BBC BLOGS - Paul Fletcher
« Previous | Main | Next »

Somme ceremony puts football in perspective

Post categories:

Paul Fletcher | 10:53 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010

Longueval, France.

It is difficult to reconcile the tranquility of a fresh and sunny October morning in the small French village of Longueval with the horrors that unfolded there during the Great War.

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.

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.

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.

You can follow me throughout the season at


  • Comment number 1.

    A sobering article. May we never forget their, and all killed in service of our country, ultimate sacrifices.

  • Comment number 2.

    Excellent blog, Paul. Really puts things in perspective. I'm proud to read that my club, Norwich, contributed. We should never forget. I'm also reminded of something the late great Australian wicketkeeper Keith Miller said when being asked about pressure in sport. "Pressure", he replied "is having a Messerschmidt on your tail. Pressure is not a game of cricket!" If this blog makes us think twice about the true meaning of the word "sporting heroes", it will have served a noble purpose.

  • Comment number 3.

    My grandfather was a 2/Lt in the 23rd Middlesex Bn, having travelled from Chile, where he was born and grew up, to enlist in 1915. I have often wondered what he made of being surrounded by professional and amateur footballers when his own experienced had never brought him within 2,000 miles of a football pitch. And I wonder what they made of him, a 36-year officer from the far end of the Earth? I am delighted that this monument has been erected. My grandfather, Magellan Fenton, was one of the lucky ones, shot in the neck at Armentieres on July 31st 1916, the day the officer from the 17th was writing about Delville Wood in the blog above. He was badly wounded, but survived and lived another 38 years. I salute the memory of those who did not return, and also those who have worked so hard to ensure they are not forgotten. Thank you.

  • Comment number 4.

    I wonder what the old soldiers of the Footballers Battalion, if they were here today, would think of the Wayne Rooney 'saga'? They'd probably tell him to grow up, get on with it, and count himself lucky.

  • Comment number 5.

    Great blog, really puts the whole Rooney saga into perspective

  • Comment number 6.

    Excellent blog, may they never be forgotten. A nice breath of fresh air from the Rooney saga, who would never in a million years do what the men 1914-1918 or 1939-1945 did for their country.
    RIP to the fallen.

  • Comment number 7.

    A thoughtful and timely article as we review this week's "crises" at Man U and Liverpool and look foward to footie "battles" on the pitch this weekend. Those of us not in the armed forces don't know how lucky we are.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    If there is anything more depressing than contemplating the waste of young life of the 1914-18 War, it is reading comments as ignorant of history as that of Imagine Reason here. That the victims of war are buried in a Christian cemetery, under a Christian symbol no more implies "a crusade" than waving the Flag of St George at an England football match implies the players are in the act of slaying dragons. When these men were buried in 1918-20 (or reinterred, to be more accurate), it was done in a Christian ceremony on consecrated ground because most if not all would have been christened or baptised in a Christian denomination and their religion called for those rituals. Somehow to link that with a "holy war" - a concept that died out in Britain in the late 17th century - is an insult to the memory of people who died to protect values and a culture that Imagine Reason is clearly too confused to understand.

  • Comment number 10.

    Football United!
    Great article Paul

  • Comment number 11.

    I think its important also to mention the contribution of Heart of Midlothian FC, favourites for the league in 1914-15 until 11 players volunteered (along with some Falkirk & Raith Rovers players) for the battalion raised by local MP George McRae, several of whom went onto perish at the Somme.

  • Comment number 12.

    Now then,

    Many thanks for all your comments so far.

    Ferry_Arab - that is a good point. Heart of Midlothian made a big contribution to the war effort. They were obviously not part of the Football League memorial on Thursday but are definitely worthy of mention so thanks for that.

    It was a very moving and humbling day on Thursday. As I mentioned in the blog I had great difficulty equating the sunkissed village and the wood with the horrors that took place there so long ago.

    Listening to the stories from relatives of the deceased was both an honour and a privilege. John Matthews, related to Captain Parfitt, explained how letters sent by his Grandad has given colour to the sepia photos he had of him.

  • Comment number 13.

    What an excellent blog. This was complete news to me, I had no idea that there were football regiments at all.
    I can imagine that this had a huge impact on all involved/present, that was a truly horrendous war.
    As for uniting football, one can only hope!

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    A bit surprised you didn't include Walter Tull in your mention of notable players.

    Playing for Spurs and Northampton, Tull was one of the first black professional players in England.

    He was the first of the Northampton players to enlist in the Football Battalion, and the first black officer in the British Army to lead men in combat.

    Sadly, like so many other young men, he was killed in in an attack on the German trenches in France in March 1918.

  • Comment number 17.

    How bizarre to have my post removed because I wrote the true version of what the great Keith Miller said referred to in post number 2. This involved a word referring to our posterior!!! The rest of my post was in full admiration for the article and its a pity it was removed. I wouldnt want any other reader to feel I had written anything remotely disrespectful. I'd resubmit it but i cant remember what I wrote exactly. but then I'm nearly 50. Anyway great blog and keep articles like this coming

  • Comment number 18.

    "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..."

    It's a lot more likely that he played 'The Last Post.'

    Other than that, great article. Puts our current overpaid, spoiled and frequently arrogant footballers into sharp perspective.

  • Comment number 19.

    This is a great article. I think there's probably plenty of players around today who would benefit from a trip to this memorial and some stories about those players of the past. Thank you.

  • Comment number 20.

    Saw this memorial last week on Western Front battlefield tour (incredibly sobering and moving experience) so interested to read the above. Particularly pleased to see Phil Stant's involvement - saw him play for several clubs against us at Cambridge and remember reading articles about him while he was playing where he always came across as a decent bloke. He's gone up even further in my estimation.

  • Comment number 21.

    My uncle served in the trenches in WW1, severely wounded three times, patched up each time and returned to the front, he managed to survive, and following the Great War, he returned to follow 'his' team - "Ardwick". That team, of course, went on to become Manchester City, and he took me as a youngster to Maine Road until I too became blue through and through. BUT he never let me forget what was important in life, and that football was NOT the stuff of world crisis, no matter what the sports pages would have us believe. He died at 92, and we owe so much to him and all of his generation, who gave so much for us, as have later generations (including my own father, killed in WW2).
    Thank you for a thought provoking and informative piece. May the need for such memorials die, instead of people dying to create them.

  • Comment number 22.

    Nice blog and comments, a great project and a great result. One small point for N0 2, Keith Miller a wicketkeeper? Not really, Fast bowler, good bat, fun guy but no stumper he. The quote is his though, on Parkinson.

  • Comment number 23.

    The Heart Of Midlothian War Memorial in Haymarket Edinburgh was at one time under threat from the proposed new tramway in Edinburgh. I am not sure what the current situation is.

    Obviously Edinburgh politicians and planners only pay lip-service to the "We will remember them" part of the Remembrance Day service.

  • Comment number 24.

    A place to visit just a corner kick away from the cairn at contalmaison (hearts fc) is the place that donald bell vc fell who played for bradford park avenu

  • Comment number 25.


    I had the privilege of being at the unveiling ceremony yesterday and I echo everything you say about this.

    A visit to this and an appreciation of what it means should be a compulsory part of every apprentice footballer's training - then perhaps today's footballers might be less "me, me, me" and might gain a better grip on the real values of life.

  • Comment number 26.

    great article, i for one admire these men who died for great grandfather died over there. my club glasgow celtic lost a few here is a small piece of them.and i would like to say to my fellow celtic fans who have in the past jeered a minutes silence at games near remembrance sunday.never forget all the brave british soldiers and service men.
    In the early 20th Century Celtic F.C. was already a successful club having won 10 Scottish League Championships and 8 Scottish Cups in their 26 year history (by 1914). Celtic also won trophies during the war (four Scottish League Championship and one Scottish Cup), however of the 908,371 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the fighting, seven were former Celtic players. They were Patrick Slavin, Leigh Richmond Roose, Donnie McLeod, Archie McMillan, Robert Craig, John McLaughlin and Peter Johnstone. Roose and Slavin died in the Battle of the Somme (1916), four others died in 1917 and Craig died in 1918.

  • Comment number 27.

    I was there representing both Clapton Orient and Leyton Orient along with O's icon Peter Kitchen. It was indeed a and moving occasion and as a club Leyton Orient are truly focussed not only on the club's proud military heritage but also it's strong links with the Leyton Branch of the Royal British Legion, Help For Hero's and Value For Valour.

    Clapton Orient were the first Football League club to enlist 'en masse' and whilst only three made the ultimate sacrifice the vast majority of the club sustained wounds that ended their playing careers. One notable exception being the O's goal-keeper Jimmy Hugall who was wounded three times including an injury to his eye - Jimmy returned to first team football with Clapton Orient after the war!

    Today we remember O's inside forward Company Serjeant Major Richard McFadden MM F/162

    Richard died from wounds sustained whilst in action at the Somme ninety four years ago this very day. He was a prolific goal scorer with 68 in 142 appearances - he was also a reluctant, modest local hero. Before joining up he dragged a man from a burning building and also saved a young boy from drowning in the river Lea. During the Battle of the Somme it is reported that he often went out into No Man's Land to rescue wounded comrades - it was this deed that ultimately cost him his life.

    The two other Clapton Orient players lost at the Somme are:

    Private William Jonas 27th July 1916 Delville Wood
    74 appearances
    23 Goals

    Private George Scott 16th August 1916 St Quentin

    34 goals
    213 appearances

    Rest In Peace

  • Comment number 28.

    Now then, thanks for the comments. I think there seems to be a general consensus that the memorial is an excellent idea (which I'm pleased about) and that the story of the Footballers' Battalions does indeed put a few recent issues into perspective.

    I'm sorry I couldn't say more about the men who fought, nor name more of them. As grey_till_i_die (post 16) pointed out, Walter Tull has a story that is well worth greater examination.

    And thirteen_ball (post 18) - I think you might be right about that.

  • Comment number 29.

    The Heart Of Midlothian War Memorial in Haymarket Edinburgh was at one time under threat from the proposed new tramway in Edinburgh. I am not sure what the current situation is.

    Obviously Edinburgh politicians and planners only pay lip-service to the "We will remember them" part of the Remembrance Day service.

    You are incorrect, there was always a plan to ensure the Haymarket memorial would be safely re-located while work was underway, in order to protect it, and to replace in an appropriate and sensitive manner as possible. City of Edinburgh Council make many mistakes and deserve criticism at times, neglecting our wartime heritage and remembrance of the sacrifice isn't one of them...


  • Comment number 30.


    I was there at Longueval too, and travel with 12 friends each year to the Western Front to lay wreaths on the graves of those young men who lost their lives in the 1914-1918 conflict whose names appear on our memorial. This year we visited Ypres in Belgium, and Arras in France.

    Walter Tull's name appears on the Memorial to the Missing to in Arras

    Walter was born in Folkestone on April 28th 1880. His father was a carpenter from Barbados, who moved to Kent and married a local girl. Sadly both his parents died by the time Walter was only 9 years old. He was placed in an Methodist orphanage with his brother in Bethnal Green, London

    Young Walter showed a great talent for football and in 1908 signed for Clapton FC. He was snapped up by Spurs to become Britain's first black footballer to play in the top flight. He made 10 appearances, scoring twice and was subjected to the most evil racist abuse imaginable. This ugly business became a catalyst for the formation of Bristol's Walter Tull's Sports and Arts Association which seeks to tackle racism in schools, using Walter as a role model.

    In October 1911, Walter moved to Northampton Town where he played 110 times scoring 9 goals. When the Great War broke out, he signed up and joined the 17th (Ist football battalion on the Middlesex Regiment) Walter fought with great courage and distinction at the Somme in 1916, in Italy in 1917 and during the Spring Offensive in 1918. He was so highly respected he was promoted to Lieutenant, becoming the first black Commissioned Officer in the British Army.

    Walter was mentioned in dispatches and recommended for the Military Cross. Sadly, he was killed on the Western Front leading his men into battle and his body was never found. His name appears alongside 35,000 other names on the Lutyens Memorial to the Missing in Arras, France.

    Northampton Town have a memorial to the great man outside their Sixfields stadium. His memorial states-

    "Through his actions WDJ Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries. His life stands testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles that sought to diminish him and the World in which he lived. It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime whose strong heart still beats loudly.This memorial marks an area of reflective space as a Garden of Remembrance"

    What a contrast to today's pampered, selfish and greedy footballers. Maybe all footballers should learn about Walter Tull and learn about courage, dignity, principle and honour.

  • Comment number 31.

    It always seems inappropriate to consider technical, philosophy of history, matters in response to memorialising of war, and particularly the First World War.It's particularly difficult where the context - the memorialising of Sportsmen's and Pals' contingents - is so obviously worthwhile, and moving.

    That said, it is important,however difficult, to accept that memorialising tends to overstate the good in those remembered and to overstate the bad in what has followed. much more complex than that and, to be specific, it is wrong, not merely innaccurate, to assume that the fallen footballers of the first war were - by a sort of definition - good whereas current footballers are - by definition and/or in comparison - bad. It's altogether right and fitting that the fallen should be memorialised and therefore remembered, but that must not be at the expense of denigration of the living.(I would be grateful if no-one will assume that my view is an apologia for the venality in modern professional football in general, or Rooney in particular.....although it would be preferable, in the interest of good taste, if Rooney's and, say, Tull's names are not linked, as the one really wouldn't have been fit to lace the boots of the other.)

    Anyone interested in 'memorialisation' of the first war - that is, its importance and the difficulties that that raises - might be interested in (in particular) Geoff Dyer's "The Missing of The Somme" and Paul Fussell's "The Great War And Modern Memory". The latter deals sympathetically, but dispassionately, with the impact and importance of sport's values on the attitudes of those who 'joined up'.

    Thank you, Paul, for a thought provoking and helpful piece.

  • Comment number 32.

    It is so good that these sacrices are not forgotten. It puts the Wayne Rooney saga into perspective. All the young premiership players - who are earning obscene amounts of money and living in an unreal world - should be required to visit the site and learn the history. Let us never forget!

  • Comment number 33.

    Great article, and very interesting to hear about the "football regiments".

    It certainly helps to put things into perspective. Sometimes we all tend to take the game too seriously, and forget that (despite the crazy money being earned and spent now) football is just a game, rather than a matter of life and death.

    Without football, the world would go on, and life would continue - just without the pleasant pastime of following our favourite sport.

  • Comment number 34.

    Very well written piece maybe every year players from all clubs should be made to visit the momument and hopefully they will realise that all they do is play a game.
    A lot of the guys that died during the war were killed at a younger age than most of the players playing today.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.