arguing players should be concentrating on winning the greater game instead of playing football.
The 17th Middlesex were the first to be formed, in December 1914, while the 23rd arrived on the Western Front in May 1916. Notable players such as Frank Buckley, Jack Cock, Fred Keenor and Vivian Woodward enlisted, while more than 40 players and staff of Clapton Orient signed up. However, a large number of the battalions comprised amateur players and supporters, many of whom were delighted to fight alongside their footballing heroes.
The battalions played regularly, with many opposition teams from other regiments only too happy to take on a team including England internationals. In one tournament, the 17th scored 44 goals without conceding but their one-side victories still had a positive impact on the morale of the troops.
Approximately 300 players from the 4,500 who served in the 17th Middlesex came from the professional ranks. Just 30 were still serving when the battalion was disbanded in February 1918 as a consequence of manpower shortages. An estimated 900-1,000 who served in the 17th lost their lives while about 2,000 suffered casualties.
There is beauty to Delville Wood now, with the autumn sun shining through trees replanted long ago, but the undulating terrain tells of the horror that unfolded. Riddoch gave a short guided tour, detailing the terrifying, disorientating battles that took place as the 17th fought to hold what seems to me a pitifully small amount of terrain, just a few hundred yards. An old man stood next to me described the events that took place here in the war as obscene, quietly shaking his head.
The idea of a memorial for the Footballers' Battalions was the brainchild of Phil Stant, who currently works in youth development for the Football League Trust. He is a former SAS bomb disposal expert, veteran of the Falklands and a striker who played for numerous lower league clubs.
Stant, a likeable and earthy 48-year-old, is also a battlefield tour guide in France in his spare time. He had noticed that there was nothing in recognition of the sacrifice the Battalions had made and wanted to put that right. He enlisted supporters at numerous clubs, including Norwich, Millwall, Leyton Orient and Barnet, many of whom were at the service, to collect money at home games to fund a memorial.
"The important thing is that the memorial is up and the battalions are now being properly remembered," said Stant. "We have a responsibility to them and at the Football League we have recognised that."
The sun shining over the cemetary in Longueval. Photo: PA
Reflecting on his own experiences, Stant described war as an adventure that he looked forward to after joining the army but all that changed as he watched from Fitzroy as the Argentine airforce bombed the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram during the Falklands War.
"When I saw the sights I realised it's not an adventure any more and 8 June 1982 was the day I grew up," added Stant. "The Sir Galahad got hit and blown up when we were 100m away. It was terrible. The injuries, the attack that came in from the jets, it was frightening. When you have seen sights like that, people with their legs blown off, it's something you will always live with."
It struck me that Stant had life in perspective. He also talked nostalgically of his playing career but obviously understands that some things are much more important than football. He was nervous before the service, keen for everything to progress smoothly, and I think he deserves huge credit for turning such a decent idea into reality.
The day was coming to a close and everyone who left came over to shake Stant's hand in recognition of his efforts. Everyone I spoke to said they felt humbled by the occasion, while Ainsworth said academy players would find it valuable to visit the memorial.
For a few hours, football had united - administrators, players and fans - to remember their dead.
"In football, someone gets injured, wants to leave the club and we treat it like a big deal, yet these guys are going out and laying their lives on the line," added Clarke of soldiers both back then and today.
It truly had been a day to focus on what really matters in life.