It is only fitting that today we remember the true heroes of our club. They are not sensational strikers upon whose shoulders our hopes of improved fortunes or silverware have rested but rather modest men who fought for our freedom, suffering unimaginable hardship in the process, with some making the ultimate sacrifice.
When the First World War ravaged Europe in August 1914, just before the start of a new football season in England, the Villans were enjoying a golden era in the club’s rich history, having won six League Championships and five F.A. Cups.
Professional clubs in England pushed for the continuation of football, claiming it helped to keep the public’s spirits up.
However, the backlash was almost immediate: despite contributing a percentage of gates to the war fund, clubs were accused of profiteering and their players reproached for shirking their duty. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, publicly appealed for professional footballers to volunteer for service, stating, “If a footballer has strength of limb, let him serve and march in the field of battle.”
It was then that Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, called for a Footballers’ Battalion as part of the Pals’ Battalions scheme, believing that this team sport, and the discipline required to play it, meant its players would make good soldiers.
William Joynson-Hicks, the Viscount of Brentford, formed the Football Battalion on 12th December 1914 at Fulham Town Hall and Frank Buckley, an England international who had been with Aston Villa from 1902-1904 and whose brother Chris made 136 appearances for Villa between 1906 and 1914 before joining the board and becoming the club’s chairman, was the first player to join the newly-formed battalion.
By March 1915, 122 players had joined the Football Battalion, including Aston Villa’s Tommy Barber, Joseph Bache (a remarkable goal-scorer during his time in claret and blue) and Billy Gerrish.
Of the three, Gerrish died in action during the Battle of the Somme. After having both legs blown off, Gerrish, described by his regiment’s senior officer, Major Frank Buckley, as “a splendid soldier, most willing and brave” reportedly “lay quietly smoking a cigarette until picked up by the stretcher bearers”. After his death, a fellow footballer and friend, whose identity is unknown, wrote home, stating, “Tell the boys of the club that Bill died a hero at the end and never a better-hearted pal of mine lived.”
Many more Villa players and men connected to the club enlisted and saw action in World War One, including:
W. Bowker (killed) W. Kimberley (died, 1918) A. Rogers (killed) Dr. L. Roose (killed)
J. Watkins (killed) W. Battersby R. Black L. Bowker R. Chandler A. Cross A. Davis
A. Dyke W. George H. Hampton A. Hall S. Hardy W. Harris H. Kilner A. McLachlan
J. Merrick W. Morris F. Moss E. Parkes E. Parsons C. Stephenson J. Stephenson
F. Suddes C. Wallace W. Walpole H. Wells T. Weston J. Windmill E. Woods D. York
Of those names, many will recognise Sam Hardy, who was purported to have been one of the greatest-ever goalkeepers at Aston Villa, and ‘Happy’ Harry Hampton, a centre-forward who remains Villa’s all-time leading scorer. Although Hampton played for Villa until 1920, he was never the same after the war, having suffered from the effects of mustard gas poisoning at the Somme.
After the war, football resumed for the 1919-20 season and it was the season in which Villa won the FA Cup for the sixth time, beating Huddersfield Town 1-0 in the final at Stamford Bridge.
Before the outbreak of World War Two, the Villans boasted fourteen full internationals in their ranks and were flying high, having finished second in the league in 1933. However, the declaration of war and the war’s prolonged nature hit the club hard, as it did all English clubs.
Villans who served in the Second World War included:
M. Armstrong (killed) J. Barker R. Beresford J. Browne H. Brain B. Cobley T. Cullen
A. Grosvenor J. Harper A. Hickman E. Houghton R. Jones A. Kerr L. Latham G. Lunn
J. Martin A. Moss F. Moss F. O’Donnell F. Osbourne J. Rutherford A. Sockett
Today, footballers and fans alike can only imagine the horrors these truly heroic Villans endured. At the beginning of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we pay tribute to them all. May they rest in peace. We shall remember them.